BRR’s 50 State Noncompete Chart UPDATED

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BRR 50 State Noncompete Chart 20130814The BRR 50 State Noncompete Chart has been updated to reflect various changes in statutory or case law, as well as clarifications of existing laws. Click here to get the latest version.

Obama Administration Issues New Strategic Plan for Intellectual Property Enforcement

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In February 2013, the Obama Administration issued Administration Strategy on Mitigating the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets. Part of that plan included the Administration’s solicitation of public comment. I, like a handful of others (13 of us in total), submitted comments. My  summary comments are available here (the PDF at the bottom (and here) has my full submission); links to all 13 submissions are available here.

On Thursday (June 20, 2013), the Obama Administration issued its 2013 Strategic Plan for Intellectual Property Enforcement. As explained by U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator Victoria Espinel, the Strategic Plan “builds on our efforts to protect intellectual property to date, and provides a roadmap for our work over the next three years.”

Ms. Espinel described in her blog how the new Strategic Plan fits in with prior plans as follows:

Since the first Joint Strategic Plan was released in 2010, the Administration has made tremendous progress in intellectual property enforcement. Coordination and efficiency of the Federal agencies has improved; U.S law enforcement has increased significantly and we have successfully worked with Congress to improve our legislation. We have increased our focus on trade secret theft and economic espionage that give foreign governments and companies an unfair competitive advantage by stealing our technology. We have pressed our trading partners to do more to improve enforcement of all types of intellectual property. We have encouraged the private sector to do more on a voluntary basis to make online infringement less profitable as a business, consistent with due process, free speech, privacy interests of users, competition law and protecting legitimate uses of the Internet.

Of particular relevance to trade secrets lawyers, Ms. Espinel focused on legislation as follows: “We will review our domestic legislation to make sure it is effective and up-to-date.”

As many readers of this blog know, there has already been some activity on that front with respect to the Economic Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. See here.

Stay tuned for more. v. Powers’s Lessons for Us All

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GoogleScreen Shot 2013-01-05 at 10.19.17 AMI have at least had a chance to read the December 27, 2012 decision of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington in v. Powers, granting in part and denying in part Amazon’s request for a preliminary injunction against one of its former executives, Daniel Powers.

The case involves a high level former Amazon employee, Mr. Powers, subject to the typical restrictive covenants (nondisclosure, no-raid, nonsolicitation, noncompete, and invention assignment). Mr. Powers was responsible for sales of Amazon cloud computing services. Mr. Powers was terminated from Amazon and, importantly, took nothing. (This is always best practice for a departing employee.) Nor did he have plans to work elsewhere at the time that he was terminated.

Three months later, Mr. Powers joined Google. Google and Mr. Powers agreed that Mr. Powers would not: refer to cloud computing in his title until the end of 2012 (i.e., about 6 months after his termination); be involved with cloud computing for 6 months (i.e., for 9 months after his termination); use or disclose Amazon’s confidential information; work with Amazon’s customers for 6 months (i.e., for 9 months after his termination); and be involved with the hiring of Amazon’s employees for 12 months from his termination.

Google’s and Powers’ voluntary restrictions were insufficient for Amazon. Amazon sued in Washington state court. Mr. Powers removed the case to the Western District.

The case is interesting for many reasons, including those identified by Ken Vanko in his post on Legal Developments in Non-Competition Agreements. Here are five of the reasons:

First, the Court, somewhat surprisingly, denied Amazon’s request for a preliminary injunction to protect its confidential information.

The Court’s decision in this regard was based on the following factors: (1) Amazon was unable to definitively identify what specific knowledge is “still” in Mr. Power’s memory without discovery, which Amazon declined to do before the preliminary injunction hearing, and (2) Mr. Powers and his new employer (Google) agreed to “virtually every restriction Amazon seeks in its injunction . . . .” The defendants’ voluntary commitment to protect the information was seen by the Court as establishing that Amazon was unlikely to prove that Mr. Powers would use confidential information (even if Amazon had been able to prove that Mr. Powers still remembered confidential information). Factual scenarios like this are quite common and frequently come out the other way, with the Court granting an injunction protecting confidential information.

Second, the Court’s analysis of the lack of proof of trade secrets provides a cautionary tale. Specifically, with regard to the issue of the existence of protectable trade secrets, the Court stated as follows:

Amazon did not ask to file any evidence under seal, suggesting that it believes the court will divine what information is a trade secret from [a] public declaration [of one of its employees]. Having scoured that declaration, the court is unable to do so. The court acknowledges that it is likely that Mr. Powers learned information that would qualify as a trade secret while he was at Amazon. See RCW § 19.108.010(4) (defining trade secret as a information that derives “independent economic value” from being neither known nor readily ascertainable and that is subject to reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy). But if there is trade secret information that Mr. Powers could still be expected to know, Amazon has not identified it.

