Trade Secret | Noncompete – Issues and Cases in the News – April 2013 Update

extras_03True to the unfortunate limit of 24 hours in a day, my posts continue to written during my vacations. This time, given the extended delay between vacations, and therefore posts on issues and cases making trade secrets | noncompete news, I am posting just some highlights of the past few months. Here we go…

Obama Administration: In February 2013, the Obama Administration issued Administration Strategy on Mitigating the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets. In furtherance of that strategy, on March 19, 2013, the Administration solicited public comment on possible trade secrets “for an Administration legislative review related to economic espionage and trade secret theft.” The notice is available here. Comments are due by April 22, 2013. Peter Toren has commented already; his comments are here: Read My Federal Register Comments on Existing Laws Related to the Enforcement of Trade Secrets.

Second Circuit (personal jurisdiction): The Second Circuit, in a trade secrets misappropriation case, found personal jurisdiction over a former employee of a Connecticut company, who was a citizen of Canada, residing and working in Canada. The former employee was accused of misappropriating the company’s confidential information by emailing it to herself between the time she found out that she had been terminated and her last day of work. The employee’s contacts with Connecticut (and the United States) were extremely limited. However, the Court found significant that the employee’s employment agreement contained notice to the employee that the company’s email servers were located in Connecticut and that the employee could not transfer the company’s information to her personal email. The Court concluded that this language in the employment agreement put the employee on notice that any misconduct using the company’s email would be directed into Connecticut (a factor in the analysis of whether to exercise personal jurisdiction). See MacDermid, Inc. v. Deiter.

Sixth Circuit (BYOD risks): Eric Osteroff wrote a nice post on the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Kendall Holdings, Ltd. v. Eden Cryogenics, LLC concerning the perils of BYOD (bring your own device) policies. BYOD practices can have significant ramifications for trade secrets risks and need to be carefully considered in light of an overall trade secrets policy and approach. See Ken Vanko‘s post, The BYOD Thicket: Some Basic Steps to Take for BusinessesSee also My phone or yours? EEOC official provides best practices for “bring your own device” policies.

Ninth Circuit: The Mattel v. MGA saga continues, with the reversal of MGA’s $170,000,000 trade secret verdict. See Ninth Circuit Takes Away MGA’s $170 Million Trade Secret Award Against Mattel

District of Columbia: Most noncompete and trade secrets litigation starts with the sending of a “cease and desist” letter. One concern is that the sending of such a letter might, if the facts turn out to be wrong, give rise to a defamation counterclaim. However, on March 18, 2013, the United States District Court for the District of Washington rejected just such a claim. Specifically, the court held that the letter was protected by the litigation privilege, and therefore could not give rise to a defamation claim. For a discussion of the case, see Kara Maciel‘s (from my former firm, Epstein Becker & Green) post, Cease and Desist Letters Enjoy An Absolute Privilege From Libel ClaimsAs John Marsh of Hahn Loeser points out, however, the fact that a defamation claim doesn’t lie, does not equate to no risk of a tortious interference claim. Cease and Desist Letters: Defamation May Not Be An Issue But Watch Out for Tortious Interference.

Federal Circuit: The Federal Circuit in Phillip M. Adams & Assoc., LLC v. Dell Computer Corp applied the discovery rule to toll the statute of limitation in a trade secrets case. For more discussion, see Federal Circuit Addresses Uniform Trade Secrets Act Discovery Rule by Eric Ostroff.

Florida: Notwithstanding a confidentiality agreement and nonsolicitation agreement, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida (Tampa) permitted a former employee to use her former employer’s customer list to mass email an announcement (sometimes called a “wedding-style announcement”) to her former employer’s customers. See The Variable Annuity Life Insurance Company (VALIC) v. Laeng. For additional reading, see Mass-Mailing To Public Employees Did Not Violate Non-Solicitation Agreement by John Nefflen at Burr Forman.

