Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Reading List (No. 10)

Today's Chicago Tribune Business section contains a lead article on the sentencing of Hanjuan Jin (right), the former software engineer who was caught boarding a plane to China with highly confidential documents misappropriated from Motorola. This is a very in-depth article and also discusses the recent Valspar case on which I have previously written.

The Colorado Springs Gazette discusses a jury verdict of $1.34 million against two former managers who violated non-competition covenants. The article seems to indicate the employees solicited customers, but does not elaborate on the basis for the high damages award. Though damages are difficult to prove in non-compete cases, a plaintiff can recover them with a sound, cohesive theory and well-prepared damages witnesses. Presumably, the plaintiff had that here.

Seyfarth Shaw's blog always contains helpful, in-depth posts, but I enjoyed Paul Freehling's article on the interplay between damages and permanent injunction awards. A similar issue arises in the context of royalty injunctions - the flip side of compulsory licensing in the patent law arena (an approach Judge Posner recently endorsed). This royalty injunction remedy essentially allows a court to condition future use of a misappropriated trade secret on payment of a reasonable royalty to the trade secret owner. But states vary on the circumstances in which a royalty injunction may be appropriate. In any event, it shouldn't be very often. While patents derive value from exclusivity, trade secrets derive value from...secrecy. A royalty injunction that allows a misappropriator to use stolen information seems to undercut the very foundation for trade secrets law.

Finally, John Marsh has outlined a series of "7 Deadly Sins" that departing employees should always keep in mind when trying to avoid litigation. His post contains an excellent, in-depth summary of what often causes non-compete/trade secrets suits to go south from the employee's perspective.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Reading List (No. 9)

Today's reading list - which is long overdue - leads with a few articles geared towards in-house counsel.

The In-House Advisor has a nice post regarding non-compete considerations for in-house counsel. I am recommending the article because it has a discussion concerning the importance of posting bond if an injunction is granted. That's not a topic I see very often. My view on bonds is that the cases are everywhere. You could see a bond imposed of several hundred thousand dollars in one case, and in a similar case, only a nominal bond imposed. Remember that in federal court Rule 65 seems to require some sort of bond, meaning all of those contracts that say "bond is waived" can't literally be followed.

Great article by Jon Hyman of the Ohio Employer's Law Blog on BYOD ("Bring Your Own Device") policies for employers. This is a very new area, and lawyers are still grasping with how to draft policies and advise clients on what to consider. Jon's focus in his article is on maintaining security, and he has excellent recommendations for in-house counsel.

Drinker Biddle's blog discusses two recent bad faith fee-shifting cases under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. I previously wrote about one of them, the California case of SASCO v. Rosendin Electric, in this post.

John Marsh of Hahn Loeser has a nice recap of some news stories involving trade secrets theft, including a brief discussion on New York's recent arrest of ex-Goldman Sachs programmer Sergei Aleynikov. I, along with countless others, previously wrote about the Second Circuit's reversal of his federal law convication.

Not technically a "Reading List" topic, but worth mentioning, too, is the Supreme Court of Missouri's opinion in Whelan Security Co. v. Kennebrew, 2012 Mo. LEXIS 167 (2012). The Court found an unlimited customer non-solicitation covenant overbroad, given that it restricted ex-employees of a national security firm from working with any of the firm's customers or prospective customers. The Court noted that while such clauses may be reasonable for a small, localized firm, a non-solicitation restriction without any geographic or definitional parameters was overbroad. However, the Court modified the restriction to give effect to the parties' intentions and to protect the employer. It rewrote the restriction to strike any limitation on soliciting prospective customers and to restrict only solictation of customers the ex-employees dealt with during their employment. The court also upheld a 50-mile general non-competition covenant against one of the two employees - begging the question of whether that validated non-compete achieves the same purpose as the partially invalidated non-solicitation covenant.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The "I'm Too Busy Edition": Non-Compete Case Law Update

I swear I try to multi-task. But it's not easy.

Running a law firm, being a husband, being a dad (!), tending to a completely out-of-control garden, and actually practicing law sometimes creates the perfect storm where I realize I'm three weeks behind on, literally, everything. For instance, I just started Season 1 of "Breaking Bad." I think the Olympics are coming up, too...I can hardly wait!

So this blog has been neglected, but I promise to make up for it. I thought I would update my readers with five interesting decisions from the past several weeks in non-compete land.

Florida: Probably the most employer friendly state, any Florida decision starts with the presumption that the employee is out of luck. So too with DePuy Orthopaedics, Inc. v. Waxman, 2012 Fla. App. LEXIS 12654 (Fla. Ct. App. Aug. 3, 2012). In that case, the Court of Appeal interpreted the Florida statute that allows for assignment of restrictive covenants from an employer to an assignee. The court reversed a trial court order holding that the assignment was ineffective, relying upon the plain language of the statute. The assignment provision was contained a separate clause in the so-called general terms and conditions of the contract. The dissenting opinion would have held that the restrictive covenant itself had to reference assignability. In its view, the general assignment language was not enough under the plain language of Florida's governing statute.

Illinois: The Fourth District Court of Appeals - where all the madness started a few years back - has reversed an employee-friendly judgment on a non-solicitation covenant. In Zabaneh Franchises, LLC v. Walker, 2012 IL App (4th) 110215, the Appellate Court reversed a judgment entered following a temporary restraining order proceeding where an H&R Block franchisee tried to enforce a covenant against a tax preparer. The court found a two-year, client-specific covenant to be reasonable under Reliable Fire Equipment v. Arredondo. It is somewhat surprising the court found it reasonable on its face, rather than remanding for the trial court to make such a determination.

