Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Trade Secret Status of Football Game Plans

For the second day in a row, The Wall Street Journal identified interesting questions concerning the law of trade secrets. Today's article comes in the wake of the Alabama-Georgia national title game, which Alabama won in dramatic fashion.

The question the article raises is pretty simple and quaintly summarized: are football game plans trade secrets?

The article explores this question rather indirectly, given WSJ's apparent effort to use Freedom of Information laws to seek these game plans from public universities. My readers will be stunned to learn that the recipients of these FOI letters were less than forthcoming.

One of the traditional exceptions to disclosure of public documents is that information's trade secret status. For their part, FOI laws contain slightly different definitions of trade secrets than do federal and statutes designed to guard against misappropriation. For example, the so-called Exemption 4 under federal law allows for the protection of trade secrets and "commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged and confidential." The Supreme Court never has interpreted Exemption 4.

So let's look at Alabama, whose flagship school's football game plans were the subject of the WSJ article today. Alabama's Open Records Act contains no exemption for trade secret material, which is odd but no more odd than sending Roy Moore twice to the state Supreme Court. Though I haven't researched any other statutory basis the University of Alabama may have to withhold game plans under a records request, the Open Records Act does not appear to do so.

Aside from this, the larger question is quite intriguing. Are game plans actually trade secrets?

The best analogy I can come up with is the scripts for popular television serials, a subject I wrote on several years ago in the lead-up to the final Breaking Bad episodes. I've since changed my conclusion and do not believe those scripts are trade secrets, though they can be protected contractually. Why do I say that?

The answer comes straight from the statutory definition of a trade secret. We'll use the 1979 Uniform Trade Secrets Act, whose definition is most in use. The term "trade secret" means that the information must:

(1) derive independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by, other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and

(2) be the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.

While much of the text would suggest popular television scripts are protectable, the highlighted part illustrates why they're not. How, for instance, would any other production company, studio, or network gain from knowing what the plot lines of a series finale are? They wouldn't. In all likelihood, the only remedy that the script owner has is contractual. That is to say, the owner could claim that improper disclosure by an insider bound to a confidentiality clause reduced the economic impact of a television run, such as through lost advertising fees.

My rationale, though, supports giving game plans trade secret status.

Let's start with the basics. Those game plans are valuable, in that they reveal compilations of plays, schemes, coverages, and strategies for a variety of in-game scenarios. So too, there are economic interests at stake, as college football is a business. Universities stand to gain in myriad ways from successful football programs.

And game plans, unlike television scripts, are useful to competitors - even if only to the competitor whose being schemed against in the game plan. So assume that the University of Georgia has a copy of Alabama's game plan. It should know the preferred set of plays for 3rd-and-short. It would know how Alabama's blitz patterns. And it may know whether Alabama wants to deploy a trick play on special teams. That would provide it economic value in the form of a marginally better chance of winning a game, which in turn could yield significant economic gains for the university.

The oft-used defense of reverse engineering likely would not be a good one as applied to game plans. Those plans change week to week based on a variety of factors, including newly obtained personnel, injuries to key players, past performance, competition level, and even the weather. Knowing what Alabama did on 3rd-and-short against Fresno State in September is only marginally helpful when it faces a different defensive scheme, and totally different personnel, against Georgia the following January.

The rather unique aspect of game plans, though, is that they likely have a very short useful life as a trade secret-even for a matter of days. That is to say, anyone can watch tape of last night's game and deduce what Alabama's preferred blitz coverages looked like. They could, in theory, reconstruct a game plan in large part. And again, obtaining a game plan for Georgia would prove marginally helpful, if at all, next season when Alabama opens its season with new players and new schemes.

Today's WSJ article is a fun read and even notes that the paper reviewed Alabama's defensive game plan for its first-round playoff win against Clemson. No one from Alabama seems too worked up about that, suggesting that game plans aren't a trade secret for very long. As one of the Alabama assistants even said, "There's some good information in there, but I don't understand it."

Most people, even other college coaches, wouldn't either. The idea of game plans as trade secrets is academically interesting and challenges us to apply timeless concepts to unique situations. But the debate is still largely theoretical.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Sinovel Wind Turbine Case Heads to Trial

The Wall Street Journal reported today that the Wisconsin trade secrets case of United States v. Sinovel Wind Group Co. is scheduled to begin trial this week. The criminal case highlights the growing problem of intellectual property theft by state-sponsored organizations in China. And it further illustrates that multi-national organizations often target vulnerable inside employees to aid and abet in brazen acts of theft.

The Department of Justice back in 2013 issued a Press Release detailing the charges against Sinovel Wind and several individuals, including a former employee of American Superconductor, the victim of alleged trade secret theft. According to the indictment, American Superconductor developed software that controlled the flow of electricity from wind turbines to electrical grids. This software source code is at the heart of the indictment for trade secret theft. The allegation of misappropriation centers on Sinovel's apparent acquisition, through an ex-employee, of the software to produce wind turbines that it previously agreed to buy from American Superconductor.

The charging documents outline a familiar, if not sloppy, pattern of insider theft. The FBI, for instance, was able to discover that the rogue American Superconductor employee used Skype to communicate with Sinovel regarding the stolen source code. He also e-mailed Sinovel to discuss the source code and to send repairs to the source code. Of note, the ex-insider frequently traveled to China to work on Sinovel, which at one time constituted 80 percent of American Superconductor's business. The alleged theft resulted in a drop in American Superconductor's market value from roughly $1.6 billion to approximately $200 million.

For those interested to see what a real trade-secrets theft investigation looks like, and the level of detail undertaken with respect to a forensic analysis, I highly recommend a read through the key charging affidavit, embedded below.