The takeaway from that paragraph is to take heed of the seemingly increasing trend of courts (not just in the 9th Circuit) to require early particularization of trade secrets (and, of course, a corresponding willingness to accept the alleged secrets under seal).

Third, the Court deftly avoided deciding whether Washington has or has not recognized the inevitable disclosure doctrine – an area of the law receiving significant attention in many recent decisions. Despite the Court’s avoidance of the issue, it nevertheless made the following cautionary observation (for others to take note of in the future):

Were inevitable disclosure as easy to establish as Amazon suggests in its motion, then a nondisclosure agreement would become a noncompetition agreement of infinite duration. . . . Washington law does not permit that result.

Fourth, the Court’s analysis of the nonsolicitation (of customers) restriction was quite thorough and informative. Specifically, the Court first observed that Washington courts are more apt to enforce a nonsolicitation agreement than a noncompete agreement, because the nature of the restriction on the employee is less severe. However, in shorting to nine months the 18-month stated duration of the restriction, the Court’s analysis was as follows:

This is not a case where Mr. Powers seeks to leap from Amazon immediately to Google with his former customers in tow. He stopped working with Amazon customers more than six months ago. There is no evidence he has had contact with any of them since then. There is no direct evidence that he intends to pursue business with any of them. The only indirect evidence that he has interest in contacting his former customers is that he has chosen to fight Amazon’s efforts to enforce the Agreement. Although the personal aspects of his relationships with his former customers might be expected to endure for more than six months, they might just as well extend even beyond the 18-months that the Agreement provides. Amazon has not explained why it selected an 18-month period, nor has it disputed Mr. Powers’ suggestion that the Agreement he signed is a “form” agreement that Amazon requires virtually every employee to sign. Because Amazon makes no effort to tailor the duration of its competitive restrictions to individual employees, the court is not inclined to defer to its one-size-fits-all contractual choices. Amazon has not convinced the court that the aspects of Mr. Powers’ relationships with customers that depend on confidential Amazon information are still viable today.

The influence that each of those facts (the six month period before Mr. Powers joined Google; his lack of communication; the “evidence” of his interest in contacting the clients; the potential longevity of the client relationships; the “form” nature of the agreement; and the absence of confidential information) had on the Court’s decision should be instructive to those of us facing these issues in Washington (and elsewhere). Each raises all sorts of questions.

Focusing, for example, on the longevity of the relationship as compared with the duration of the restriction. That issue exists not just with customer relationships, but with confidential information and trade secrets protectable through noncompetes. In fact, one of the criticisms of noncompetes is that they are not coterminous with the life of the trade secrets. Good luck to Coca-Cola enforcing a noncompete until the secret formula to Coke is revealed. It won’t happen. Nor, I suspect, would a court refuse to enforce Coca-Cola’s secret formula based noncompete simply because the secret formula would outlive the restriction.

Well, then, why should a nonsolicitation agreement be circumscribed because the goodwill may extend longer than the restriction? While it’s easy to understand modifying (i.e., shortening) the duration when the restriction would outlive its utility, it’s hard to understand shortening it because the restriction isn’t long enough. Does this suggest that the Court would be receptive to a defense in the context of a noncompete on the ground that the trade secrets protected by the noncompete will outlast the restriction, so the restriction is unnecessary? Unclear.

And, fifth, similar to Ken’s point, the Court’s analysis of the noncompete is instructive. The Court reasoned as follows:

Its ban on working with former customers serves to protect the goodwill it has built up with specific businesses. A general ban on Mr. Powers’ competing against Amazon for other cloud computing customers is not a ban on unfair competition, it is a ban on competition generally. Amazon cannot eliminate skilled employees from future competition by the simple expedient of hiring them. To rule otherwise would give Amazon far greater power than necessary to protect its legitimate business interest. No Washington court has enforced a restriction that would effectively eliminate a former employee from a particular business sector. This court will not be the first, particularly where Amazon has not provided enough detail about the nature of AWS’s cloud computing business to convince it that an employee like Mr. Powers can only compete with AWS by competing unfairly.

The two aspects of the decision that seem atypical are that: (1) the Court used the nonsolicitation covenant to undermine the noncompete; and (2) the Court refused – under the particular facts presented – to bar Mr. Powers from a particular business sector. While both can be seen as a mere failing of the sufficiency of Amazon’s evidence, they seem to be more; they seem to suggest an overall reluctance by the Court to enforce noncompete agreements – especially where Washington is a reformation state (meaning that the courts can essentially rewrite a restriction to make it reasonable).

Stay tuned to see how the law develops in Washington (and elsewhere). It should be interesting!

