Massachusetts Trade Secret Protections Are Given Big Boost

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.