South Dakota: Home of the Black Hills, Custer State Park, and Wall Drug, one of my favorite states does not produce many competition decisions. But the district court's opinion denying injunctive relief to Little Caesar Enterprises is actually very interesting. The court in Little Caesar Enterprises, Inc. v. Sioux Falls Pizza Co., Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108828 (D.S.D. Aug. 3, 2012), confronted the age-old problem of trade secrets identification. This is often a major issue for trade secrets litigants because plaintiffs frequently don't inventory or understand their trade secrets until after something bad (more accurately, something perceived to be bad) has occurred.

Unlike patents, trade secrets are not known or registered or objectively verifiable. There is no incentive, apart from litigation preparedness, to document and monitor internally how trade secrets are kept, developed, and maintained. Little Caesar could not identify a trade secret, sufficient to obtain an injunction, over its Hot-N-Ready pizza method. That method, apparently, allowed Little Caesar to sell ready-for-pickup pizzas according to a particular system - that is, what products to prepare on an hour-by-hour basis, with specific ingredients and preparation requirements. (I say "apparently" because I have not eaten a Little Caesar's pizza in at least 10 years and am in no position to understand how this is any different than your standard fare carry-out. But it must be).

The court, in denying injunctive relief, noted that the description of the Hot-N-Ready system was too generic or general to amount to a trade secret. The court also relied on evidence that many of the specifics in terms of pizza preparation were common to other proprietors. Perhaps most importantly, the end product - the actual pizza - was admittedly different and bore no similarity to Little Caesar's. If that's really the case, it's a mystery why this case is even a case.

Virginia: Hamden v. Total Car Franchising, Corp., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111432 (W.D. Va. Aug, 7, 2012), presents one of those interesting contract interpretation questions. In this case, the court found that the expiration of a franchise agreement did not trigger post-termination obligations. Holding "expiration" and "termination" were not synonymous, the court focused on the fact that the contract listed a series of conditions under which the contract terminated automatically. Most employment contracts are at will, meaning expiration rarely comes up. But the plaintiff (the franchisee, who sued for a declaratory judgment) was able to dodge a few unfavorable cases from other jurisdictions to prevail.

Wisconsin: Section 103.465 is the Wisconsin statute that has given management lawyers fits over the years. It applies to "restrictive covenants in employment contracts." For non-employment covenants, Wisconsin's common law rule of reason analysis applies. In Key Railroad Development, LLC v. Guido, 2012 Wisc. App. LEXIS 625 (Wisc. Ct. App. Aug. 7, 2012), the Court of Appeals found that Section 103.465 applies to employees who shared equal bargaining power with the company. The court was able to distinguish a recent case involving a stock option agreement, which was not governed by Section 103.465. In Key Railroad, the employees - though they were higher level management, no doubt - still were classified under the contract as "at-will."

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Supreme Court of South Carolina Addresses Validity of Invention Assignment Clause

Cases addressing invention assignment clauses are few and far between. But 2012 has produced two state supreme court decisions in this area of intellectual property law. Earlier this year, Wyoming addressed the matter, and now South Carolina has.

I have discussed this subject infrequently, but assignment clauses often intersect non-compete law. In essence, they provide that any inventions (patentable or not) that an employee develops in association with her employer are the property of the employer. The only real controversial element of these clauses is the holdover or trailer aspect of them - which are found, I'd say, in about half the contracts I've seen. Those holdover clauses bear some passing resemblance to a post-termination non-compete, as they require an employee to assign inventions if they are developed within a period of time - usually 6 months or a year - after termination.

The purpose of holdover clauses is fairly obvious. Assume an employee in product development is working on a rollout of new smart phone technology, whose planned launch is several months away. If she leaves and starts development of a product based on that same technology, an assignment clause without a trailer may not capture this invention. The holdover clause creates a disincentive for an employee to delay or hide work on a technological development, because presumably the employee knows the trailer clause won't allow her to lie in the weeds and exploit it after termination. One can also look at a holdover clause as an extension of an employee's duty of loyalty, in effect providing a remedy in contract for improperly exploiting valuable commercial information after departure.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina in Milliken & Co. v. Morin held that holdover clauses were not restraints of trade subject to the traditional three-part rule of reason. More importantly, they are not strictly construed against the employer. Still, because there is potential for overreaching and for holdover clauses to restrict some competition, courts will assess whether they're reasonable. It's difficult to distinguish between a more lax test of reasonableness (applicable to clauses like an invention assignment holdovers and even non-disclosure covenants) and a three-part rule of reason (applicable to non-competes). In fact, the test that the Court in Morin established sounds almost identical to the non-compete test.

Practically speaking, courts will simply check to see what the economic impact of the holdover clause is on the marketplace. If it looks and acts like a more expansive non-compete, such as a term that is too long (say 5 years) or a clause that is too vague so as to not put someone on notice of its scope, then a court more likely will apply a strict scrutiny test. If the clause looks commercially reasonable and designed to protect an employer's inventions, then a simple reasonableness check almost certainly will uphold the covenant.


Court: Supreme Court of South Carolina
Opinion Date: 8/1/12
Cite: Milliken & Co v. Morin, No. 27154
Favors: Employer
Law: South Carolina