Trade Secret | Noncompete – Issues and Cases in the News – October-November 2012

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Once again, this installment of “Trade Secret | Noncompete Issues and Cases in the News” is my vacation readings update. There is again a lot here! Enjoy…

Federal/Antitrust: In October 2009, Computerworld published an article of mine entitled, “No-poach agreements: A new generation of restriction.” The article discussed a no-poach agreement used by several large high tech companies (Adobe Systems, Inc., Apple Inc., Google Inc., Intel Corp., Intuit Inc. and Pixar) to refrain from soliciting the other’s employees. As I (here) and many others discussed at the time, this agreement led to an antitrust settlement with the DOJ in 2010. Now, as reported by CBS, the DOJ is at it again: “Justice Department sues eBay over non-compete agreement.” A copy of the DOJ complaint is here.

Federal/CFAA: As expected, there is finally a petition to the United States Supreme Court about the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Following the 4th Circuit’s decision in WEC Carolina Energy Solutions LLC v. Miller, two circuits (the 4th and 9th) have employed a narrow interpretation of the CFAA, while four other circuits (the 1st, 5th, 7th, and 11th) have taken a more broad approach.

Federal/ERISA: Occasionally, ERISA issues pop up in noncompete cases. That is exactly what happened in Pactiv Corp v. Rupert, in which the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois held that a noncompete agreement sought to be imposed to receive severance benefits was not required by the ERISA severance plan and therefore the former employee was entitled to the benefits. For more reading, see “ERISA Severance Plans and Non-Compete Agreements Must Work Together,” by Peter Land.


Georgia: The Georgia Court of Appeals granted summary judgment in Contract Furniture Refinishing & Maintenance Corp. v. Remanufacturing & Design Group, LLC, reminding practitioners how difficult it can be to show actual proof of trade secret misappropriation. For more reading, see Burr & Forman’s post, “The Difficulty of Proving Trade Secret Violations.”

Illinois: How far can you go when investigating the conduct of a former employee suspected of breaching his noncompete? That answer just got a bit more complicated in Illinois, which, in Lawlor v. North American Corporation of Illinois (October 18, 2012), has now recognized a claim for intrusion upon seclusion (basically an invasion of privacy claim). Long-time noncompete blogger, Ken Vanko, discusses the case here: “Supreme Court of Illinois Recognizes Intrusion Upon Seclusion Tort in Non-Compete Investigation.”


  • About a year and a half ago, I posted about a hairstylist who was enjoined from competing with his former employer-hair salon, Zona Corp. (See “Hairdresser Takes a Haircut”.) Last month, however, a different Massachusetts judge went the other way in Invidia, LLC v. DiFonzo, raising the very question that I (and many others) were asking about the Zona Salon case: Who owns the goodwill in the context of a hairstylist? The Invidia Court determined that the employer failed to show that it was its goodwill. For more, see “Engaging Facebook Friends Doesn’t Violate Non-Solicitation Clause.”

Michigan: What happens when you have the following facts: A nondisclosure agreement; no noncompete; an employee who acts properly upon departure (returning all information, etc.); and a decrease in your business? Nothing.  Well, at least according to a recent decision by the Court of Appeals of Michigan in Michigan One Funding, LLC v. MacLean (September 20, 2012). For more reading, see “Preventing an Employee From Working for a Competitor Unravels without an Enforceable Noncompete Agreement.”

Minnesota: When enforcing restrictive covenants, the difficulty is often obtaining evidence of a true risk of harm before discovery has taken place. In Sempris, LLC. V. Watson (D. Minn. Oct. 22, 2012), the federal District Court denied a temporary restraining order based on the plaintiff’s failure to provide evidence of an imminent threat, as opposed to speculative or remote future harm. For more reading, see Paul Freehling’s post, “Speculative Fears Insufficient for Non-Compete Temporary Restraining Order Against Former Employee.”

Missouri: Choice of law provision selecting Missouri (where plaintiff was located) over Oklahoma (which like California and North Dakota, bars employee noncompetes and where defendants were located and where most of the conduct occurred) was enforced by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in TLC Vision (USA) Corp. v. Freeman (E.D. Missouri Nov. 2, 2012). For more reading, see “Non-Compete Cases and Choice of Law: A Recent Case From Missouri,” by Jonathan Pollard.

New York: In perhaps the first 2nd Circuit decision to directly “address[] when enforcement of a covenant restricting competition may irreparably injure a former employee,” the Court held that “[d]ifficulty in obtaining a job is undoubtedly an injury, but it is not an irreparable one” when “monetary damages will compensate [the plaintiff] adequately . . . .”  Hyde v. KLS Professional Advisors Group, LLC (October 12, 2012). Given the 2nd Circuit’s pronouncement that “irreparable harm [is] the ‘single most important prerequisite for the issuance of a preliminary injunction,’” this decision should have significant implications for noncompete cases in the federal courts in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.

Oklahoma: Rarely do restrictive covenant cases or trade secret cases proceed much beyond the injunction stage. When they do, the fight can be over permanent injunctive relief, damages, or both. Even then, damages are typically lost profits or disgorgement of profits. Sometimes, however, damages can be a reasonable royalty. That was the case in Skycam, LLC v. Bennett. There, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma found injunctive relief to be against public policy, given limited competition, and instead ordered royalty payments – an initial payment of $1,000,000 plus $5,000 per use for the 3.5 years it would have taken the defendants to independently create the misappropriated information.

