Friday, June 26, 2009

Choice of Law Ends Inevitable Disclosure Case Between Consumer Products Titans (Clorox Company v. S.C. Johnson & Son)

The most interesting inevitable disclosure cases tend to involve the migration of key executives from one direct competitor to another. The cases involving Bill Redmond and Mark Papermaster, among others, have served as influential precedents and will continue to do so for many years.

Another recent executive defection, this time between two well-known consumer products companies, ended with somewhat of a thud.

S.C. Johnson & Son - makers of Ziploc, Drano and Nature's Source - hired away Timothy Bailey to serve as Vice-President of Product Supply. Formerly, Bailey worked in a similar position with Clorox Company, makers of Glad bags, Liqui-Plumr and GreenWorks. Clorox filed suit in Wisconsin against SCJ only, contending that its hiring of Bailey resulted in trade secrets misappropriation. The gist of Clorox's complaint relied on the inevitable disclosure theory of misappropriation, though there were enough conclusory allegations of threatened misappropriation to withstand a motion to dismiss.

The case hinged on choice of law. Clorox chose not to sue Bailey for obvious reasons - the PepsiCo v. Redmond case. Since Clorox and Bailey were California residents, adding him would have destroyed diversity of jurisdiction and Clorox would not have been able to sue in a district court within the Seventh Circuit where PepsiCo remains a significant precedent. It could have sued in Wisconsin state court, but convincing a state court to apply a Seventh Circuit case, which itself applied llinois law, would have been much more of a challenge. And Wisconsin has not adopted the inevitable disclosure theory, so Clorox really had to hinge its case on PepsiCo.

SCJ predictably argued California law applied, and the court agreed. Because of the vague nature of the allegations concerning threatened misappropriation of trade secrets, Clorox lost the injunction motion. In finding California law applied, the court considered a number of important factors, among them the following:

(1) Clorox and Bailey entered into an employment relationship in California, and Bailey apparently executed a confidentiality agreement governed by California law;

(2) California had a significant interest, given its hostility to non-compete agreements and refusal to recognize a closely related doctrine - the inevitable disclosure claim;

(3) The law concerning inevitable disclosure under California law was clear, whereas no Wisconsin case addressed the issue.

The court did mention that the trade secrets which Clorox would have to disclose must have been developed or maintained in California.


Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin
Opinion Date: 6/9/09
Cite: The Clorox Co. v. S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., 627 F. Supp. 2d 954 (E.D. Wisc. 2009)
Favors: Employee
Law: California

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