Finally, a topic that frequently comes up in trade secrets cases is closure of the courtroom. On December 28, the court stated that "the trial of this case will be conducted in open court, unless a strong showing is made that some evidence must be kept from public disclosure." The court allowed for limited courtroom protections for trade secrets that were the subject of the government's indictment, but denied any corresponding protection to Sinovel on the basis that it had not made the appropriate showings to gain such protection.


Thursday, January 4, 2018

It's Just Business as Usual for the Year 10 Kick-Off

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

If I had to make three predictions for 2018, they would have been as follows:

(1) Legislators across the U.S. will introduce non-compete bills, which will advance at a glacial pace with incredibly unimpressive results.

(2) Frivolous non-compete and trade secrets suits will continue unabated, and I will break three keyboards writing about them.

(3) Waymo and Uber will end up going to trial, and the court will render a mixed verdict. At some point, Paul Clement will sign an appellate brief for one of the parties.

***

It is January 5, and we seem to have checked the box on numbers 1 and 2.

Representatives in the Vermont General Assembly have introduced a bill that would establish a categorical ban on non-compete agreements, much in the mold of the North Dakota and California statutes. The proposed legislation contains the usual carve-outs for negotiated sale-of-business and partnership-style non-competes. A copy of the bill is available here. This may be the last we hear of it.

Move a stone's throw to the East, and a gaggle of New Hampshire senators have introduced Senate Bill 423, which would ban non-competes for low-wage workers. Similar to the Illinois Freedom to Work Act, the term "low-wage worker" includes those earning the greater of the federal minimum wage or $15 per hour. This is a common-sense reform that probably stands a decent chance of passage. The Senate Bill is available here.

***

The State of Ohio, and people with some connection to the Buckeye State, have produced some pretty terrible trade secrets and non-compete litigation. Which saddens me, because I went to Ohio State.

Well, the trend seems to continue with a company in the business of producing something called "precision braided textiles" filing what appears to be a really crappy suit against a former employee. A&P Technology sued a terminated Phil Lariviere on the theory of inevitable disclosure of trade secrets. Lariviere, a former engineer, sat out his broad, two-year non-compete before obtaining subsequent employment through a recruiter with one of A&P's competitors.

A&P then filed suit claiming that Lariviere's intimate knowledge of everything A&P placed its trade secrets at risk, as if time stood still during the two-plus years Lariviere was gone. The Southern District of Ohio mercifully denied this injunction against Lariviere, despite his relatively hostile attitude to his former employer. The injunction briefing contained some rather amusing exhibits about Lariviere's social media posts, texts, and e-mails. Why? A&P felt that anger and hostility suggested an intent to steal trade secrets.

No reason for this theory appears to be offered, and the court saw through it. According to Judge Black, "Lariviere's mockery of the former employer who terminated him and then sued him is not demonstrative of any actual effort or inclination to violate his contractual obligation to protect the confidentiality of A&P's trade secrets." Maybe this was an unfortunate choice, but I sympathize here with Lariviere. He should be pissed about getting sued on a specious claim after abiding by his non-compete.

An equally interesting aspect of the opinion concerns Lariviere's smart move to force A&P to identify its trade secrets with specificity. The shotgun nature of A&P's claim all but forced Lariviere's hand to proceed this way. And the court was persuaded, ordering A&P to list out its "suspected misappropriated trade secrets" before demanding the same of Lariviere and his new employer. The main impetus for the discovery ruling appears to have been the substantive weakness of A&P's case.

You can review the order and opinion at the end of this post. A further link is available here. It is well worth a read for lawyers and litigants, as the discussion spans a number of substantive and procedural topics likely to recur.

***

In the Waymo v. Uber litigation, the so-called Jacobs letter has received a great deal of attention. The letter was originally part of a dispute between Jacobs and Uber. But it has been interjected into the trade-secrets trial of the century, centered on the conduct of former engineer Anthony Levandowski. The most salacious part of the Jacobs letter was the allegation that former CEO Travis Kalanick had sanctioned trade secrets theft. To be sure, the Jacobs story will be a featured part of the upcoming trial. And to that end, Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the case, issued a recent Order unlike any I've ever seen.

***


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Year-End Post: A Completely Random Screed, Addressing Topics Near and Dear

Last night, as Christmas '17 drew to a close, my wife and I imbibed with a (very small) glass of Pappy Van Winkle, which, if you know anything about bourbon, is totally epic shit and absolutely the right way to finish off a holiday. As I let the cordial burn the inside of my mouth (and I do mean burn), I thought about a year that was completely random in so many ways. I'll leave aside the declining discourse of our civic life and translate this to the content of this blog, which is non-compete and trade secret litigation.

I thought of the great successes my clients and I have had this year. I began the year arguing in the Third District Appellate Court, site of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, on a non-compete judgment entered in favor of my client, a former staffing industry sales employee, after a bench trial. Work then pivoted to a monster appeal in the Second District, which recently affirmed a bench trial judgment in our favor and affirmed a nearly $1.5 million fee award under corporate indemnification procedures. We now have pending, again in the Third District, a discretionary, interlocutory appeal on an issue of contract interpretation concerning non-competes. We are hopeful that this case, too, will establish precedent and continue to move the ball down the field of rationality.

In the trial courts, my work was no less significant. And again, our results--for awesome clients--continued to be great. We successfully dismissed an inevitable disclosure action in Illinois state court, with a factual and procedural context so utterly inane and bereft of competence that I cannot do it justice. But I tried, in my blog post "38 Minutes of Hell," which garnered a lot of classic feedback.

June and July were consumed with one of the truly weirdest cases I'll ever see, a replevin claim in Cook County Circuit Court, where we prevailed in a bench trial. Next, we headed to the East Coast and defeated a preliminary injunction in the Delaware Court of Chancery, following a failed business acquisition. This time, too, the merits were a real head-scratcher, with the plaintiff pursuing a claim based on a no-hiring clause that limited our ability to hire employees of the potential target company. Problem: we hired an independent contractor. Once again, we see litigation as an ex post attempt to strike a business deal that the parties never adopted. That lawsuit's in the ditch now.