Ohio: As you may recall, in the September 2012 issue of “Trade Secret | Noncompete – Issues and Cases in the News,” I noted that, on July 25, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a decision agreeing to reconsider its May 24 Acordia of Ohio, L.L.C. v. Fishel decision, which took a dim view of assignment of noncompete clauses. Well, the Court did review its decision. And it reversed it! Here is the new (presumably final) view of the Ohio Supreme Court: Acordia II (October 11, 2012), courtesy of my friend and prolific blogger, John Marsh.

South Carolina: In another trade secret trial, judgment entered for over $4.6 million against a former employee who was found to have misappropriated trade secrets and breached his fiduciary duties. See, “Greenville Businessman Ordered to Pay $4.6 Million for Taking Trade Secrets, Breaching Fiduciary Duty.”

Virginia: As the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently made clear in JTH Tax, Inc. v. Noor (September 26, 2012), failure to comply with an injunction requiring the return of trade secrets can have significant consequences, including an extension of the injunction. (Thank you to Jim Irving, who posted a link to the case in the LinkedIn Noncompete Lawyers group.)

Wisconsin: What happens to a plaintiff’s claim for misappropriation of trade secrets when the secret becomes publicly known? Nothing – at least according to a decision by the Eastern District of Wisconsin denying a motion to dismiss in Encap v. The Scotts Company. Well, to be clear, “nothing” in the sense that the claim survives a motion to dismiss when the information constituted a trade secret at the time of the misappropriation.  There’s no real surprise here; the cause of action is assessed as of the time the cause accrues; the fact that the circumstances later change does not affect the existence of the cause of action. (Damages may be another issue – assuming, of course, that the misappropriator was not the party that publicly disclosed the information.)


  • It’s always big news when employees of large companies are indicted for trade secret theft, especially when China is somehow involved. But, rarely do people report when those cases fail. So, kudos to The Trade Secrets Vault, Bloomberg, HudsonHubTimes, Alison Grant (writing for here) and several others, all of whom reported that the former Bridgestone employee (Xiaorong Wang) accused of misappropriating Bridgestone’s secrets for the benefit of a Chinese company has been cleared.
  • John Marsh has an in-depth post on the latest in the Kolon/DuPont trade secrets dispute, the title of which begins, “The Kolonoscopy Continues . . . .” (The title is perfect, as is John’s discussion of the status.)

Related Items of Interest:

Trade Secret | Noncompete – Issues and Cases in the News – September 2012

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It seems that, lately, each installment of Trade Secret | Noncompete Issues and Cases in the News could be called, “What I read over my vacation.” As was inevitably the case, given the time between posts, there is again a lot here! Enjoy…

Please note that there are some things that require action, in particular, in New Hampshire, so, if you read nothing else, please check the jurisdictions in which you do business.

Federal/EEA: Some of the big news on the federal side: There is a renewed effort to bolster the Economic Espionage Act. For the latest, see: US House Passes Tougher IP Theft Bill (discussing the Foreign and Economic Espionage Penalty Enhancement Act of 2012, which would increase penalties for trade secret theft) and Senators Kohl and Coons Announce the Protecting American Trade Secrets and Innovation Act of 2012: Can they Get It Done This Time? (discussing the creation of a federal trade secret private right of action).

4th Circuit/CFAA: The split in the circuits on the issue of the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act continues to grow as the 4th Circuit adopts the 9th Circuit’s narrow reading of the Act in WEC Carolina Energy Solutions LLC v. Miller. For an excellent discussion, see the Circuit | Splits blog’s post, “4th Circuit Deepens Division Over Scope of Computer Fraud & Abuse Act.” Keep your eyes on this issue for a petition to the Supreme Court (even though, as Brian Bialas notes here, the US Solicitor General did not petition for review of the Nosal case).

Arizona: The 9th Circuit, in Management and Engineering Technologies International, Inc. v. Information Systems Support, Inc., interpreting Arizona’s version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, held (based on the facts of the case) that a plaintiff’s roster of employees is not a trade secret. For a discussion of the case, see UnIntellectual Property.

California: As most experienced trade secret / noncompete lawyers know, California has a strong public policy against noncompetes (and nonsolicitation agreements, etc.), with few exceptions. In a recent case, Fillpoint, LLC v. Maas (August 24, 2012), the California Court of Appeals (Fourth Appellate District) provided some recent clarification on the exceptions. For an excellent summary, see California Court Strikes Down Post-Employment Non-Compete Agreement, Raising Questions about the Validity of Employee Non-Solicits.

