Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended June 30, 2017
From the Appellate Court of Illinois this week, we got treated to a non-precedential Rule 23 order that addresses a fertile area of non-compete litigation. What effect should courts make of LinkedIn invitations to a former employee's co-workers and do those invitations amount to improper "solicitation"?
The court in Bankers Life and Casualty Co. v. American Senior Benefits LLC, 2017 IL App (1st) 160687-U, says no. Justice Simon's order gives a nice summary of similar cases from various jurisdictions and notes that the issue of "solicitation" really turns on the content of the social media post, communication, or invitation to connect. In this particular case, the LinkedIn e-mails were "generic" and mentioned nothing about either the employee's past or current employer. Nor did the e-mails invite former co-workers to leave their job or view an employment opportunity posting.
UPDATED (Aug. 8, 2017): The Appellate Court has now published the Bankers Life opinion, apparently agreeing that it sets forth a new rule of law or helps clarify an existing one. The link to the published opinion can be found here.
The Defend Trade Secrets Act and "Inevitable Disclosure"
John Marsh of Bailey Cavalieri has a very insightful post on the Third Circuit's non-precedential order in Fres-Co Systems USA, Inc. v. Hawkins. The case was a typical one in the non-compete field. Sales executive with influence over key accounts bolts for a competitor and then gets sued.
After the district court entered a preliminary injunction in favor of the employer, the Third Circuit reversed and remanded for it to consider the injunction standard more fully. As John notes, however, some of the language in the Third Circuit's order was a little loose (at best) concerning the threat of "irreparable harm" posed by the employee's move to a competitor. In particular, some of the order's reasoning implicitly suggests "inevitable disclosure" may be grounds for enjoining conduct under the Defend Trade Secrets Act. But it never comes right out and says that.
I think there's a danger of reading too much into this non-precedential order. For starters, the court lumped together its irreparable harm analysis for all the substantive legal claims, appearing never to appreciate the limits on injunctive relief under the DTSA. (The court never cites or quotes the limitation at all.) It could have instructed the district court to reconsider the irreparable harm factor in light of the DTSA, but failed to do so. Opportunity missed. That said, the plaintiff moved as well under the Pennsylvania Uniform Trade Secrets Act, which does not contain any DTSA-like limits on injunctive relief. And to be sure, the employee's non-compete would provide a separate grounds on which to analyze irreparable harm.
The Hawkins order is available here.
Trade Secrets Damages
Quantlab Financial prevailed in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld a jury verdict of $11.2 million stemming from a claim of trade-secrets misappropriation. The case arose before the financial crisis and concerned the then-nascent business of high-frequency trading. The facts sounded a familiar refrain, with the evidence demonstrating large-scale copying and appropriation of trading technology source code and improper computer access by insiders.
The Fifth Circuit's unpublished disposition is located here.
Nevada Changes Non-Compete Statute
Last year, the Nevada Supreme Court in the case of Golden Road Motor Inn v. Islam held that courts could not modify overbroad non-competes, a decision I analyzed at some length. The analysis endures; the rule doesn't. Effective June 3, 2017, Nevada has a new non-compete statute that requires courts to modify overbroad non-competition covenants - a wholesale abrogation of Golden Road Motor Inn. The new law seems to strike a more employee-friendly balance, however, in that it specifically provides that a covenant cannot restrict a former employee if a customer "voluntarily chose to leave and seek services from the former employee." That's a gaping carve-out, sure to invite fact disputes about whether the customer voluntarily left. In other words, Nevada places customer choice above any countervailing employer interest.
Russell Beck's Fair Competition Law blog has an analysis of the new law here.
The Non-Compete PR Crisis
The firm Butzel Long released a Client Alert (really, a white paper) that deconstructed a number of problematic non-compete cases involving low-wage or mid-tier employees. This terrific publication addresses the Jimmy John's, Amazon.com, and Goldfish Swim School cases and offers practical guidance about how these companies could have avoided the nightmare public-relations fallout. I highly recommend this release for any practitioner who works in the non-compete and trade secrets field.
Non-Compete Crackdown in Australia?
The Guardian reports on concerns that the use of non-competes is stifling innovation in Australia, noting the concentration of market power in select industries. The report notes the same general concerns that reform advocates in the United States have, with the most compelling concern being the declining number of start-ups. This concern is all the more acute as the large technology companies continue to expand their reach into non-traditional markets - Amazon's pending acquisition of Whole Foods simply the latest example.
Uber's "Reason to Know" of Trade-Secret Theft
Android Headlines reports that members of Uber's board saw evidence of trade-secret theft concerning Anthony Levandowski's alleged appropriation of LiDAR technology from Google/Waymo. Uber was required to file an accounting with the court disclosing the names of people who may have had access to the files at the heart of Waymo's case. Uber has resisted disclosing a critical due diligence report authored by a firm before it acquired Levandowski's start-up, which likely will color Waymo's theory that Uber had "reason to know" that Levandowski was using Waymo's materials on behalf of Uber. That "reason to know" standard is crucial if Waymo is going to hold Uber liable. This discovery dispute appears to be the make-or-break moment in the biggest trade-secret action of the past several years.
I will be taking a few weeks off from updating this blog. See you in mid-July!