Friday, August 18, 2017

An Analysis of Two California Cases. Big California Cases.

Over the past week, we received two big decisions from two different California courts on two vastly different issues. One was a decision that has no precedential effect, but which garnered a lot of headlines, particularly in tech circles. That case was decided correctly. The other received almost no attention, but which is precedential. And that case was wrongly decided.


The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and Data Scraping

I have a been a long-time critic of the CFAA, a law put together so haphazardly and over so many years that it is difficult to resolve important questions of statutory interpretation. The key legal question that arises under the CFAA - at least in the context of employee claims - is when one exceeds her authorized access to a protected computer or accesses that computer "without authorization." Put another way, many cases have analyzed claims of insider misappropriation within the CFAA's statutory text, even though it seems clear the statute didn't really have that type of case in mind.

But applying the "without authorization" language of the CFAA goes beyond just employment claims, as reflected in the important case of hiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn Corp. The case involved another question of statutory interpretation: whether the CFAA prohibited access to public LinkedIn profiles after LinkedIn revoked permission to such access.

A little background is essential, since the idea of an open internet is crucial to the case's disposition. hiQ Labs is a data analytics company. Its business model revolves around scraping data off of LinkedIn users' public profiles. It then can offer products to its client companies: an analysis of which employees are likely to leave or be recruited (such as by employees updating their skills and other LinkedIn fields) and a separate analysis of which skills individual workers possess.

LinkedIn demanded that hiQ stop scraping public data from its website, relying on its User Agreement and the term that prohibited data collection. hiQ sought injunctive relief, arguing that LinkedIn's threats undermined its business model and violated state statutory and common law. The analysis, though, hinged on the CFAA - for a reading of that statute in LinkedIn's favor would have preempted the offensive claims hiQ brought.

The district court found that the CFAA likely did not preclude hiQ's claims, and it relied on two general concepts. First, it distinguished other cases where CFAA infractions involved access to private, as opposed to public, data. And second, it looked to the law of trespass to conclude that, despite LinkedIn's supposed revocation of hiQ's access to public profiles on its website, hiQ hadn't circumvented any sort of authentication system to view those profiles. This analysis incorporated Professor Orin Kerr's influential Columbia Law Review article that discussed the law of trespass as explaining some of the ambiguity and context of the "without authorization" language in the CFAA.

The decision seems intuitive and obvious, but in large part it was constrained by the text of the CFAA itself, which has confounded courts over the years. Thank goodness we have thought leaders like Orin Kerr to make sense of the statute and provide the appropriate analytical framework on which courts can reconcile very difficult questions. Public websites need to be open and accessible, and operators cannot erect artificial barriers under the guise of an unread, boilerplate user agreement to invoke the specter of criminal liability for viewing and using what's freely available.

Malicious Prosecution

The second decision comes from the Supreme Court of California, where the Court absolved Latham & Watkins for its pursuit of a frivolous trade-secrets claim many years ago. That case made its way up to the Court of Appeal and is somewhat well-known to lawyers (like me) who believe that a robust, common-sense interpretation of "bad faith" is essential to defense fee-shifting claims. The case of FLIR Systems, Inc. v. Parrish, 174 Cal. App. 4th 1270 (2009), was the precursor to Parrish v. Latham & Watkins. In FLIR Systems, the Court of Appeal affirmed a fee award for the prevailing defendants after the plaintiff's trade-secret claim (and the expert testimony girding that claim) fell apart at trial. As the Court had held, the plaintiff's modest success in defeating summary judgment did not insulate the bad-faith fee award. That was a sound rationale: trade secrets plaintiffs often dodge, duck, and distract a trial court into believing there are factual issues in need of resolution.

Unfortunately, for the defendants in that case, the summary-judgment "loss" hurt them in a later, independent malicious prosecution claim that they brought against Latham & Watkins, the law firm that represented FLIR Systems. The Court of Appeal held that the so-called "interim adverse judgment" rule barred the malicious prosecution claim, a decision the Supreme Court of California affirmed last week.

That rule says that a malicious prosecution plaintiff cannot maintain a claim if a "trial court judgment or verdict" is rendered in favor of the plaintiff in the underlying suit - here the FLIR Systems litigation. The problem with applying this rule is that FLIR Systems' defeat of a summary judgment motion is not a judgment in and of itself. It's an interlocutory order that is not even appealable and is a reflection of the trial judge's perception that fact issues need a full airing in court. Indeed, a denial of a summary judgment motion is not a ruling on the merits in any sense.