Georgia: On June 24, the 11th Circuit issued an unpublished decision (Becham v. Crosslink Orthopaedics, LLC) in which the Court made clear that the Georgia Legislature’s initial efforts to change Georgia’s noncompete law effective November 3, 2010 were unconstitutional; the law applies only prospectively, starting May 11, 2011. Accordingly, agreements entered into prior to May 11, 2011, are subject to Georgia’s prior (much more noncompete-unfriendly) law. For an excellent discussion of the case, read Benjamin Fink and Neal Weinrich’s post, An Important Development Regarding Georgia’s New Restrictive Covenants Law, on Georgia Non-Compete and Trade Secret News.

Iowa: In a recent, very fact-driven case involving the intersection of open records laws and trade secrets laws (see “Trade Secrets at the Intersection with Public Records” in a prior “Noncompete – Issues and Cases in the News” post), the Iowa Supreme Court held that trade secret protection was not available to a filmmaker’s budget summaries where the filmmaker was receiving tax credits. See Film Budget Summaries Are Not Trade Secrets.

Massachusetts: A recent decision, U.S. Electrical Services, Inc. v. Schmidt, from Judge Casper of the United States District Court provides a great summary of the distinction between the inevitable disclosure doctrine as a trade secret concept (used to get an injunction in the absence of a noncompete) on the one hand and using the likelihood of “inevitable disclosure” as the standard determining whether the breach of a noncompete is likely to cause irreparable harm to a former employer.  This distinction is often overlooked, and the concepts easily confused, so the case is definitely worth a read. In addition, it’s also interesting in that Judge Casper observes that Massachusetts has not adopted the inevitable disclosure doctrine, and then, nevertheless, analyzes the facts under the doctrine. For more discussion, see “Ex-employees’ work for competitor OK, Inevitable disclosure doctrine inapplicable,” in New England In-House.

Missouri: The latest statement by the Missouri Supreme Court (in Whelan Security Co. v. Kennebrew) on Missouri noncompete law. To hear the oral arguments or read the briefs, click here.

Nevada: The United States District Court for the District of Nevada held in Switch Communications Group v. Ballard that the plaintiff must first identify trade secrets with reasonable particularity before the defendant would be required to respond to discovery.

New Hampshire: There is both a very important statutory noncompete development and an interesting Computer Fraud and Abuse Act decision in New Hampshire recently.

Statutory Development: Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I have been assisting Representative Lori Ehrlich and Senator Will Brownsberger on the Massachusetts noncompete bill for the past several years. Well, while Massachusetts has been working on a comprehensive review, clarification, and overhaul of its noncompete laws, New Hampshire took a more streamlined approach and, as of July 14, 2012, will require advance notice of noncompetes and “non-piracy” agreements.

Companies need to comply now; comport your practices to the statute immediately. This affects new hires and existing employees.

The operative text of the law is as follows (and a link to the law in its entirety is available here):

Prior to or concurrent with making an offer of change in job classification or an offer of employment, every employer shall provide a copy of any non-compete or non-piracy agreement that is part of the employment agreement to the employee or potential employee. Any contract that is not in compliance with this section shall be void and unenforceable.

Now for the questions… While the statute was obviously intended to prevent the circumstance where an employee does not learn that he will be bound by restrictive covenants until he commences work (or some time after), by not defining key terms, the statute seems to have created quite a few uncertainties.  For example, does “non-compete” mean just a traditional noncompete or does it include garden leave clauses? Given that people often use the term “noncompete” to mean nonsolicitation agreements as well, as are those included?  What about nondisclosure agreements (which are also sometimes grouped in as “noncompetes”)? What is a non-piracy agreement? (Typically, that is a restriction on raiding employees, although it may be more likely that in New Hampshire it will be interpreted as an agreement not to solicit customers.) What about the meaning of a “change in job classification”? Is it a promotion? Is a change in title sufficient? Is it classification for wage laws? Will a significant raise be enough? If it is only some limited circumstance, what happens if a company legitimately needs to require a noncompete after an employee is working, but there is no “change in job classification,” does that mean no noncompete? What will happen to other (less restrictive) types of restrictive covenants, such as forfeiture agreements, forfeiture for competition agreements, nondisclosure agreements, etc.?

CFAA Decision: The United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire in Wentworth-Douglass Hospital v. Young & Novis Professional Association has, despite First Circuit precedent (in EF Cultural Travel BV v. Explorica, Inc.) seemingly to the contrary, applied a narrow interpretation to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Ohio: Two recent cases from Ohio are very interesting:

  • As discussed previously here (see Ohio section), the Ohio Supreme Ohio Supreme Court, on May 24, 2012, issued a decision (Acordia of Ohio, L.L.C. v. Fishel) on a significnt issue that is unsettled in many states: The assignability (typically in a corporate merger or acquisition) of an employee noncompete. In short, the Ohio Supreme Court held that to be assignable, noncompetes must say so. However, on July 25, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a decision agreeing to reconsider its decision. Stay tuned!

