Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: The Annual Year-In-Review Column

I read many law blogs, and inevitably at the end of the year I come across posts that say what a monumental year it has been for legal developments in this area or that. Usually, that's an exaggeration.

And it would be misleading to say that 2014 was significant for non-compete law. Because it wasn't in the slightest.

Still, there were noteworthy cases and developments that draw the attention of practitioners, and which are worth a brief recap. So, in the tradition of this blog, I present my annual Year-In-Review for 2014 with the top five developments over the past twelve months:

5. Texas Supreme Court Weighs In on Forfeiture-for-Competition Clauses. Although I did not write about Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Drennen, it is nonetheless a significant state supreme court case worth reading. The Supreme Court of Texas usually produces interesting opinions on non-compete law, but we haven't seen any for a couple of years. This year, Drennen was the most notable decision from state supreme courts, and it didn't disappoint. The case involved the enforcement of a forfeiture provision in an employee incentive compensation plan. The Court found the provision was not contrary to Texas public policy and did not constitute a covenant not to compete. Accordingly, it allowed for Exxon to apply New York law. That state's well-developed "employee choice" doctrine allows for enforcement of a forfeiture provision without regard to a reasonableness analysis. The case brings into play many procedural issues that counsel must know, particularly choice-of-law clauses and the proper construction of what many believe to be indirect non-compete provisions that deter (but don't prohibit) competition. A copy of the case is available here.

4. Aleynikov Loses in the Third Circuit. Sergey Aleynikov is a mainstay on my end-of-the-year column, which is somewhat hard to believe. His legal troubles began with his departure from Goldman Sachs for Teza Technologies in June of 2009. Allegedly, Aleynikov misappropriated part of Goldman's high-frequency trading source code by placing it on a remote server (in Germany, which doesn't sound good but is actually quite meaningless). That led to a criminal conviction (overturned by the Second Circuit), a near-unanimous amendment to the federal Economic Espionage Act (think about getting Congress to agree on anything), a subsequent indictment by the Manhattan District Attorney (for which Aleynikov is not likely to serve any time), and a parallel lawsuit Aleynikov filed to have Goldman advance his legal expenses in the state criminal case. Aleynikov originally prevailed at summary judgment on his advancement suit (critically important, since he could have Goldman pay for his defense). That last piece of his litigation odyssey was the subject of a Third Circuit opinion, which I discussed on October 16. Aleynikov had his advancement victory overturned in a decision that I found poorly reasoned and inconsistent with the summary nature of advancement rights. I expect that a year from now we may have Mr. Aleynikov in our year-end list again, and I anticipate discussing what happened with his state criminal case for computer crimes. Aleynikov also made his way into popular culture, as his legal troubles inspired Michael Lewis's fantastic book Flash Boys.

3. DuPont's Trade Secret Verdict Overturned on Appeal. One of the largest verdicts of the past several years involved a trade secrets case. The dispute involved trade secrets DuPont owned with regard to Kevlar, a para-aramid fiber found in a variety of materials including tires, body armor, and cell phone cases. DuPont filed a trade secrets claim against Kolon Industries that resulted in a $920 million verdict and a 20-year production injunction against Kevlar. The civil case prompted criminal charges against Kolon and some of its employees. The Fourth Circuit, in reversing the jury verdict, questioned some of the evidentiary rulings the district court made concerning DuPont's purported public disclosure of materials related to the trade secrets. (Lesson on appeal: it probably doesn't hurt to have Paul Clement represent you on appeal. Whatever Kolon paid him, he earned it.)

2. Federal Trade Secrets Legislation Looms. I am required to include this in my list. Congress considered two separate pieces of federal legislation. The Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2014, which originated in the Senate, and the Trade Secrets Protection Act of 2014, which originated in the House of Representatives. For years, commentators and legislators have been pushing for a federal trade secrets remedy, perhaps because it's the only branch of intellectual property law that lacks a true federal legislative framework. Trade secrets also are increasingly important to the economy, a fact crystallized by patent decisions the Supreme Court has issued recently. I am not a wild proponent of federal legislation in this area, but I've come to accept it as inevitable. For a recent recap, see Russell Beck's excellent post from December 13, which summarizes the bipartisan efforts to federalize trade secret law and which also reports on recent House action on the Trade Secrets Protection Act of 2014. This time next year you can expect I'll discuss actual legislation that passed Congress.

1. State Courts Take Up Consideration Issue in Non-Compete Agreements. In my 500th Blog Post, I wrote that the future of non-competes would pivot towards the issue of consideration and away from reasonableness. Many non-compete disputes involve at-will employees, and courts are beginning to grapple with what exactly qualifies as legal consideration to support a restraint of trade - particularly when an employee can be let go at any time. I believe this issue will continue to vex courts and legislatures. I have been a notable critic of Fifield v. Premier Dealer Services, an Illinois appellate case that seemed to legislate a bright-line, two-year rule for employment serving as consideration for at-will employees' non-compete agreements. The decision is clearly bad in the judicial sense, but perhaps not awful from the policy perspective. And since the court decided it, other states have taken up similar (though not identical) consideration issues for at-will employees. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear an appeal in Socko v. Mid-Atlantic Systems of CPA, Inc. and decide whether continued employment can serve as consideration for an at-will employee's non-compete. Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals certified the same question to the state supreme court in Runzheimer Int'l Ltd. v. Friedlin, which was the subject of my May blog post. And, the Supreme Court of Kentucky in Charles T. Creech, Inc. v. Brown issued an employee-friendly ruling this year, finding continued employment was insufficient to support an employee's non-compete agreement. The decision was poorly reasoned and confusing for employers to apply, since the Court seemed to indicate it was a fairly fact-specific decision. Regardless, it is now clear that many states are interested in just what consideration at-will employees must receive to be bound by post-termination non-competes. This issue will filter through the courts next year.


Finally, many thanks to all who continue to follow me and offer their words of encouragement. In 2015, I will try to post once per week - every Friday. This year, I did not post as frequently as I would like, but I am going to try and keep this going at least through the end of next year. Aiming for one post every week will be ambitious, but I am sure I can find enough material to keep the content fresh and insightful.

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