Then we stepped into a federal non-compete and trade secrets case that had been pending for several months. After getting subbed in for defense counsel, I read the file and concluded rather quickly that this case, too, was purely abusive. We then immediately contacted non-party witnesses, obtained statements that undermined the plaintiff's claim of breach (and trade secrets theft) in toto, and served our initial evidence disclosures. You could almost hear the plaintiff back-pedal, as it filed a motion to dismiss the case with prejudice, conditioned of course on the "with each party to bear its own costs and fees." Ain't that easy, partner. We moving for fees. May not get 'em. But we tryin'.

***

We're now in yet another one of these cases, with similarly weak facts from the plaintiff's perspective. And as I'm litigating that one, I can't help but feel we're reaching an inflection point on non-compete cases. What I continue to see is canned pleadings and complaints, invoking the same shop-worn phrases about what it is the plaintiff is trying to protect through covenants both broad and narrow. What is missing from many such cases is a deconstructed analysis of these interests and how the enforcement action is designed to protect them from an unfair competitive threat.

In the main, these business interests sound reasonable and decent. Customer relationships and confidential information, though, are interests only protectable if the facts justify market-distorting protections. I believe that, in opaque industries not intuitively familiar to the average person, the notion of "customer relationships" can be awfully difficult to deconstruct and analyze. Put another way, the term (or the asserted interest girding the restrictive covenants) quickly gets disaggregated from the actual, relevant facts.

Business-to-business relationships, which are what most non-competes are designed to protect, are complex. The question, for instance, of who a customer even is can be iterative, not obvious. Furthermore, we live in an era (call it the post-Industrial era, since no one knows what else to call it) where businesses are becoming more and more fragmented and specialized. This is what I wrote on LinkedIn last week:

...Extreme market fragmentation within industries means that companies once deemed "rivals" now operate in a manner adjacent to, not competitive with, each other. Contractual restrictions on competing in the "same or similar line of business," once thought acceptable, now fail to account for this macroeconomic shift towards hyper-specialization....

I stand by that and think that we need to keep this in mind when assessing whether to file suit and how to defend a suit.

What I see in non-compete cases is this. Plaintiff recycles a complaint with a very nice series of allegations about customer relationships. Those allegations have no fit whatsoever to the industry they happen to be litigating. A trial judge operates under a familiar framework, constrained by time and resources, all the while failing to grasp the nuances of the business that is the subject of the dispute during an emergency hearing. The allegations may be enough to get a plaintiff a few first downs. But ultimately they get three holding penalties in a row, the punter fumbles the ball, and the team is totally blown out by halftime. (As a Chicago Bears fan, the analogy seemed obvious and temporally appropriate.)

So what is my point? The protectable interest question is really, really important. It is not nearly enough to rest on the laurels of past pleadings that survived a motion to dismiss and that invoke the black-letter principles we all now know. What is demanded is a strong look at just how the defendant, who signed a restrictive covenant, can move business in a manner that deprives his ex-employer of a fair chance to compete for the business on an even playing field. After hashing out a number of different tests, standards, or formulations, I think this is the inquiry for whether enforcement of a reasonably drafted non-compete is permissible to protect customer relationships. Anything broader restrains fair competition in the market, despite what the contract says.

To be sure, some industries are more susceptible to allowing enforcement. But many come nowhere close. I guess what I'm saying is this: I'm not tired of non-compete lawsuits. I'm tired of crappy non-compete lawsuits. And I'm absolutely done with lazy lawyering.

***

As I often do, I checked out Russell Beck's Fair Competition Law and learned Pennsylvania legislators have proposed a California-style ban on non-competes. The text of House Bill No. 1938 is available here. Of more interest, candidly, was Russell's hat-tip to a recent article published by Norm Bishara and Evan Starr, The Incomplete Noncompete Picture. Bishara and Starr conclude that some basic questions are left unanswered by empirical research. One area that seems to be problematic for researchers is the ability to track employees over time, in terms of their job advancement and wage rates. And if you think about it, incentives for these employees may change.

For early-stage employees, they are very likely to change jobs and face advancement constraints posed by non-competes that they are unable to litigate. They have, and should have, very coarse feelings about them. But over time, they may change their mind, particularly if they are entrepreneurial and can benefit from restrictive covenants imposed on others.

***

Finally, for this year, I thought the Sixth Circuit's opinion in Hall v. Edgewood Partners Ins. Center, Inc., No. 17-3744, is well worth a read for practitioners and laypersons alike. It addresses a rather common question I face regarding assignability of employee restrictive covenants following an asset sale. I will not deconstruct or case-summarize here, but I do provide a link to Judge Thapar's eminently readable opinion on an issue that is often misunderstood and extremely important to get right.

***

With that, I bow out for 2017. See you in a week or so. And thanks again for reading!

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Reading List (2017, No. 30): Ex Parte Seizure Orders, North Dakota Non-Competes, and 9 Years of Blogging

Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended December 15, 2017

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Ex Parte Seizures of Trade Secrets

The Defend Trade Secrets Act's provision for ex parte seizures of property has generated considerable buzz and commentary, much more so than the remedy's narrow application seems to be worth. I am interested in it only in the academic sense, not the pragmatic one.

If you want nuts and bolts as to how it works, look elsewhere. I'm not covering it here. (Though if you're truly jonesing for stuff, e-mail me and I'll send you a white paper on it.) The gist is simple: if a plaintiff feels a defendant has stolen trade secrets, it can petition the court for an order to retrieve the property containing those secrets.

The case law applying the ex parte seizure order is understandably thin, given how new the DTSA is. Still, there's more on this remedy than more conventional ones, simply because it takes longer to try a case to judgment than it does to pursue an emergency interim order. So we have some helpful cases.