In another interesting case, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals affirmed an injunction where the employer offered testimony establishing that it secured the noncompete to protect its goodwill, that the defendant had been offering similar services for less money, and that the employer lost business. For more, see Fox Rothchild‘s Jason Cornell‘s post, United States: Enforcing a Non-Compete Agreement in Florida: What Evidence is Relevant?

New York (CFAA): The United State District Court for the Southern District of New York has opted for the more narrow interpretation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in Advanced Aerofoil Technologies, AG v. Todaro. For more, see The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and Protecting Employer’s Electronic Data by Kristin Parsons of Burr & Forman and Another Court Construes the CFAA Narrowly and More of My Thoughts on the Statute by Ken Vanko.

New York (jurisdiction/venue): On January 10, 2013, the New York Appellate Division, First Department, in Aon Risk Services v. Cusack, rejected efforts to dismiss a noncompete case in favor of a prior filed action in California. For an in-depth discussion, see Battle Rages On In Epic Restrictive Covenant Dispute by David Clark of Epstein Becker & Green.

North Carolina: The North Carolina Court of Appeals held a noncompete in a staffing case – involving the sale of business – to be unenforceable. The agreement covers a number of legal points, any one of which would be sufficient to invalidate the agreement based on its language.  The court noted the plaintiff’s admission that there were no trade secrets or proprietary information at issue and that the employees were “general laborer[s].” The court then determined that the agreement was overly broad and really directed toward preventing ordinary competition, rather than the protection of goodwill. See Phelps Staffing, LLC v. C. T. Phelps, Inc. Most interesting about the case, however, is that the plaintiff purchased the staffing company from its then-owned, defendant Sheila Phelps. But, Ms. Phelps’s husband, who had been working with her, had started a competing venture shortly before the sale. He was present at the sale, presumably understood the terms, and received substantial benefit from it (the sale was $1.4 million). Oddly, he was not required to sign any documents – although one of the agreements required him not to interfere. Accordingly, even though he was a clear threat, neither the trial court nor the Court of Appeals was willing to restrain him even though he benefited substantially from the sale. Compare that with Zions First National Bank v. Macke, discussed by Amy Dehnel at Berman Fink Van Horn in Can an Employee Use a Spouse to Circumvent Restrictive Covenants? Georgia Court of Appeals Says “No.”

Wyoming: According to RT, “A district judge in Wyoming has shot down a group of environmentalists who tried to gather information about the long-term effects of fracking . . . .” See Fracking chemicals to stay ‘trade secrets.’

Legislation and Bills: A handful of states have recently proposed legislation relating to noncompetes and/or trade secrets. Ken VankoJohn Marsh, and I recorded a FairlyCompeting podcast discussing some of that proposed legislation.Here is some additional information:

Illinois: The Illinois House of Representatives has introduced a bill that, although saying it would allow “noncompetes,” would actually ban noncompetes, though allow  nonsolicitation agreements if they meet certain defined criteria. Although the bill is too long to post its contents, the full text can be found here. Ken Vanko has a nice discussion of the bill in A Brief Commentary on Illinois’ Proposed Noncompete Agreement Act.

Maryland: The Maryland Senate introduced a bill that would render noncompetes enforceable if the employee were terminated and therefore eligible for unemployment benefits. The operative text is as follows:

IF AN INDIVIDUAL WHO IS UNEMPLOYED HAS APPLIED FOR AND IS FOUND ELIGIBLE TO RECEIVE UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE BENEFITS AS PROVIDED IN TITLE 8 OF THIS ARTICLE, THE INDIVIDUAL MAY NOT BE BOUND BY A NONCOMPETITION COVENANT ENTERED INTO WITH THE INDIVIDUALS PRIOR EMPLOYER.

The bill would apply only prospectively to noncompetes entered into after October 1, 2013 (the putative effective date of the statute). The bill has, however, been reported unfavorably out of the Finance Committee.

Massachusetts: I previously discussed the proposed, scaled-down noncompete legislation in Massachusetts, limiting the duration of noncompetes, unless one of three exceptions exists. See New Massachusetts Noncompete Bill. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.

