Friday, February 10, 2017

The Reading List (2017, No. 6)

Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended February 10, 2017

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Georgia Blue-Penciling of Restrictive Covenants

Last December, a federal district court in Georgia limited courts' ability to modify overbroad restrictive covenants. More on this significant case in my end-of-the-month column, but LifeBrite Labs. v. Cooksey, No. 1:15-cv-4309, merits a brief mention this week.

The court held that Georgia's relatively new state statute concerning non-competes, which permits courts to "modify a covenant that is otherwise void and unenforceable," allowed it only to excise language that rendered the agreement overbroad. In other words, courts could not rewrite the contract, or supply it with any new terms, as part of its statutory ability to modify agreements. The court relied principally on Georgia's existing case law in the sale-of-business context and the rule that it must construe statutes in derogation of the common-law narrowly. Put simply, "modify" means blue-penciling. The opinion and order, with its very insightful analysis, is available here.

(FordHarrison also comments on this case in its Non-Compete News.)

Military Contractor Trade Secrets

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a summary judgment of a trade-secrets claim between military contractors, Advantor Systems of Florida and DRS Technical Services, Inc. The disputed technology involved intrusion detection systems that Advantor originally sold certain United States Air Force bases. When the Air Force elected to consolidate its security systems across all AF bases, Advantor was left out in the cold. DRS won the contract and dumped Advantor as a potential sub-contractor during negotiations. The parties had signed a transactional confidentiality agreement and a one-year "no direct hire" agreement that precluded either from directly soliciting the other's employees.

The ruling is rather lengthy (53 pages) and since it's unpublished, it does not merit an extended discussion. However, it is worth reading the passage where the court of appeals reverses summary judgment on the trade-secrets claim based on the Air Force's disclosure of technical manuals and drawings to DRS. Those manuals were necessary for DRS' continued service of Advantor equipment previously sold to the AF (recall that Advantor used to supply systems to several, but not all, AF bases). The analysis discusses a rarely litigated question concerning the term "misappropriation": whether the defendant (DRS) had "reason to know" that a third-party (AF) had some limitation on its ability to disseminate information obtained in confidence (from Advantor).

A copy of the Eleventh Circuit's unpublished opinion is available here.

Choice-of-Law Clauses

California courts have continued a trend of invalidating choice-of-law clauses with regard to employee restrictive covenants. The general principle is that courts will enforce such clauses unless the contractually chosen law is "contrary to the fundamental policy of the forum state." In Stryker Sales Corp. v. Zimmer Biomet, No. 1:16-cv-01670, a California federal district court found a public-policy rift between Michigan and California law concerning non-competes. No surprise there. Michigan is a fairly typical state when it comes to non-compete law, employing a reasonableness test to restrictive covenants. But California bars them almost entirely, which led the court to invalidate the choice-of-law clause in Stryker Sales.

This case illustrates why obtaining the proper forum, and enforcing forum selection clauses, is so crucial to non-competes directed at parties with some California connection. The original action was brought in Michigan, but venue wasn't proper there. A copy of the decision is available here.

Restoration Hardware Trade Secrets Suit

Multiple outlets have reported on a trade-secrets suit between Restoration Hardware and Crate and Barrel. The Complaint, filed in California state court, alleges that Crate and Barrel CEO and former Restoration Hardware employee Doug Diemoz tried to hire other RH executives in violation of a no-hire agreement. According to the Chicago Tribune, Diemoz is alleged to have used Gmail to communicate with RH employees, stating in one such e-mail "that damn non solicitation!" Diemoz' supposed recruitment allegedly ties into another employee's downloading of confidential information about RH's food and beverage operations in Chicago.

The crux of the trade-secret allegation is a little odd. RH seems to be claiming that Crate and Barrel is attempting to replicate its "model" of providing food-and-beverage services in conjunction with its other retail offerings. I suppose that something about the roll-out of those operations could be secret, but it seems like an allegation primed for a reverse-engineering defense. RH's pilot program was launched at the Three Arts Club in Chicago. Before its conversion (it was badly rundown), I lived at the Three Arts Club for a summer in my early 20s and consumed an untold number of alcoholic beverages - not the coffee drinks RH is now peddling to its shoppers.

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In other news, Holland & Hart reports on a $5.175 million trade-secrets verdict it obtained in Utah on behalf of Hydro Engineering, Inc. against Riveer Environmental. The case stemmed from Riveer's hiring of a key salesperson who had a non-compete with Hydro. The verdict summary illustrates, once again, that e-mail communications among the defendant's employees were central to the plaintiff's proofs.

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