The most interesting one so far is Blue Star Land Services, LLC v. Coleman, No. 17-931, a case pending in the Western District of Oklahoma. Of course, it involves an employee departure that appears to have gone completely haywire. And even less surprisingly given the venue, it involves the oil and gas industry.

I am showing at the bottom of this post the district court's original ex parte seizure order. This one is pretty interesting since it involves an application for electronic storage devices and a Dropbox account (really, credentials to get into that account). Misappropriation tools tend to be digital, presenting sticky issues for law-enforcement seizure efforts. Put another way, it's easier to seize a bag of dope than it is a cloud-based folder of PDFs.

The Order below is a bit broad, but perhaps necessarily so. That is, it orders the seizure of "[a]ny computers, computer hard drives, or memory devices in Defendants' possession that may contain [trade secret information]." It further extends to seizure of usernames and passwords, information even less apt to forcible retrieval but obviously related to the instrumentalities needed to facilitate the alleged theft. All in all, I think counsel did a good job proposing this quirky remedy, and the court did a nice job entering it given the difficult aspects of seizing digital assets.

North Dakota Non-Compete Decision

We now move upwards to North Dakota, awash in fracking material but mercifully bereft of non-compete litigation. Tell that, though, to one Dawn Osborne, an office supply house sales representative who signed a two-year non-compete with Brown & Saenger.

The problem for Osborne is that even though she worked in Fargo, her employer was a South Dakota company. And the non-compete agreement contained a South Dakota choice-of-law/choice-of-forum clause. But North Dakota prohibits non-compete agreements along the same lines that California does. The Supreme Court of North Dakota held the forum-selection clause invalid, stating "one may not contract for application of another state's law or forum if the natural result is to allow enforcement of a non-compete agreement in violation of North Dakota's long-standing and strong public policy against non-compete agreements." This shows the importance in non-enforcement states of establishing venue through a declaratory judgment action to challenge a forum-selection clause. Litigants in California and Georgia know this tactic well.

A link to Osborne v. Brown & Saenger, Inc. is available here.

My 9-Year (Blogging) Anniversary

I've been blogging about non-competes longer than I've been married.

If my wife is reading this, it feels like I just got married yesterday and I'm still in the throes of wedded bliss! I can't say the same about blogging, but it has been a fun journey to share my thoughts and ideas on here. When I originally started this, my goal was simply to provide helpful, informative content.

My style has changed a great deal from those first timid days when I wasn't sure what my voice would be. I suspect that's true for most people who provide commentary in this format. I was interested, after 9 years, to see which posts (out of more than 600) were read the most, figuring that there would be some sort of logical pattern.

Nope. Some of the most widely-read posts were fairly predictable, like my attack on one of the worst, if not the worst, non-compete I've seen. Then there were my twin posts (here and here) on Tradesman Int'l v. Black, which discussed an important Seventh Circuit case I litigated on bad faith in trade secrets cases. Among the more popular posts was a discussion on pursuing declaratory judgment actions (much like Ms. Osborne did in North Dakota) and ensuring you have a sufficiently ripe controversy. I get tons of e-mails, messages, and calls on that from other attorneys and potential clients.

By far my most popular post, though, was an assessment of what exactly a "solicitation" is in the context of restrictive covenant litigation. I figured it would be a good one, but the numbers were staggering. But even some really obscure, pedantic posts generated an abnormal number of hits, such as about using contention interrogatories. Or this one involving the mootness rule on appeal. Or for God's sakes this one, with the almost intoxicating title "Some Thoughts on Pursuing Expedited Discovery." Turns out, y'all are civil procedure nerds.

The future of legal blogging is a bit uncertain. In this particular area, it's easy to get drowned out by blogs that are manufactured and designed to attract viewers. Many are unhelpful, uninteresting, and apparently undertaken solely as part of a poorly conceived executive committee marketing endeavor. Still, there are many excellent sources of information online which add context and color to the discussion.

I don't where this, my blog, ends, but I know it does end. And I will know when the time is right. So God willing, it may have started before my marriage, but it won't outlast it. For now, thanks for reading.


Friday, December 8, 2017

38 Minutes of Hell

I've represented defendants in some pretty stupid lawsuits. But 2017 is proving a banner year.

Earlier this year, I had client get served with a claim for inevitable disclosure of trade secrets. From the outset, the case was a pure head-scratcher because there were no facts that so much as hinted at trade secret misappropriation. And, here's one for ya, my client had a non-compete agreement. In point of fact, he did leave his job to go work for a company in the same industry.

So why on earth would the plaintiff not sue on its non-compete and proceed on the inevitable disclosure claim?

Simple.

The Illinois Appellate Court previously had found this company's non-compete unenforceable as a matter of law. It turns out the company learned nothing and never altered its void non-compete in any meaningful way. So, quite obviously, a contract-based claim would have gone nowhere.

So enter inevitable disclosure - the Kim Jong Un of legal claims. The theory was that my client couldn't work for a competitor on the grounds that he inevitably would disclose his former employer's trade secrets - in effect a diabolical work-around to a non-compete that the employer knew it couldn't enforce.

We had none of it, filed a motion to dismiss, and won. It was not close.

The plaintiff's lead attorneys - probably operating under directions from their client to abuse the legal process and prevent competition - then filed a bad-faith, frivolous amended complaint trying to add facts that would suggest some plausible risk that my client might disclose trade secrets.

The facts in this new complaint were so hopelessly convoluted they took about 3 pages of allegations to explain the theory, an ersatz diatribe laden with a cloak-and-dagger reference to a "Customer 1" (as if this is some sealed indictment). The logic was tortured and made no sense, due in large part to the fact that my client had no contact with "Customer 1" and the sequence of events was totally fucked up.

