Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended April 7, 2017
Franchise Non-Competes and Irreparable Harm
Disputes over franchise non-competes arise less frequently than employment-based covenants, but they tend to produce some interesting results. Often, they are combined with claims for trademark infringement if franchisees continue to promote their business using the same signage, slogans, or other source indicators that were part of the original franchise relationship. But other times, the franchisee simply ends the relationship and starts a completely separate business in the same territory.
A district court in Nebraska confronted precisely this type of fact-setting in Colorado Security Consultants, LLC v. Signal 88 Franchise Group and denied a preliminary injunction motion brought to enforce a 3-year non-compete. The interesting aspect of the decision, which is available here, concerns the discussion about "irreparable injury," a required element that a plaintiff must prove to establish injunction relief. The court was critical of the plaintiff's conclusory evidence about customer contact. And, at least according to the facts available in this opinion, it appeared the way in which the franchisor elected to end the relationship may have been a contributing factor in the court's denial of its injunction motion. The lesson here is intuitive. If you're asking for injunctive relief, then you need to demonstrate actual, concrete evidence that illustrates how continued competition threatens imminent injury. Abstract statements or mere suggestions of future harm won't cut it.
Bad Faith in Trade Secrets Actions
The bad-faith fee-shifting clause under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act allows for a "prevailing party" to recover fees. By definition, it does not apply to counsel. A successful showing of bad faith by a defendant entitles him to fees only from the plaintiff itself.
Last year, a California Court of Appeal decision in a case called Cypress Semiconductor found that a plaintiff's voluntary dismissal without prejudice did not prevent a defendant from claiming it had been a "prevailing party" for purposes of claiming fees under the bad-faith provision. This past week, the Illinois Appellate Court in an unpublished and non-precedential order disagreed with Cypress Semiconductor. It found that the term "prevailing party" could not include a voluntary dismissal without prejudice. The case is Matrix Basement Systems, Inc. v. Drake.
In the interest of full disclosure, I joined the representation of Tom Drake on appeal after the circuit court had denied his fee petition. Obtaining reversal of an order denying a motion for sanctions is quite difficult under an "abuse of discretion" standard of review, but I felt that Mr. Drake more than deserved a vigorous appeal. The appellate court's order, while not giving us the desired outcome, certainly helped establish that Mr. Drake was the victim of a completely meritless suit that never should have been filed in the first place. The circuit court found that Matrix Basement Systems had indeed lodged allegations against him that were false, but that this alone wasn't enough to warrant sanctions.
On his Michigan Employment Law Advisor, Jason Shinn has a more in-depth discussion with practical tips on Estes Forwarding Worldwide v. Cueller, the "Google Drive" access case I discussed two weeks back. The tips he offers are geared towards employers who need to secure web-based storage accounts from improper employee use.
Michael Elkon at Fisher & Phillips has an excellent compliance-oriented post dealing with the hiring of employees from competitors. This lengthy post covers a number of specific questions and procedures employers should be asking and investigating when hiring new employees from competitors.
Korn Ferry, the executive search leader which pursued the high-profile Computer Fraud and Abuse Act case against David Nosal, finds itself on the other end of a competition dispute. Spencer Stuart, a K/F competitor, filed suit in Chicago. This case appears to be more of a garden-variety non-compete dispute, but it involves the defection of a group practice leader - Francois Truc - who earned over $4 million a year from Spencer Stuart.
Munger Tolles & Olson released a 2016 Defend Trade Secrets Act Roundup summarizing DTSA filings and major issues that courts have decided under the law as we approach the one-year anniversary of its enactment.
Finally, Seyfarth Shaw this week flagged a pending bill in Missouri that would invalidate restrictive covenants in the employment setting. House Bill 479 would bring Missouri more in line with the California approach to restrictive covenants, which permits them in connection with the sale of a business. We see legislation creep up like this time and again in the States, but it usually is meant to spark debate that leads to incremental reform. Seyfarth's post on the Missouri bill is available here.