Friday, December 1, 2017

The Reading List (2017, No. 29): Frivolous Litigation in the Northern District and Uber (Allegedly) Covers Up

Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended December 1, 2017

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Another Dumb Lawsuit in Illinois

Sorry. I call it like it is. And this lawsuit was stupid. I've been waiting to write on it for some time, after the preliminary injunction order came out this Summer. But I've been busy. Now's the right time.

In an action filed in the Northern District of Illinois, a company called Cortz, Inc. sued an erstwhile acquirer of its business, Doheny Enterprises, Inc., and a purchasing manager named Tim Murphy? Why? Beats me. Here's the gist. And it should sound a familiar refrain for lawyers like me who see this kind of silly litigation nonsense every single week.

Cortz, a pool and spa products supplier, had a business with declining income. Doheny wanted to buy but was turned away. The parties had signed a non-disclosure agreement, which (like most in the transactional sphere) said Doheny couldn't hire Cortz's management-level employees for two years. Fair enough.

Enter Murphy. He was fired from Cortz after its eventual buyer, some outfit named Leslie's Pool Supplies, demanded a two-year non-compete from him. This was an entirely rational business decision to make for both. Leslie's saw a way to use market power and tie up a dude it felt might be key to its business. Rational, yes. Smart, maybe not. Murphy, to his credit, balked. He had been with Cortz for nearly 20 years, apparently had no ownership stake and no role in the sale, and all of a sudden some acquirer demands a non-compete. Murphy probably had a few sleepless nights, but good for him drawing the red line. Cortz (now a Leslie's subsidiary post-deal) fires Murphy. As was its right. Probably stupid, but whatever.

As one might imagine (you know, since there was a lawsuit), Murphy (out of work) hooked on with Doheny on a trial basis. Cortz then decides to sue, claiming this hiring violates the NDA's non-solicitation provision. (One almost can imagine the lawyers salivating over the prospect of potential work.) Cortz made that decision even though Doheny was not then employed by Cortz and even though Cortz made the business judgment to fire him. Of course, no one thought to draft the NDA in a way that covered past employees. But Cortz tried to make that claim during the litigation.

Big fail. Hard stop.

Judge Amy St. Eve, probably one of the top three district court judges in Chicago, had none of it, stretching no further than basic principles of contract construction. If you're going to draft a deal-based NDA with a restrictive covenant, damn sure better cover what you're trying to restrict. The linguistic gymnastics that Cortz tried to pull off here were not exactly compelling.

No judge should have any patience for this sort of after-the-fact hooha, in which a commercial contract party tries to use litigation to mulct an unambiguous agreement into one which they wish they had signed. (Doubtful, mind you, Doheny would have signed a naked restraint that barred its hiring of those not employed by Cortz. Why on earth would it do that?)

Nor was Judge St. Eve moved by Cortz's other claim, that Murphy used trade secrets of Cortz in negotiating vendor prices. (His prior job was purchasing, so apparently his knowledge of vendor costs was the motivating force here.) The factual basis for this claim, to be frank, is so hopelessly unintelligible that it might not be worth even reading it. (Still, if you care to do so, the link to the opinion is available here.)

Thankfully, the case was dismissed shortly after this injunction hearing. What exactly did Cortz get out of this? A totally silly lawsuit that probably cost it $150,000? For what gain? So it could thump its chest and blow off some steam? There's not a single fact in here suggesting financial loss much less an actionable claim of wrongdoing. Not one fact even hints at a threat of trade-secret misappropriation, or even opaque, intangible harm.

This is quite similar to two separate cases I've had this year, both of which ended unceremoniously in dismissal orders. One was a deal-based NDA where the plaintiff dicked around with the unambiguous language of a non-solicitation covenant during litigation, tried to twist it into something totally at odds with the plain terms of the agreement, and then suffered a quick defeat. The other was a case involving claimed trade secrets over knowledge of vendor costs - once again with no evidence of misappropriation. That case, too, ended quickly.

Knowing that other clients and lawyers have to defend such trifling drivel is something I can take comfort in. But it does not make it any more acceptable or tolerable. Cortz, and its counsel, are lucky this thing ended with no fee-shifting.

Waymo-Uber Litigation

Speaking of lawsuits gone bad, Uber's counsel did not have a good week.

In the trade-secrets trial of the century, Judge Alsup delayed the start of Waymo v. Uber indefinitely. The reason: Uber allegedly failed to disclose to Waymo evidence that suggests a corporate culture hell-bent on misappropriating trade secrets of rivals. It is never good, of course, when the judge tells you: "on the surface, it looks like you covered this up."

But so said Judge Alsup after a pre-trial evidentiary hearing that featured an ex-Uber employee named Richard Jacobs testifying about internal business practices at Uber that were, charitably put, shady. He testified, for instance, that Uber instructed employees to use disappearing chat apps and sent employees to bootcamp in Pittsburgh (of all places) and taught them how to impede and obstruct legal investigations.

The testimony, and forthcoming discovery, is highly relevant because it calls into question Uber's position that it has not used any of the allegedly confidential files taken by Waymo's ex-engineer, Anthony Levandowski, before he joined Uber. That said, Jacobs had no knowledge of Uber using any of Waymo's stolen files. Still, many trade-secrets cases are about circumstantial, not direct, evidence. And what Jacobs said certainly strengthens Waymo's case.

The sordid tale is making the rounds in all major news outlets. But I recommend The New York Times piece here and CNBC's coverage here.

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