California is ground-zero for crummy trade secrets claims, so the ruling is an important one. It is particularly important if the plaintiff cannot satisfy a fee award or if the pursuit of the claim caused collateral damage that flowed from the pursuit of the action (such as lost investors, delayed market entry, jettisoned goodwill). A fee award won't cover those damages, but a malicious prosecution suit will. The "interim adverse judgment" rule, applied to denials of summary judgment motions, is an artificial construct that insulates attorneys who pursue claims without an objective, good-faith basis. That they survive a summary judgment is by no means a reflection of the suit's merit, since the trial is where the facts are most tested. Courts need flexibility to assess whether the entirety of the prosecution was malicious, not whether the plaintiff's lawyers were skilled enough to defeat a motion.

An obvious consequence? California courts may see less summary judgment motions. Why risk it after the Latham & Watkins case?

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Reading List (2017, No. 24): Idaho Non-Competes Featured in NYT Article

Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended August 11, 2017


The New York Times Continues to Explore Non-Compete Agreements

Over the past few months, The New York Times has published several stories and editorial pieces concerning non-compete agreements than I ever can recall. The latest, published July 14, takes readers far away from New York to Idaho, where Conor Dougherty explores the change in the law that makes it much more difficult for employees to contest the validity of restrictive covenants. the NYT piece explores the motivations for how the law changed to favor employers and the lobbying efforts behind the legislative efforts.

Idaho's statute is focused on "key employees," which actually includes independent contractors too. The applicable definition is fairly broad and applies automatically to the top 5 percent in terms of wage earnings. But it goes beyond that to include those who "have the ability to harm or threaten an employer's legitimate business interests."

The statute does more. It creates a series of rebuttable presumptions concerning reasonableness. For time, 18 months is presumed reasonable. For territory, it's where the key employee provided services. And for activity scope, reasonableness is presumed if the covenant is limited to the type of employment that the key employee conducted. The upshot of the Idaho law is this: the employee has the unenviable burden of proving a negative, that he or she is incapable of impairing the employer's legitimate business interests.

This sort of burden-shifting approach turns non-compete law on its head. The employer, seeking to restrain trade, always should justify and establish both the legitimate business interest (beyond mere protectionism) and the imminent harm it faces to that interest. The Idaho approach is reminiscent of the way courts have analyzed 14th Amendment challenges to economic legislation through rational-basis review. That standard, which fairly can be called judicial abdication and not judicial review, requires a challenging party to disprove every conceivable basis which might support the law. And in some jurisdictions, a legitimate basis might even be economic protectionism or a pure economic interest.

The dynamism of our economy requires much more engagement by the judiciary to assess, meaningfully, the asserted interest and justification for a non-compete clause. Requiring the employee to bear the burden of proving he or she won't harm the employer will lead courts to embrace covenants that are too protectionist and safeguard against only theoretical or irrationally perceived harm.

Contractual Injunction Clauses

Non-compete agreements contain a number of important terms beyond the restrictive covenants themselves. Clauses pertaining to fee-shifting, jury trial waivers, arbitration, and venue play a big role in determining how a case gets litigated and decided.

One standard clause that receives a lot of intention is the "stipulation" that a breach necessitates an injunction. Put another way, employers try to use these clauses to convince courts that they need not prove the essential elements of an injunction. They, instead, can point to the agreement itself as the basis for equitable relief.

Most courts are not receptive to this argument, finding that contractual clauses (particularly since they're not negotiated) must give way to court rules and procedures concerning injunctions. But not all courts say that. The Court of Appeals of Minnesota in St. Jude Medical, Inc. v. Carter, found an injunction remedies provision valid, relying on a general contract principle that court must enforce unambiguous terms. The problem with this reasoning is that it equates a non-compete with a freely bargained-for, non-adhesive agreement. In reality, a non-compete is not a conventional contract but a restraint of trade. Courts should always assess whether a moving party has met its burden to obtain an injunction, regardless of any contractual stipulations.

A copy of the opinion is available here.

