Friday, May 13, 2016

In Wake of Defend Trade Secrets Act Passage, a New Whistleblower Ruling Protects Employees

I cannot begin to wade into the commentary surrounding the passage of the Defend Trade Secrets Act, which officially became the law this week. The summaries of this new federal legislation are so numerous and sweeping that I am already too late to the game.

I would like to discuss, though, one provision of the DTSA which protects whistleblowers - those who may need to use or reveal company confidential information to expose fraud, illegality, or some wrongdoing. Section 7 of the DTSA now immunizes employees from civil and criminal liability if they disclose confidential or trade secret information to the government for reporting suspected violations of the law. I wrote recently about the DTSA's new whistleblower provision and how this obscure provision of the new law may result in employers avoiding federal court (at least for a while) during the law's honeymoon period). Mike Greco of Fisher & Phillips takes a deeper dive into the subject, which is worth a read.

Before the DTSA's enactment, the rub of any whistleblowing activity concerning trade secrets, no matter how legitimate, is the potential for a counterclaim. When whistleblowing activity results in litigation against the company, the company may fire back and claim that the disclosure of confidential documents to counsel or the government violates an existing employment non-disclosure agreement.

Two days before President Obama signed the DTSA into law, a federal district court in the Northern District of Illinois addressed the precise type of whistleblowing activity the DTSA is meant to partially immunize. In United States ex rel. Cieszyski v. LifeWatch Services, Magistrate Judge Schenkier dismissed LifeWatch's counterclaim against an ex-employee, Matt Cieszyski, for breach of a non-disclosure agreement.

Cieszyski took corporate documents as part of his pursuit of what is known as a qui tam suit under the False Claims Act. This type of action enables a private person to bring an action in the name of the government if that person has evidence that another has submitted a false claim to the government.

Judge Schenkier found that LifeWatch did not state a plausible claim for breach of the non-disclosure covenant after balancing the countervailing interests Cieszyski had in pursuing his action (which necessarily depended on the information in the claimed confidential documents). Critically, Cieszyski took what he believed was necessary and did not disclose the corporate information to any LifeWatch competitor. The key passage from Judge Schenkier's ruling reads:

"It is unrealistic to impose on a relator the burden or knowing precisely how much information to provide the government when reporting a claim of fraud, with the penalty for providing what in hindsight the defendant views as more than was needed to be exposure to a claim for damages. Given the strong public policy encouraging persons to report claims of fraud on the government, more is required before subjecting relators to damages claims that could chill their willingness to report suspected fraud."

(A "relator" is someone like Cieszyski who brings a qui tam action.)

Keep in mind that the DTSA's whistleblower provisions do not give employees a free pass to do what Cieszyski did. What Cieszyski did in limiting what he took was obviously smart. But an employer still can maintain a counterclaim against a whistleblower if the scope of his or her taking exceeded what was necessary to maintain the qui tam suit (keeping in mind the ex ante perspective used by Judge Schenkier) or if there was some separate disclosure of the documents outside the suit, such as to a competitor.

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