Invention Assignment Agreements: Invention assignment agreements are agreements where, typically, an employee will assign to his employer all rights to virtually anything he “invents” (or even thinks of in the shower) during the time of his employment, and frequently for a period after. There are very few cases addressing these agreements. However, recently, there were three: one in Wyoming, one in South Carolina, and one in Massachusetts.

I previously covered (with relevant links) the Wyoming case here. For an excellent analysis of the South Carolina case, see Ken Vanko’s post, Supreme Court of South Carolina Address Validity of Invention Assignment Clause.

In the Massachusetts case (Grocela v. The General Hospital Corporation), the Superior Court (Lauriat, J.), considered a physician’s claim that an invention assignment agreement – requiring Grocela to assign to Massachusetts General Hospital any inventions “that arise out of or relate to [his] clinical, research, educational or other activities . . . at [MGH]” – was unenforceable. The Court started from the premise that, “In general, the ‘law looks upon an invention as the property of the one who conceived, developed and perfected it, and establishes, protects and enforces the inventor’s rights in his invention unless he has contracted away those rights.’” The Court did, however, then consider issues of reasonableness, though not going so far as applying (expressly, at least) the standard reasonableness test (time, place, scope, narrowly tailored to protect legitimate business interests) typically applicable to restrictive covenants (which include invention assignment agreements). In the end, the Court found the assignment enforceable.


Related Items of Interest:

New Jersey Adopts Uniform Trade Secrets Act

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There have been lots of legislative changes in the offing. One of them was New Jersey’s adoption of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Well, it is now official. Governor Christie has signed it. That leaves just Massachusetts, New York, and Texas as the only non-UTSA states.

For a nice summary of the new law, see Scutari’s ‘New Jersey Trade Secrets Act’ Now Law.

Sex Sells – And It’s A Trade Secret

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This year saw not one, but two cases involving allegations of trade secret misappropriation and breach of noncompete agreements by companies typically known for things other than their trade secrets.

The first was at the end of September 2011, when Hooters – yes, Hooters – sued a competitor (though not the departing employee, curiously enough) for, among other things, misappropriation of trade secrets, violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and tortious interference. The complaint is here, and a nice summary by Michael Greco is here.

The second was in December, when an espresso bar, Foxy Lady (in Washington state), sued a former barista and her new employer, Knotty Bodies, for misappropriation  of trade secrets, breach of a noncompete agreement, and tortious interference. The amended complaint is here, and a summary is here.

Massachusetts Trade Secret Protections Are Given Big Boost

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There has been much uncertainty in Massachusetts about whether and under what circumstances a claim under G.L. c. 93A (for those not from Massachusetts, that’s our unfair competition statute, which provides for the recovery of multiple damages and attorneys’ fees) exists against an employee who takes his former employer’s trade secrets to a new venture and uses them there. A recent decision from the Massachusetts Appeals Court seems to open the door to such claims. (Unless you are a lawyer, you will probably want to stop here.)

The problem started in 1983 with a case from our highest court (the Supreme Judicial Court, or “SJC”) called Manning v. Zuckerman. In that case – which was not a trade secrets case – the SJC made it clear that 93A does not apply to disputes arising out of an employment relationship. That seemed clear enough.

But, the very next year, the Appeals Court decided Peggy Lawton Kitchens, Inc. v. Hogan. Hogan, an employee of the plaintiff, had taken the plaintiff’s secret recipe for cookies and left to start a competing business using the plaintiff’s recipe. From the moment you start reading the decision, you know exactly how the case is going to come out; the decision starts, “Nothing is sacred.” Of course, the court holds that the plaintiff’s 93A claims against its former employee (and his new company) are proper.

The court’s decision is important in two respects: First, as to the defendant company (which the former employee had started with the intent of competing with the plaintiff), the court concluded that, because the company was never an employee of the plaintiff, Manning v. Zuckerman did not apply and the claim under 93A could therefore proceed. Second, as to Hogan, the court says, “Hogan’s use of Kitchens’ trade secret was made when he was no longer an employee of Kitchens. Hogan’s argument crumbles.”

The distinction (that 93A could be applied to conduct that took place after employment ended) lasted about 12 years.

In 1996, the Appeals Court decided Informix, Inc. v. Rennell. There, the court held that it did not matter whether the conduct occurred during or after employment. In this regard, the court stated, “Manning held simply that any claim arising from the employment relationship was not actionable under c. 93A; it imposed no limitation that the employment relationship be ongoing.” Further, the Informix court distinguished Peggy Lawton Kitchens on the basis that the claim in Informix was based on a nondisclosure agreement, whereas there was no such agreement in Peggy Lawton Kitchens, and therefore the claim in Peggy Lawton Kitchens was independent of the employer/employee relationship.