Wal-Mart Trade Secrets Verdict

In April, Wal-Mart was hit with a jury verdict in excess of $12 million for misappropriating technology pertaining to e-commerce software. The trade-secret owner, Cuker Interactive, thereafter moved for entry of a permanent injunction as is available under the Arkansas Trade Secret Act. The district court agreed that such an injunction was available to protect the development time Wal-Mart avoided by misappropriating Cuker's technology. The district court's opinion is an engaged discussion on the availability of injunctive relief even after entry of a damages award.

But Cuker's win was slightly tempered. The court also reduced the damages award by over $2 million based on a limitation-of-liability clause in the contract between Wal-Mart and Cuker. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Reading List (2017, No. 23): The "Welcome Back, Ken" Edition

Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended August 4, 2017


This week, I welcome myself back!

I'm happy to be here, really I am. The time away from blogging was great, a much-needed break. What did I do? I went camping (in the rain). I ran a race (the Bix7 in the lovely Quad Cities), and - oh yea - I tried a case in Chicago. Eventful. Not as eventful as Anthony Scaramucci's month, but eventful nonetheless.

Speaking of my trial, it was a doozy. A replevin trial over a stolen shipment of Mexican cheese, which the Chicago Tribune reported on. And, you know your case is good when it merits discussion in Food & Wine magazine. Just so you know, cheese heists appear to be a thing. But I'll take the set of facts I tried over any of these half-baked schemes. And it turned out great a - a replevin judgment about three weeks after we filed the case.

It did get me thinking about remedies, because you know I'm always looking to relate something to non-compete and trade-secrets law. Readers of this blog know that I've written a lot about the ex parte seizure order available under the Defend Trade Secrets Act. That procedure allows for an early court hearing, without notice, through which a federal court can empower a U.S. Marshall to seize stolen items containing protected trade secrets.

This replevin remedy is kind of similar, though there's process afforded. A replevin is simply an interim order that directs the seizure of property. In my case, cheese. But it could in theory be the replevin of a trade secret, too, depending on the facts. In Illinois, at least, replevin is only available for chattels or tangible goods. Again, cheese would be an example. Most trade secrets exist electronically, making the statute in Illinois a somewhat poor fit. Also, most items that a plaintiff would want back are legitimate in and of themselves (a computer, a thumb drive). In a replevin case, the plaintiff must show a superior possessory right to the thing itself - not what may reside on it.

Depending on the facts, a replevin order could issue on an ex parte basis. But in the main, a replevin claim really is an early trial that is akin to a mandatory injunction proceeding, which if successful results in a sheriff seizing property. All that said, don't overlook replevin as a potential remedy in a trade secrets case.

Anyway, on to news and updates.


Consideration for Non-Competes in Illinois

Illinois courts continue to debate and discuss the so-called Fifield rule of continued employment. Generally, that case suggests two years of continued employment is required to serve as adequate consideration for a restrictive covenant. The case, however, is more a result of sloppy legal writing than it is a bold pronouncement of what amounts to lawmaking.

In reality, the facts of Fifield weren't particularly compelling and the case wasn't that close. The employee had been working only for a few months before leaving, meaning his tenure was far short of the rough two-year guidepost old Illinois cases had established. And there certainly was no indication he received anything more than the job itself.

The Appellate Court of Illinois (Second District) weighed in somewhat in Paul Joseph Salon & Spa, Inc. v. Yeske in affirming the grant of a temporary restraining order. There, the defendant resigned two days before the expiration of the two-year employment period. The court held that, at least when reviewing a TRO, the court did not abuse its discretion in finding the consideration adequate even if it fell just short of the two-year mark. The case is not particularly useful since it's an unpublished decision and given the "quick-look" review afforded TROs. And in fact, the Second District in prior cases never has embraced a bright-line rule of two years' continued employment. It appears the reason why is that the two-year rule only sort of exists and stems from an unforced error in the drafting of the Fifield decision.

A link to the case is available here.

From the Southern District of Illinois, we received another district court memorandum order that rejects any bright-line rule concerning continued employment. This follows a trend of cases from Illinois federal courts. In Apex Physical Therapy, LLC v. Ball, No. 17-cv-119, 2017 WL 3130241 (S.D. Ill. Jul. 24, 2017), the court noted the problem with bright-line rules and inequitable results which could occur. Interestingly, the court stated that "consideration can be comprised of benefits beyond continued employment." As with many of the federal decisions, it is not clear what the employee's agreement said about consideration or what else the employer might have alleged in addition to continued employment.

