The new year always means a spate of legislative activity. Proposed new laws related to trade secrets misappropriation and non-compete agreements do not generate many headlines, but they are fairly common. Two states in particular are considering revising their laws concerning enforcement of non-compete agreements.
First up is Washington. Earlier this month, several legislators in Washington state introduced a bill to restrict the use of non-compete agreements that bar physicians from practicing medicine. The twin bills (one for osteopathic medicine and surgery; the other for physicians) would make non-competes void and unenforceable. The lone carve-out is that the law would allow an action to enforce a contractual provision for damages due to termination of a contract, as long as the enforcing party establishes the reasonableness of damages by clear and convincing evidence. It's not clear from the draft bill whether "termination" means a termination before the end of a set contract term, or whether it's termination of the relationship altogether. It must mean the former if non-competes would be void under the proposed law.
Physician non-competes raise, perhaps more than any other profession, issues of public policy impact, particularly if a rural area would experience a shortage of available care as a result of non-compete enforcement. The Washington bill cites the American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics as a policy rationale for the proposed change in the law. The pertinent code provision discourages use of non-competes.
Many state courts, such as Illinois, have not found the AMA Code to raise sufficient public policy concerns to invalidate physician non-competes across the board. It is, therefore, more of a legislative judgment, rather than one for courts to balance. Other states, like Texas, attempt to strike a balance by enabling a physician to buy his or her way out of a restrictive covenant at a fair price. Texas' statute also cites to the AMA Code.
The text of the Washington house bill is available here.
Next up - shocker - is Massachusetts. I, for one, hope that this state just does something so I can stop following what is going on.
Massachusetts has considered enacting the Uniform Trade Secrets Act for something like a decade, which is remarkable considering it's a uniform statute. Decide, already! The details of that debate are not that interesting.
Of more importance is whether the state will reform its laws concerning enforcement of non-compete agreements. A number of legislators have introduced bills to ban non-compete agreements, and Russell Beck's fine summary is available here. For those interested in why reform of non-competes in Massachusetts is of interest, Orly Lobel's terrific book Talent Wants to Be Free discusses this at some length.
On the trade secrets front, criminal prosecutions continue to garner headlines.
Another one comes from Chicago where Judge Norgle handed down a tough sentence on two former employees of Citadel LLC, a high-frequency trading (HFT) outfit. As illustrated in Michael Lewis' book Flash Boys, HFT firms engage in algorithmic equities trading, a sort of shadowy corner of the markets that increasingly garners attention in the Wall Street Journal for a variety of reasons.
Citadel's victim impact statement to Judge Norgle indicated that it had spent over $2 million in costs investigating the employees' theft of trade secrets and assisting the U.S. Attorneys' office. Interestingly, Citadel had non-compete agreements with both employees and apparently paid (or contracted to pay) them during the non-compete terms. The defendants, prosecuted in part under the Economic Espionage Act, received three-year prison terms and an order to pay over $750,000 in restitution.
The allegations of trade secrets theft generally centered on the employees' repeated downloading of trading strategies and source code from Citadel's servers onto personal storage devices. Given the value of this data to Citadel's HFT platform, and the security measures it used (detailed at length in the indictment), it is not difficult to see how this conduct rose of the level of trade secrets misappropriation.
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