One might wonder at this point why the Appeals Court in Informix did not simply deny the 93A claim based on the nondisclosure agreement, but then allow a claim based on the common law and statutory obligations of all persons (not just employees) not to misappropriate trade secrets – but it did not. Presumably, the court’s rationale was based on the procedural posture of the case and the fact that the claim was based “solely” on the parties’ contract.

Since then, trial courts have been wrestling with these two decisions and trying to square them.

For example, in Professional Staffing Group, Inc. v. Champigny (in 2004), the Superior Court reasoned as follows:

Informix conflicts with the decision of Peggy Lawton Kitchen’s, Inc. v. Hogan. The panel reasoned that no express confidentiality or noncompetition agreement existed between Peggy Lawton Kitchen’s, Inc. and Hogan. However no doubt arises from the Peggy Lawton Kitchens decision that the wrongful misappropriation of trade secret information arose from the employment relationship. . . . Moreover the absence of an explicit employment contract is not essential to impose duties of loyalty upon a former trusted employee. The Massachusetts common law implies a covenant or promise of the trusted employee not to divulge trade secret or proprietary information. See Jet Spray Cooler v. Crampton, 361 Mass. 835, 839 (1972), and cases cited.

Having disposed of the notion that the existence or absence of a contract is controlling, the court then came back to the temporal distinction:

The other ground of distinction [from Peggy Lawton Kitchens] asserted by the Informix panel is that the theft of trade secrets constitutes a wrong independently of an employment relationship and will be separately actionable under 93A. Nothing in the Peggy Lawton decision suggests such a special rule. Rather the Peggy Lawton panel concluded that the exemption from 93A for wrongdoing arising from an employment relationship was inapplicable for temporal reasons. “Moreover, Hogan’s use of Kitchens’ trade secret was made when he was no longer an employee of Kitchen’s.” Id. at 940 (emphasis added).

It is on that temporal basis that the Superior Court in Professional Staffing Group found that 93A can apply to an employee’s misappropriation of trade secrets: “[H]ere, we are addressing conduct occurring long after the termination of the employment relationship between the contesting parties.” The court then went on to conclude that “Informix is a mechanical overextension of Manning” and “appears to drift away from the anchoring principle of c. 93A . . . .” In the end, however, after offering a few public policy reasons for applying 93A to this type of claim, the court observed that, following trial, there will be a complete record so that the issue can be reviewed on appeal. However, no appellate decision followed.

Another oft-cited case addressing this issue is TalentBurst, Inc. v. Collabera, Inc. That case relies on yet another case (Intertek Testing Servs. NA, Inc. v Curtis-Strauss LLC from Judge Gants while in the Superior Court, now on the SJC) and concludes that the Professional Staffing Group decision was distinguishable on the ground that it involved a counterclaim by the employee (rather than a claim by the former employer).

Such was the state of affairs until recently.

Enter Specialized Technology Resources, Inc. v. JPS Elastomerics Corp. (November 23, 2011), an Appeals Court decision, perhaps shedding some additional light on its two prior rulings (Informix and Peggy Lawton Kitchens). The sum total of the court’s discussion of those cases and 93A is as follows:

Applicability of c. 93A. The defendants separately assert that c. 93A is inapplicable to [plaintiff's] claim in the present case, as it arises out of an employer-employee relationship between [plaintiff] and [defendant] Galica. See Manning v. Zuckerman, 388 Mass. 8, 12-15 (1983); Informix, Inc. v. Rennell, 41 Mass. App. Ct. 161, 163 (1996). However, [defendant company] was never an employee of [plaintiff]. See Augat, Inc. v. Aegis, Inc. 409 Mass. 165, 172 (1991); S.C., 417 Mass. 484 (1994); Peggy Lawton Kitchens, Inc. v. Hogan, 18 Mass. App. Ct. 937, 940 (1984). More to the point, though Galica obtained the trade secret during his employment with [plaintiff] and was bound by a confidentiality agreement as part of his employment contract, his misappropriation of the trade secret was actionable independent of his contractual obligations and accordingly may support a claim under c. 93A. See Peggy Lawton Kitchens, Inc. v. Hogan, supra; Informix, Inc. v. Rennell, supra at 163 n.2. The former employer-employee relationship between [plaintiff] and Galica does not stand as a bar to [plaintiff's] c. 93A claim against either Galica or [his new employer].

In short, it appears that the court’s rationale is that, while the misappropriation of trade secrets may constitute a breach of an employee nondisclosure agreement, which cannot serve as a predicate to a 93A claim, the same conduct can also constitute a separate and independent wrong (presumably because it violates trade secret laws – as opposed to the fiduciary duty of loyalty referenced in Professional Staffing Group) that is actionable under 93A.

It bears mention that the decision is also very interesting insofar as it holds that a judge may ignore a jury’s findings when deciding a 93A claim and allows two different injunctive remedies for the defendants’ misappropriation of trade secrets.

More Federal Protections For Trade Secrets?

