Thursday, November 29, 2018

Case Law Update: Riding Circuit

The last few months we've seen a number of interesting decisions from the federal circuit courts of appeal, both on issues of State law and under the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act. These cases not only raise a few interesting legal issues, but they also amplify some practical concerns that lawyers and litigants should be aware of.

Soarus LLC v. Bolson Materials Int'l Corp. (Seventh Circuit)

This short decision from the Seventh Circuit stems from a short commercial non-disclosure agreement in the 3D printing industry. In essence, the dispute stemmed from a patent application carve-out to a broad confidentiality restriction. The defendant, Bolson, sought to acquire and use a type of specialty polymer in its 3D printing process, agreeing in turn with Soarus to keep information about the polymer confidential.

But the NDA contained a carve-out, which said that notwithstanding this intellectual property protection, Bolson was "free to patent and protect any new application" using the polymer in a specific type of process. Bolson in fact did so, leading Soarus to argue that Bolson breached the NDA.

The Seventh Circuit rejected Soarus' argument that no reasonably company would seek to protect confidential information around a new product and also allow that party to file information in a public document with the U.S. Patent Office. Under Illinois law, those subjective expectations could not trump an unambiguous contract provision, which the patent application carve-out was.

A relatively straightforward case of contract interpretation, to be sure. But the practical lesson is important. Commercial NDAs can arise in a number of different situations, including deal evaluations and supply arrangements. The problem is that the forms used for these situations don't necessarily translate, based on the specific business concerns underpinning the relationship. Here, Bolson and Soarus seemed to have addressed how Bolson could have used otherwise protected information in a patent filing. But a much more common situation is to have the parties sign an NDA that may have been perfectly fine for one transaction that is ill-suited to another. These particular nuances can include not only the ability to use information in patent filings, but also restrictions on which employees a party can solicit or hire, whether parties acquire any intellectual property rights or merely have the right to license them, and when the agreement expires.

NDAs are a very common commercial agreement. But the details of the restrictive clauses must align with business expectations. There is an inherent danger in simply copying a template that looks really pretty.

A copy of the opinion is available here.

Dunster Live LLC v. Lonestar Logos Management Co., LLC (Fifth Circuit)

The Defend Trade Secrets Act has only been the subject of a few circuit court decisions. In one from last year, the Tenth Circuit rejected the argument that a moving party could presume irreparable harm when evaluating a preliminary injunction predicated on a DTSA claim. And other decisions haven't told us much at all.

The DTSA reared its head again in Dunster Live LLC v. Lonestar Logos Management, but only in a cameo role. In that case, the defendant sought attorneys' fees after the plaintiff dismissed its trade secrets action without prejudice. The case stemmed from a classic business divorce, but the plaintiff soon ditched its trade secrets claim, opting to streamline its case and refile in state court. The Fifth Circuit found that the defendant was not the "prevailing party," a requirement for fee-shifting under the DTSA's bad-faith provision.

It appears the defendant raised a host of arguments for why it prevailed, but the most intriguing was the idea that the district court denied the plaintiff's preliminary injunction motion. The Fifth Circuit rejected this, holding that "prevailing party status ordinarily requires being ahead when the final whistle blows in a case, not at halftime."

Of interest to readers, the defendant racked up $600,000 in attorneys' fees before the voluntary dismissal order was entered. That's a lot, but not outrageously so if the preliminary injunction resembled a merits trial (which many do). Still, it is understandable why the defendant pulled out all the stops in seeking fees if they achieved some success short of a full win, before the plaintiff called an audible.

A copy of the opinion is available here.

Brand Services LLC v. Irex Corp. (Fifth Circuit)

The Fifth Circuit weighed in on another procedural issue under trade secrets law, one that has split courts and vexed commentators. The issue is whether the preemption clause of the uniform trade secrets act (here, the act was Louisiana's version) means that a plaintiff is barred from pursuing a civil law conversion claim for confidential information that fails to qualify as a trade secret.

In Brand Services v. Irex Corp., the court held that the preemption clause doesn't extend that far. While it's generally non-controversial that a plaintiff cannot sue for conversion of trade secrets, courts have been less willing to extend preemption to confidential information. The issue can be very confusing for lawyers and parties because it is common for claims to meld the two concepts. Often times, plaintiffs will allege something to the effect that the defendant misappropriated "confidential information, including trade secrets." Very infrequently, a plaintiff will demarcate the two in a way that allows a court to understand fully what the plaintiff is claiming as trade secrets and what it is contending as lesser-protected confidential information.

What the Fifth Circuit is saying in Brand Services is that for the latter category, a plaintiff can maintain a conversion claim for civil theft without invoking trade secrets law. That alleviates the burden of proof on some important issues, like reasonable secrecy measures. In Brand Services, the Fifth Circuit was persuaded by some intermediate appellate court law in Louisiana that took a narrower view of preemption. It bolstered its finding by looking to the text of the preemption provision, which does seem to leave open some room for common-law torts related to theft of confidential, but non-trade secret, information. For those interested in examining the range of court cases and the split of authority, footnote 4 to the Brand Services opinion contains an exhaustive range of citations.

A copy of the opinion is available here.

AirFacts, Inc. v. De Amezaga (Fourth Circuit)

The Fourth Circuit's recent opinion in AirFacts, Inc. v. De Amezaga is one of those fairly fact-intensive cases that provide only helpful guidance and not any particular rules or standards. The basic facts are fairly familiar, but for our purposes here one issue of trade secrets law caught my eye.

The employee who was sued sent himself (to a personal email account) a particular spreadsheet on his last day of employment. Part of the employer's trade-secret claim hinged on this fact. The key question: did that act rise to the level of misappropriation (for the document itself earned trade secret status)?

Here, a number of facts compelled the circuit court to adopt the district court's finding of no misappropriation. Those facts were:

  • The employee's supervisors told him they might contact him if they had questions about his work;
  • The employee testified this is why he sent the spreadsheet to his personal e-mail account;
  • The trial judge found him credible.
  • The employee did not access the spreadsheet after he left and did not disclose them to any third-party;
  • Other employees regularly worked from home, which included using personal email accounts for work purposes.
This particular issue recurs time and again in departing employee scenarios, and as AirFacts demonstrates, the question of liability is intensely fact-specific. What are the lessons to be learned?

From the company's perspective, it could have dealt with this better by instituting policies and procedures that bar the use of personal email for work purposes, by clarifying the ex-employee's obligation at departure, by asking him whether he had anything in his account that was company related, and by conducting a thorough exit interview.

From the employee's perspective (though he won, he still got sued), he could have sought pre-clearance to retain the spreadsheet. That would have eliminated any factual dispute about his authority to send the document to his personal account. And he should not have deleted the sent item from his work folder, which certainly raises suspicion about his intent (though the district court didn't seem to care much).

Many disputes like this end up in court simply due to a breakdown in communication. It is pretty clear that this was not anywhere close to a theft situation. But neither party covered themselves particularly well before litigation ensued.

A copy of the opinion is available here.

No comments:

Post a Comment