Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Supreme Court of Wyoming Issues Important Trade Secrets Decision Related to Fracking

One of the hot new frontiers in trade secrets law involves an industry, not a legal question. There is no question the fracking industry is controversial. On the one hand, state legislatures view hydraulic fracturing as a potential boon to local economies. On the other, the very nature of this process causes much hand-wringing and cause for concern among environmental advocacy groups.

Hydraulic fracturing occurs when operators inject pressurized fluids into rock layers to release petroleum or natural gas. Fracking companies often believe the chemical compounds used in the fluid injection process are trade secrets. This causes a natural tension when public interest groups seek to discover what kind of chemicals are being inserted into local aquifers.

The case law applying trade secrets concepts to fracking is new and largely undeveloped. In the most significant decision to date, the Supreme Court of Wyoming addressed what trade secret definition should apply to a request for disclosure of an operator's chemical compounds. In Powder River Basin Resource Council v. Wyoming Oil and Gas Conser. Comm'n, the Court held that the most stringent trade secrets definition should apply. (The opinion is contained below.)

It considered three alternatives:

(1) The Uniform Trade Secrets Act definition, with its now ubiquitous two-part formulation;

(2) The Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition definition, found in Section 39, which generally is viewed as less rigorous than the UTSA standard; and

(3) The federal Freedom of Information Act definition.

The Court ultimately chose the FOIA definition. It defines trade secret as "[a] secret, commercially valuable plan, formula, process, or device that is used for the making, preparing, compounding, or processing of trade commodities and that can be said to be the end product of either innovation or substantial effort."

The italicized clause limits trade secrets to the productive process and would exclude a wide range of commercially valuable information that often times is at issue in competitive disputes. The Court's justification makes some sense. The broader UTSA and Restatement definitions are geared towards providing a remedy for unfair competition in private disputes. And a more definition would render meaningless the protection FOIA affords "commercially valuable" information.

The FOIA definition, which should lead to more disclosure, is meant to balance ownership of a true trade secret with the public's right to access documents affecting matters of public interest. In those states with fracking laws and regulations, operators normally have the chance to show administrative agencies that their chemical compounds or formulas are trade secrets. The decision in Powder River Basin will provide appropriate guidance to other courts that are called upon to evaluate a challenge to any administrative decision that favors fracking operators.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Contention Interrogatories In Trade Secret Cases Demand Strict Compliance

Yesterday, I gave a lengthy presentation to the American Intellectual Property Law Association's Trade Secrets Committee. The bulk of my presentation dealt with the knotty issue of properly identifying trade secrets in litigation.

Many trade secrets cases stall out due to deficient identifications. Since trade secrets are unlike other forms of intellectual property in that they are not listed in the public record, a plaintiff controls the identification of its property. In litigation between competitors, a plaintiff frequently will attempt to hide its secrets - yes, the crux of the claim itself - from the defendant. This leads to many disputes over whether the plaintiff properly is identifying its trade secrets in discovery. Sometimes the dispute occurs quite early, but other times it can take months or years before the identification issue reaches an inflection point.

As I was preparing for my presentation yesterday, I took a scan through some recent cases on the identification question. If you're looking for a fertile area of legal research, this is it. The federal district courts seem inundated with questions about whether a plaintiff is properly identifying its trade secrets during litigation. And the cases yield few hard-and-fast rules.

But, as I am sometimes prone to do, I found a case on the identification question that I hadn't seen before. The case, Safety Today, Inc. v. Roy, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17116 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 11, 2014), addressed a plaintiff's attempt to answer a customer trade secrets identification interrogatory by referencing documents produced in the case. This sometimes is permitted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 33(d).

But the Safety Today court said no, a plaintiff could not use the Rule 33(d) mechanism to "identify" its trade secrets in response to a contention interrogatory. It did say that in some unusual cases a court could permit this approach. For instance, if the trade secret is entirely contained within a document - say a customer list, or an engineering drawing - then a Rule 33(d) reference may be appropriate. The secret, though, would have to be really narrow.

The case dealt with an entirely different factual matrix that did not lend itself to a bald document reference. In fact, the court called it a "typical case" involving ex-employees and stated specifically:

"Only the employer will know what portion of that myriad information known to its employees can legitimately be claimed as a trade secret, and no amount of record production can provide the appropriate answer to the question."

The court examined a largely undifferentiated set of documents the parties produced and noted that it was not at all apparent from the production what was secret and what was not. In other words, the defendant still would have to guess at what bits of information the plaintiff claimed as trade secrets. It was, indeed, the typical case where the trade secrets are not evident to anyone from the face of a particular document.

This illustrates the burden a plainitff in a trade secrets case usually will face. When answering an interrogatory, it is essential to take that obligation seriously and not reflexively punt to documents the parties otherwise produce. This approach may just raise more questions and do more harm than good.

Ultimately, a plaintiff ought to be under a strict burden to do its homework and prepare its case for trial. If it cannot grasp its own trade secrets and is not willing to put the time in to do so, that usually portends a much larger, strategic problem.