Luckily for the plaintiff, they had another attorney. A really good one, kind of a local counsel, who had common sense. And I feel this attorney must have put the brakes on all the dicking around after I notified everyone that Complaint 2.0 sucked just as badly as the first version.

So the case settled. The plaintiff released us from the non-compete it had and got zero out of the case except a bunch of obvious representations from my client that he had done nothing wrong. (This, I am quite certain, the plaintiff knew. But who the fuck cares about the truth when your client pays your padded bills?) There's no doubt the plaintiff dodged a sanctions motion (which I would have taken up to the appellate court for free in the unlikely event we lost).

But what did law firm insist on in the settlement agreement? A deposition of my client. That's right - a deposition after the case settled, after the claims had been released, and after the action had been dismissed with prejudice.

Who thinks of this garbage? Is this part of orientation day, where you get schooled on how to maximize the billing opportunities in your file? Or is this client-driven, an attempt to show that, frivolous suits be damned, I'll have the last word by golly!?!?

So the purpose of the deposition? To confirm my client was telling the truth in the settlement agreement when he represented he didn't take anything and wasn't soliciting his former clients. As if he would do that. In yet another epic move, the plaintiff's lawyer calls me and tells me he does this sort of deposition all the time.

By that, I now assume he meant that he files a bunch of stupid cases, dismisses them, and then bills for more work after the case is over. We agreed because we had nothing to hide and just wanted this over.

The deposition went forward yesterday. And that's where the title of this post - "38 Minutes of Hell" - comes in.

It wasn't 38 minutes of hell for me. And it damn sure wasn't 38 minutes of hell for my client. It was 38 minutes of hell for them. Because big law firm (two lawyers) and big corporation got to sit across the table from me and my client and see how utterly fucking stupid their lawsuit was. I hope it was as humiliating as it felt. I know it was.

Why do I share this story?

For all the non-compete apologists out there, another story needs to be told. This kind of bullshit that I just told in this blog post goes on every day. Lawyers who file and maintain frivolous anti-competitive suits need to know that it will not end well. It could be a big fee judgment. Or it may be an appellate court telling them their clients' non-compete is awful.

Or it could be just as satisfying - 38 minutes of hell, pure and utter humiliation, watching a replay of your crappy work before your very eyes.


Friday, December 1, 2017

The Reading List (2017, No. 29): Frivolous Litigation in the Northern District and Uber (Allegedly) Covers Up

Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended December 1, 2017

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Another Dumb Lawsuit in Illinois

Sorry. I call it like it is. And this lawsuit was stupid. I've been waiting to write on it for some time, after the preliminary injunction order came out this Summer. But I've been busy. Now's the right time.

In an action filed in the Northern District of Illinois, a company called Cortz, Inc. sued an erstwhile acquirer of its business, Doheny Enterprises, Inc., and a purchasing manager named Tim Murphy? Why? Beats me. Here's the gist. And it should sound a familiar refrain for lawyers like me who see this kind of silly litigation nonsense every single week.

Cortz, a pool and spa products supplier, had a business with declining income. Doheny wanted to buy but was turned away. The parties had signed a non-disclosure agreement, which (like most in the transactional sphere) said Doheny couldn't hire Cortz's management-level employees for two years. Fair enough.

Enter Murphy. He was fired from Cortz after its eventual buyer, some outfit named Leslie's Pool Supplies, demanded a two-year non-compete from him. This was an entirely rational business decision to make for both. Leslie's saw a way to use market power and tie up a dude it felt might be key to its business. Rational, yes. Smart, maybe not. Murphy, to his credit, balked. He had been with Cortz for nearly 20 years, apparently had no ownership stake and no role in the sale, and all of a sudden some acquirer demands a non-compete. Murphy probably had a few sleepless nights, but good for him drawing the red line. Cortz (now a Leslie's subsidiary post-deal) fires Murphy. As was its right. Probably stupid, but whatever.

As one might imagine (you know, since there was a lawsuit), Murphy (out of work) hooked on with Doheny on a trial basis. Cortz then decides to sue, claiming this hiring violates the NDA's non-solicitation provision. (One almost can imagine the lawyers salivating over the prospect of potential work.) Cortz made that decision even though Doheny was not then employed by Cortz and even though Cortz made the business judgment to fire him. Of course, no one thought to draft the NDA in a way that covered past employees. But Cortz tried to make that claim during the litigation.

Big fail. Hard stop.

Judge Amy St. Eve, probably one of the top three district court judges in Chicago, had none of it, stretching no further than basic principles of contract construction. If you're going to draft a deal-based NDA with a restrictive covenant, damn sure better cover what you're trying to restrict. The linguistic gymnastics that Cortz tried to pull off here were not exactly compelling.

No judge should have any patience for this sort of after-the-fact hooha, in which a commercial contract party tries to use litigation to mulct an unambiguous agreement into one which they wish they had signed. (Doubtful, mind you, Doheny would have signed a naked restraint that barred its hiring of those not employed by Cortz. Why on earth would it do that?)

Nor was Judge St. Eve moved by Cortz's other claim, that Murphy used trade secrets of Cortz in negotiating vendor prices. (His prior job was purchasing, so apparently his knowledge of vendor costs was the motivating force here.) The factual basis for this claim, to be frank, is so hopelessly unintelligible that it might not be worth even reading it. (Still, if you care to do so, the link to the opinion is available here.)

Thankfully, the case was dismissed shortly after this injunction hearing. What exactly did Cortz get out of this? A totally silly lawsuit that probably cost it $150,000? For what gain? So it could thump its chest and blow off some steam? There's not a single fact in here suggesting financial loss much less an actionable claim of wrongdoing. Not one fact even hints at a threat of trade-secret misappropriation, or even opaque, intangible harm.