Injunction Bonds

One overlooked aspect of injunction practice in competition cases is the need for a bond. A bond generally provides the defendant some security in case the court was wrong in issuing a preliminary injunction. To be sure, those orders can inflict economic harm on the defendant. And to complicate the equation, courts must issue those orders on a relatively undeveloped record.

In my experience, plaintiffs who seek an injunction treat the bond requirement as an afterthought. It's one thing to ask for a low or nominal bond. It's quite another to be totally unprepared in contacting a broker, filling out a surety application, and getting the bond issued. Assuming a plaintiff does secure a bond, however, it must recognize that it has responsibilities to continue with the litigation responsibly. Or else, the bond may provided the defendant with a ready source of damages.

Against this backdrop, I was interested by the North Carolina Court of Appeals' opinion in Van-Go Transportation, Inc. v. Sampson County. This is not a non-compete case, but it's about the closest analogue and certainly relevant for the bond discussion. It involved a public contract for the transportation of Medicaid patients seeking health-care services. The incumbent, Van-Go, obtained a temporary restraining order against a competing ride company that prevailed in a request-for-proposal process with a municipality. As a condition of the TRO, the court required Van-Go to post a bond.

After the defendant filed a motion to dismiss, Van-Go voluntarily dismissed its case but also sought a release of the TRO bond. The trial court denied that effort and awarded the bond proceeds among the defendants. The Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, holding that a voluntary dismissal is equivalent to an admission that the TRO was wrongfully obtained in the first instance. The ruling is obviously defense-friendly, and it forces the plaintiff to take a long-view of litigation. In rejecting Van-Go's argument that it discontinued the litigation for "responsible financial business practices," it effectively tells plaintiffs that they must continue a case in which they have secured an injunction at pain of forfeiting a bond.

Depending on the amount of the bond (and the damages a defendant can prove), that may be an acceptable risk for the plaintiff to take. But it's crucial to understand that getting an early injunction comes at a price. The plaintiff may not be able to abandon its case free of charge.

A link to Van-Go Transportation can be found here.

Independent Contractors

The enforcement of non-competes against consultants and independent contractors raises a host of tough questions. After all, the essence of being an independent contractor is freedom and, importantly, freedom to control your own work. Non-competes, by definition, stifle freedom and seem to be at odds with an independent contractor relationship. Still, many companies use non-competes with consultants or sales representatives much as they would with ordinary W-2 employees.

A pair of cases reveals the limitations, though, of shoehorning consultants into the typical employment non-compete framework. The first comes from the Eighth Circuit, where a panel concluded that a company could not restrict an outside sales representative from engaging in competing crop management and fertilizer sales since he had developed his customer contacts through his own labor and without support from the company. The case, Ag Spectrum v. Elder, is a great read on the reasonableness inquiry through its analysis of the company's protectable interest. In particular, the opinion emphasized the resources that the sales representative invested and the absence of any specialized training or assistance that the principal provided. In those circumstances, a customer non-solicitation covenant was unreasonable as applied.

The opinion from the Eighth Circuit panel is available here.

In a similar case, an Ohio federal district court denied an injunction brought by a company that sells, among other things, office chair mats against a former consultant. The non-compete entered into between the company and the consultant broadly prohibited him from competing in the sale of chair mats and other products. The problem for the company is that the consultant's work, following the end of the relationship, involved those other products. And the consultant's services had nothing to do with them. Put another way, the company was trying to prevent competition for work related to products over which its consultant had no involvement.

The opinion, written by Judge Edmund Sargas, reflects a terrific example of judicial engagement - a perspective I often find lacking in non-compete cases. Judge Sargas credited the consultant's prior history in developing the same type of products that he was offering after the end of the relationship, concluding that the consultant in fact did not try to capitalize on anything confidential he learned through his contract arrangement.

Together, both cases demonstrate the difficulty of enforcing non-competes in a more arms-length relationship where the employer simply cannot demonstrate a protectable interest - that is, an interest that stems from a significant investment of time, resources, or information.


Much more next week, including an update on the big Wal-Mart trade secrets case and more non-compete coverage in the New York Times.