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About two years ago, my partner Steve Riden and I wrote a blog post on my old blog (the Trade Secrets / Noncompete Blog) entitled, Back to the Basics… The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The post was a brief summary of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 U.S.C.  § 1030), which was really designed to protect against computer hackers (a la War Games), but which has begun to be used with more frequency in trade secret cases.

About the same time, one of my former colleagues, Jeff Kopp, discussed a split among federal courts concerning the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, specifically, whether it applies to employees who exceed the scope of their authorization to use their employer’s (or former employer’s) computers. See Federal Courts Split on Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Others have raised concerns that the statute could make it illegal for someone surfing the Internet to exceed the terms of service of websites they visit.

Now, Congress is considering amending the bill. (This is separate from congressional efforts to expand the Economic Espionage Act. See Economic Espionage Act Update and A Federal Trade Secret Act?)

On September 15, 2011, the Senate Judiciary Committee considered a bill that would limit the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act so that it would not apply to exceeding the scope of website terms of service. See Bill Tweaked in Senate: Terms of Service no Longer Terms of Felony.

On November 15, 2011, Richard Downing, Deputy Chief of the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, Criminal Division, provided testimony before the House Committee on Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and National Security. His testimony is reflected in “Cybersecurity: Protecting America’s New Frontier” and advocates expanding (or at least not curtailing) the scope of the statute and is very similar to that provided by James A. Baker, Associate Deputy Attorney General, presented on September 7: here.

In short, Deputy Chief Downing suggested several specific ways to clarify to the statute (which, as noted in my prior blog post, is not the picture of clarity) and enhance the protections afforded by the statute. While his suggestions largely focused on the criminal side of the statute, he did also advocate for a broad civil interpretation of the bill, i.e., having it reach employees who exceed their authorized use of their employer’s computers and as well as Internet users who exceed the scope of the terms of service of websites they visit.

Time will tell whether, and if so how, the statute will be amended. I am predicting that it will be amended and that – at least on the criminal side – it will not be limited.

Trade Secret | Noncompete – Issues and Cases in the News

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This post provides a summary of noncompete and trade secret issues and cases that have arisen in the past month or so, but that I have not already addressed in recent posts. In addition to my summary, you will find links for more in-depth reading on each issue. (There’s a lot here, enjoy.)

UPDATED November 24; updates in bold.

UPDATED November 27; updates in bold/italic.

Trade Secret Cases and Issues in the News:

  • In an extremely significant decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a decision by the International Trade Commission blocking importation of products from China that were developed using trade secrets that were misappropriated overseas: Tianrui Group Co. v. International Trade Commission. (For a primer on China’s trade secret law, see here; for a brief summary of the focus on misappropriation of trade secrets to China, see here.)
  • The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a decision relating to the intersection between trade secret law and patent law: Atlantic Research Marketing Systems, Inc. v. Troy. A similar issue arose in Texas, with the court reducing from $68 million to $18 million the exemplary damages portion (separate from the $26 million compensatory damages portion) of a trade secret verdict in favor of Wellogix against Accenture. Story here. (For a brief summary of the intersection of patents and trade secrets, see here.)
  • The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act became was passed on September 16, 2011, and, as part of a sweeping overhaul to US patent law, will expand trade secret defenses to patent infringement actions.  
  • Seagate won a $525,000 trade secret award in an arbitration against Western Digital, which Seagate accused of misappropriating trade secrets through a former Seagate employee. Story here.
  • Motorola Mobility was sued by Lemko for alleged misappropriation of trade secrets relating to the location of emergency callers on a cellular network. Story here and here. The case is related to the federal criminal charges brought against the employee, who was headed to China. Story here. (Note the China connection, and see below.)
  • A blogger accused of trade secret misappropriation can keep his or her identity secret. Story here.
  • Groupon sued employees who left for Google and who allegedly took Groupon’s trade secrets with them. Story here.
  • The Uniform Trade Secrets Act has been adopted in some form or another in all states but Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. Of these states, New Jersey is closest to adopting the UTSA. See New Jersey Poised to Adopt the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. The UTSA does leave open questions about the scope of other common law claims that are still permitted. For some discussion on that issue, see here.

Noncompete Cases and Issues in the News:

  • Two recent noncompete decisions from the 1st Circuit suggest the need for revisions to certain provisions in existing Massachusetts noncompete agreements and similar restrictive covenants.
  • The Eastern District of Pennsylvania finds that the automatic stay in bankruptcy does not apply to injunctive enforcement of a noncompete: In re Stone Resources.
  • H-P loses race to courthouse (Texas vs. California) and Cisco’s GC speaks out (loudly) about H-P’s efforts to enforce its noncompetes. Story here.
  • Illinois federal court analyzes how much consideration is sufficient for a noncompete: LKQ Corp. v. Thrasher.
  • Big things are brewing: Boston Beer (Sam Adams beer maker) sued Anchor Brewing (Anchor Steam beer maker). Story here and editors’ reaction here.

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