This is quite similar to two separate cases I've had this year, both of which ended unceremoniously in dismissal orders. One was a deal-based NDA where the plaintiff dicked around with the unambiguous language of a non-solicitation covenant during litigation, tried to twist it into something totally at odds with the plain terms of the agreement, and then suffered a quick defeat. The other was a case involving claimed trade secrets over knowledge of vendor costs - once again with no evidence of misappropriation. That case, too, ended quickly.

Knowing that other clients and lawyers have to defend such trifling drivel is something I can take comfort in. But it does not make it any more acceptable or tolerable. Cortz, and its counsel, are lucky this thing ended with no fee-shifting.

Waymo-Uber Litigation

Speaking of lawsuits gone bad, Uber's counsel did not have a good week.

In the trade-secrets trial of the century, Judge Alsup delayed the start of Waymo v. Uber indefinitely. The reason: Uber allegedly failed to disclose to Waymo evidence that suggests a corporate culture hell-bent on misappropriating trade secrets of rivals. It is never good, of course, when the judge tells you: "on the surface, it looks like you covered this up."

But so said Judge Alsup after a pre-trial evidentiary hearing that featured an ex-Uber employee named Richard Jacobs testifying about internal business practices at Uber that were, charitably put, shady. He testified, for instance, that Uber instructed employees to use disappearing chat apps and sent employees to bootcamp in Pittsburgh (of all places) and taught them how to impede and obstruct legal investigations.

The testimony, and forthcoming discovery, is highly relevant because it calls into question Uber's position that it has not used any of the allegedly confidential files taken by Waymo's ex-engineer, Anthony Levandowski, before he joined Uber. That said, Jacobs had no knowledge of Uber using any of Waymo's stolen files. Still, many trade-secrets cases are about circumstantial, not direct, evidence. And what Jacobs said certainly strengthens Waymo's case.

The sordid tale is making the rounds in all major news outlets. But I recommend The New York Times piece here and CNBC's coverage here.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Reading List (2017, No. 28): Non-Compete Legislation Proposed in New Jersey and More Non-Compete Nonsense in Florida

Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended November 24, 2017

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New Jersey Proposes Non-Compete Reform

New Jersey historically has been a strong non-compete enforcement state. In his terrific article Fifty Ways to Leave Your Employer: Relative Enforcement of Covenants Not to Compete, Trends, and Implications for Employee Mobility Policy, Norm Bishara concluded that New Jersey was the 7th strongest enforcement state.

As Russell Beck breaks down, though, pending legislation would alter New Jersey's place in the overall non-compete landscape. Russell runs through the particular changes that Senate Bill 3518 would make, comparing it to the annual non-compete debate in Massachusetts. I encourage you to jump to Russell's site and review the proposed list of changes.

Florida Court of Appeal Invalidates Non-Compete Injunction

Speaking of pro-enforcement states, Florida sits firmly atop the rankings. But employees are not without hope.

Last week, the Florida Second District court of Appeal in Salazar v. Hometeam Pest Defense, Inc., No. 2D16-4123 invalidated a non-compete injunction imposed on a "pest control technician." The employee's agreement prohibited him from engaging in "pest control, exterminating, fumigating, or termite control business" in five Florida counties after his termination. Salazar, it turns out, was fired. An apparently responsible, enterprising adult, he formed his own business after being tossed out of a job.

His employer sued and obtained an injunction in Florida state court. But the Court of Appeal vacated that injunction because the order failed to comply with clear procedural requirements for awarding this type of relief. It contained no findings at all. Whatever occurred in the trial court appears to be totally inexcusable. Leave aside the merits of this. If you represent an employer and seek injunctive relief, you must understand what the injunction order needs to say. I have had cases similar to Salazar. And it is shocking that this continues to occur.

On remand, I'd be interested to see how Hometeam Pest Defense articulates its legitimate business interest in preventing Salazar from working in his industry. The source of a potential client list for those in need of home pest control seems rather obvious...

You can link to the Salazar opinion by clicking here.

Confidentiality Agreements

Every day, we're witness to the unmasking of sexual harassment and misconduct charges leveled at media figures, politicians, and industry leaders. And the sad reality is that many claims are settled on the condition that the victim is muzzled by a confidentiality clause.

Elizabeth Tippett writes in the San Francisco Chronicle about the two principal uses of confidentiality agreements: ones signed at the start of employment and those signed as part of a settlement. And she rightfully questions how non-disclosure agreements (or NDAs) should not muzzle victims of abuse. I suspect we've reached the tipping point where these NDAs may face legislative scrutiny, at least when they relate to a public figure or use of public funds.

That subject matter is outside the scope of my expertise, but it's certainly an interesting and important one to follow as events unfold in near real time. I do think, however, there may be a spillover effect on the less newsworthy type of confidentiality agreement, the kind I tend to write about.

I have been writing for years that employment-based NDAs can operate like stealth non-competes. The general problem is three-fold:


  1. The clauses contain open-ended, malleable terms that do less to define "Confidential Information" and more to reserve discretion for the company to label something confidential without repercussion.
  2. Employees may have no way to monitor what information remains confidential and potentially protected once they are gone from a business.
  3. The breadth of these clauses (including the lack of a durational limit) may enable an employer to state a colorable claim when competition arises and may open the door to expensive discovery.
Let me be clear: I am not subverting the current debate on sexual harassment-related NDAs in favor of this one. Both are important, but the use of NDAs in settlement agreements is far more troubling and deserves far more scrutiny. All I am saying is that practitioners should not just assume blindly that employment-based NDAs are perfectly legit. In many cases, they serve just as punitive of a restraint on fair competition as more overtly stated non-competes.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The "Inevitable Disclosure" Non-Compete Clause: What is it and for God's sakes...why?

Leave it to lawyers to see an obscure, narrow, and disfavored legal theory and then try to drive a mack f**king truck through it like it's the next great revelation.

