Friday, October 20, 2017

Much Overdue Case Law Update, Part II

This week, I offer my second case-law update, highlighting a variety of cases from around the company on topics of interest.


Indiana Court Affirms Nationwide Non-Compete Agreement

Last Friday, the Court of Appeals of Indiana addressed the enforceability of a nationwide non-compete agreement for an engineer in the glass container business. The facts follow a typical pattern and deal generally with a senior-level engineer's move from Ardagh Glass Containers to Owens-Illinois. (As an aside, my paternal grandfather worked at Owens-Illinois for something like 35 years, during which time he consumed approximately 364,000 unfiltered Camel cigarettes working the assembly line, kind of a poor man's Don Draper in this respect.)

The employee's non-compete barred his work anywhere in North America and covered products over which the employee contributed development knowledge. The Court of Appeals, applying Pennsylvania law, enforced the non-compete, reasoning that both Ardagh and Owens competed nationally for the same type of customers. The court also remarked on a few typical facts in enforcing the preliminary injunction: (1) the employee's lack of candor on a few important facts that pertained to consideration and his "paid-leave" status at Owens-Illinois; and (2) the employee's lack of urgency in contesting the preliminary injunction and the appeal.

Of greater concern was the court's breezy trade-secrets analysis, which seemed to excuse an improper trade secrets identification at trial. The court all but found the injunction order was too broad in finding that Ardagh Glass identified 16 categories of trade secrets that were at risk. And it found Ardagh Glass would need to do better at a permanent injunction hearing. But the court was not engaged at all in assessing whether the at-risk secrets were actually "threatened" from misappropriation.

A link to the Court of Appeals' decision in Vickery v. Ardagh Glass Inc. is available here.

Forfeiture-on-Termination Clause Found Unenforceable

This one is crazy.

Kelley Rieves took a job as an assistant manager at Buc-ee's - a convenience store chain in Texas. It was at that point that Buc-ee's and its cadre of lawyers foisted upon her a historically stupid agreement. Rieves had the ability to decide how she was going to get paid - but it had to be a split between hourly wages and a flat monthly amount.

The catch? The flat amount had to be repaid to Buc-ee's if Rieves (at at-will employee) left within 5 years and didn't give 6 months' notice. This is known (by me) as the stick-without-the-carrot approach. Rieves and Buc-ee's re-upped a year later with a similar arrangement. Rieves, of course, left before the 5-year period ended and filed suit to declare the repayment provision unenforceable. Somehow, Buc-ee's convinced a state court judge to enter an award for payment of the entire amount owed (less taxes) under the contract's repayment clause.

Rieves appealed and, mercifully, won. Common sense prevailed. The reason? A repayment clause inhibits employee mobility. And unless the contract is consistent with non-compete law, it's unenforceable. The salary disgorgement provision, here, was totally unlike a prototypical forfeiture clause that would, for instance, cancel unvested stock options if the employee leaves to compete. Instead, it had no connection to incentivizing the employee's future performance, imposing an illogical and disproportionate penalty on an at-will employee's election to find a better job.

Buc-ee's should be publicly shamed for requiring Rieves to sign such a manifestly stupid agreement. For now, at least we have a public opinion - available here - that will prevent any sort of spurious litigation like this in the future.

Federal Circuit Affirms $91 Million Trade Secrets Verdict

In an unpublished ruling, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a $91 million trade-secrets verdict arising out of a business transaction gone wrong in the mitral-valve implant market. The particular invention at issue in that case arose after Neovasc sought to collaborate with CardiAQ and provide CardiAQ with ancillary products. During the course of their relationship, Neovasc apparently designed a competing transcatheter mitral valve implant that was similar to the one CardiAQ had developed. Neovasc learned of the TMVI device after signing a non-disclosure agreement.

The Federal Circuit approved the district court's award of $70 million in compensatory damages and $21 million in enhanced damages (along with an 18-month head-start injunction). The court rejected several claims Neovasc had made concerning the trade secret instructions given to the jury. And it further found CariaAQ's royalty damages testimony was supported by the evidence. This is yet another in a series of high-damage trade secrets judgments we've seen over the past several years.

A copy of the unpublished disposition is available here.

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