To what might I refer? Try a non-compete on steroids, one so hopelessly inane and stupid that, at first blush, it actually has some appeal. Until, of course, you analyze it and put more than three minutes of thought into what you're doing.

I refer to this unicorn (in the eyes of some) as the inevitable-disclosure non-compete, the intersection of obscurity and protectionism. Allow me to explain how this bad-ass of contractual clauses works (until it's declared invalid).

Start with the basics.

An agreement may have several different types of post-employment covenants that bind the employee. You have your standard non-disclosure clause, which limits for a period of time the use of confidential information the employee learned. Then you have your non-solicitation covenant, which may preclude work with a group of valuable clients or recruitment of co-workers.

Hard stop for a second.

Those two types of covenants have some legitimate uses. But lawyers must still draft them reasonably and with sensible scope and time limits, even if a geographical one isn't needed.

I continue.

Your agreement may even have a general, market-based non-compete that bars work in a relevant industry.

Hard stop again.

This type of covenant needs to be even more carefully tailored, given its broad economic hardship on the person agreeing to the covenant. It limits work, not a type of work or a narrow subset of work activity. Here, we need activity limits, probably a shorter duration, and in many (but not all) cases a geographic scope confined to the employee's or company's sphere of influence.

An inevitable-disclosure non-compete is profoundly different. It requires the employee to refrain from accepting employment that may require him to use, disclose, or rely on the employer's confidential information. This precise type of covenant recently was held unenforceable in the case of Sullivan v. Gupta, M.D., LLC, No. 2:17-cv-609 (E.D. La. Aug. 10, 2017), because it failed to comply with the requirements in Louisiana for enforceable restraints of trade. (Among other things, State law requires an identification of which parish the non-compete applies to, and this one didn't cut the proverbial mustard.)

This is by no means the first case to find that a stealth non-disclosure agreement constitutes a non-compete.

I have my own experience with agreements like this, and it hasn't been positive (except for the fact that we've won). I blogged a few weeks ago about our trial and appellate victory in Automated Industrial Machinery, Inc. v. Christofilis, 2017 IL App (2d) 160301-U, where the Second District affirmed a fee award for my client, the defendant, of nearly $1.5 million.

One of the issues in that case concerned a non-compete, which the trial court found invalid for lack of consideration. The Appellate Court affirmed that ruling. But it didn't discuss the terms of AIM's non-compete. Had we not prevailed on the consideration issue, we had a strong argument on invalidity (not to mention lack of breach, for which there was no evidence).

That agreement was a true inevitable-disclosure non-compete, and I reprint below the operative restriction, which is stunning in scope:


Pretty rough start when you call your non-compete clause a "doctrine of inevitable disclosure." Who the hell thought of that one? Way to be pedantic, and nice way to warm up to a judge.

Beyond that titular snafu, look at the terms. Just two low-lights to point out:

(1) It applies in perpetuity if my client "could not help but rely on or use...or would otherwise inevitably disclose Confidential Information." Who makes that call? How is that agreement one containing definite terms, a plain requirement under contract law?

(2) The employee must provide the company with, basically, a job description and then beg for permission to take it. And the company has 20 days to decide whether "such ...employment is prohibited under the doctrine of inevitable disclosure."

So a clause like this, patently unenforceable and overbroad, vests the employer with sole discretion in perpetuity to decide whether a particular position would require the employee to use its confidential information.

This violates every conceivable principle of non-compete law. No certainty at all. Vast amounts of discretion reserved to the employer to veto an employee's career choice. No time limit to speak of (beyond what the employer itself decides is appropriate). Economic protectionism, to be sure, is not a legitimate business interest.

Bottom line: You use an agreement like this, you deserve to lose. And you will.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Reading List (2017, No. 27): Judicial Rock-Stars,Forum-Selection Clauses, Attorney General Suits, and Worthless Blog Posts

Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended November 10, 2017

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Vicarious Liability Ruling in Waymo v. Uber

For those of you following the driverless car technology trade secrets lawsuit between Google and Uber, I urge you to take a break from the day-to-day litigation filings. They're interesting, to be sure. But they ain't as interesting as this article in The Verge about the judge presiding over the case, William Alsup. I can't do it justice. Read it. It is stunning.

On to more mundane topics in this case: vicarious liability. One of the defendants, Otto Trucking, is out of the case. Judge Alsup granted its summary judgment motion, soundly rejecting Waymo's theory of vicarious liability for the actions of its founder, Anthony Levandowski, the former star engineer whose mass download of files is the heart of Waymo's suit. The court specifically relied on Waymo's strategy to divide and conquer, an effort that kept its claims against Levandowski out of court and the other defendants out of arbitration. As Judge Alsup stated, Waymo could not treat the two as "fungible targets."

The issue of vicarious liability doesn't arise much in the case law, at least in terms of nuanced legal analysis. One line of cases holds that respondeat superior, or vicarious liability, is not available under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act on the grounds that it is a common-law remedy preempted by the statute. Other cases take a more flexible, case-by-case approach, relying on the equities. Judge Alsup's idiosyncratic opinion avoids this discussion entirely, and it's bereft of a single case citation. That doesn't make it uninteresting or even wrong.

To me, the better approach - one textually consistent with the state and federal statutes - is to assess each defendant separately and to determine whether the relevant conduct for each amounts to misappropriation. This is, I think, what Judge Alsup is saying. He eschews any reference to statutory preemption, but it's just a different way of getting to the same result.

Maryland Non-Compete Agreements

Judge Paul Grimm, another total judicial rock-star, struck down a five-year, market-based non-competition clause against a high-level engineer, a ruling summarized in Allied Fire Protection, Inc. v. Thai, 2017 WL 4354802 (D. Md. Oct. 2, 2017). The particular non-compete had the feel of being an amalgamation of form clauses, designed specifically to instruct lawyers on how not to draft non-competes.

For starters, the duration was five years - something sure to align the court with the affected employee. Those limits may be acceptable in the sale-of-business context, where there's equal bargaining power, but they almost never have any justification for at-will employees. Then the employer decided to bar the employee from working in a "similar" business with any of the plaintiff's former, current, or future clients. No parameters. No illustration of why. No common sense.

Judge Grimm's ruling that the non-compete was not tailored to protect a business interest, in the main, is not surprising. But it is significant that it arose in the context of a motion to dismiss, and not after the evaluation of evidence at the injunction or summary-judgment stage. These kinds of early, case-dispositive rulings happen all too frequently, but they embody a pragmatic approach sorely needed in litigation featuring an asymmetry in resources. Judge Grimm was careful to note the lack of allegations demonstrating the need for such broad covenants, a point that enabled the early dismissal.

Practice tip: if you're an employer, never lead with a frivolous argument. For reasons that confound, the employer decided it was a good idea to challenge the removal petition - the case originated in State court - on the grounds that removal jurisdiction violated Article I, § 10 of the United States Constitution - the so-called impairment-of-contracts clause. But as Judge Grimm noted, that clause applies to the States, not the federal government (and it was, after the federal government's jurisdiction that was challenged constitutionally). This approach to argument does nothing to endear one to the court.

Forum-Selection Clauses Following Atlantic Marine

On to a more challenging venue issue.

Venue, jurisdiction, and choice-of-law are heavily litigated procedural issues in non-compete and trade secrets litigation. Though it may seem like in-the-weeds, lawyer drivel, questions of procedure can be consequential. For instance, a few years back, Illinois courts held that Florida choice-of-law clauses are unenforceable because they contravene public policy. If that issue weren't litigated, cases may have come out differently.

Venue clauses may be equally as important. The Supreme Court, in Atlantic Marine Construction Co v. U.S. District Court, endorsed forum-selection clauses and has held courts must honor them in all but the most unusual cases. Practically, that means that only certain public interests (outside of any interests the litigants assert) will justify a transfer when a forum-selection clause is present. That means litigants cannot get out of a choice-of-venue clause if it is inconvenient to them. Predictably, district courts have followed Atlantic Marine and have cut back on the number of transfer orders in federal non-compete cases.

The Third Circuit, this Summer, addressed a difficult question under Atlantic Marine: how should courts apply the ruling when some, but not all, defendants are bound to forum-selection clauses that designate different federal districts? Get ready for some freakin' procedure, folks...

According to the court, there's a four-step inquiry (always a BAD sign). First, courts will apply Atlantic Marine to parties with forum-selection clauses, meaning their claims may be severed and transferred to the agreed-upon forum.

Second, courts then consider public and private interests related to the non-contracting parties (such as a corporate defendant with no direct contractual relationship to the former employer). Here the factors may suggest that the same forum is appropriate for both the contracting and non-contracting parties. And that may be enough for the court to kick or keep the whole action.

Third, if the court finds that the first two steps point in opposite directions, then it must consider severing the claims. That means that a court may need to transfer the action as to some defendants while retaining jurisdiction over others. For instance, a court may lack personal jurisdiction over a non-contracting defendant. It couldn't keep the case, in that instance, for efficiency reasons.

Fourth, if the issue of severance is not clear, then the court must evaluate "efficiency" interests and the non-contracting parties' private interests. Here, a court could find that public interests "overwhelmingly" outweigh the parties' interest in upholding the venue clause and thereby decline to enforce it.

The application of this four-step approach is fairly intricate, but the circuit court's analysis will resemble many of the same issues that arise in multi-defendant non-compete litigation, where individuals have forum-selection clauses and the new employer operates in a venue remote from the contractually chosen one. A link to the opinion is available here.

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I am not sure I understand the point of drafting worthless, uninteresting blog posts. But if you are a blogger (or aspiring to start one), then I would highly recommend reading the latest entry on the Employment Trial Report. It's a classic example of what not to do. This post caught my eye when it showed up in a blast e-mail through Lexology and purported to "analyze" a $6.8 million trade-secrets judgment in California. Sounds f**kin' awesome, bruh!

No. For starters, don't waste everyone's time talking about a default judgment involving a defendant who has no legal representation and who "failed to participate in the subsequent damages proceedings." What is the takeaway there? It's good to have a lawyer? It's advisable to contest damages? It's best to show up in court for a hearing?

And then don't tell us how the judgment demonstrates that companies "need to be vigilant and act quickly and decisively when it appears" there's theft by an insider. Has anyone ever counseled an employer that, in such a situation, companies should be sluggish and move slowly and equivocally?

Sorry, but you clog up the blogosphere and so you deserve some opprobrium. Take a stand. Say something interesting. Offer a viewpoint. Don't spew drivel. And I could care less if the mandate from the firm's Executive Committee was to fill up the site with more posts...

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Thad Felton over at Greensfelder in Chicago writes about the Attorney General's non-compete lawsuit against Check Into Cash of Illinois, Inc., calling the move "somewhat unusual." A better description would have been "entirely appropriate." The Freedom to Work Act, signed into law effective January 1, 2017, bars employers from using covenants not to compete against so-called "low-wage employees." This is a move that has gained traction across the United States, as State legislatures seek to pare back the use of overbroad restraints that do nothing to promote economic freedom and serve only to stifle competition.

According to the Attorney General's suit, brought under the Freedom to Work Act, the common law, and the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, the affected employees were store clerks, assistant managers, and managers, many of whom were paid on an hourly basis. The non-compete, recited in a pain-staking block quote, is oppressively overbroad and disconnected to any legitimate business interest. It's obviously unenforceable, despite the thatchy, semantic jungle in which the contractual language is buried.

A copy of the Attorney General's complaint is available here.