In addition, Massachusetts is again considering adopting the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (HB 27). This time, however, there is a competing UTSA bill (HB 1225) that combines the UTSA with an outright ban of employee noncompetes. The text relating to noncompetes provides:

Section 19 of Chapter 149 of the General Laws of Massachusetts is hereby amended by inserting at the end the following new paragraphs:

Any written or oral contract or agreement arising out of an employment relationship that prohibits, impairs, restrains, restricts, or places any condition on, a person’s ability to seek, engage in or accept any type of employment or independent contractor work, for any period of time after an employment relationship has ended, shall be void and unenforceable with respect to that restriction. This section shall not render void or unenforceable the remainder of the contract or agreement.

For the purposes of this section, chapter 149, section 148B shall control the definition of employment.

This section shall be construed liberally for the accomplishment of its purposes, and no other provision of the General Laws shall be construed in a manner that would limit its coverage. Nothing in this section shall preempt tort or contract claims, or other statutory claims, based upon an employer’s use, or attempted use of an unlawful contract or agreement to interfere with subsequent employment or contractor work.

This section shall apply to all contracts and agreements, including those executed before the effective date of this act.

Both UTSA bills were referred to the Judiciary Committee, and remain there.

Michigan: The Michigan Senate introduced SB 786, which, if passed would, like New Hampshire (see here), require advance notice of noncompetes. The text of the bill is as follows:

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN ENACT:

Sec. 4a. (1) An employer may obtain from an employee an agreement or covenant which protects an employer’s reasonable competitive business interests and expressly prohibits an employee from engaging in employment or a line of business after termination of employment if the agreement or covenant is reasonable as to its duration, geographical area, and the type of employment or line of business. To the extent any such agreement or covenant is found to be unreasonable in any respect, a court may limit the agreement to render it reasonable in light of the circumstances in which it was made and specifically enforce the agreement as limited.
THIS SUBSECTION APPLIES to covenants and agreements entered into after March 29, 1985.
(2) AN EMPLOYER SHALL NOT REQUIRE AND A COURT SHALL NOT ENFORCE AN AGREEMENT OR COVENANT UNDER THIS SECTION AS A CONDITION OF EMPLOYMENT IF THE EMPLOYER DID NOT INFORM THE EMPLOYEE OF THE REQUIREMENT AT OR BEFORE THE TIME OF THE INITIAL OFFER OF EMPLOYMENT. THIS SUBSECTION APPLIES TO AN AGREEMENT OR COVENANT ENTERED INTO AFTER THE EFFECTIVE DATE OF THE AMENDATORY ACT THAT ADDED THIS SUBSECTION.
Ken Vanko has an interesting discussion of the bill here.

Minnesota: The Minnesota House of Representatives introduced H. F. No. 506, which contains the following text:

 A bill for an act relating to commerce; regulating employment agreements; voiding certain noncompete agreements; proposing coding for new law in Minnesota Statutes, chapter 325D.

 BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MINNESOTA:

 Section 1. [325D.72] NONCOMPETE AGREEMENTS VOID.

 A contract that prohibits a party to that contract from exercising a lawful profession, trade, or business is void with the following exceptions:

(1) a seller of a business’ goodwill can agree to refrain from carrying on a similar business in a specified county, city, or part of one of them if the buyer carries on a like business in that area;

(2) partners dissolving a partnership can agree that one or more of them will not carry on a similar business in a specified county, city, or part of one of them where the partnership transacted business; and

(3) a member, when dissolving or terminating their interest in a limited liability company, can agree that the member will not carry on a similar business in a specified county, city, or part of one of them where the business has been transacted if another member or someone taking title to the business carries on a like business in that area.

 EFFECTIVE DATE. This section is effective the day following final enactment.

For additional reading, see Minnesota House Bill Threatens to Void Non-Compete Agreements by Faegre Baker Daniels.

New Jersey: The New Jersey Assembly introduced a bill A3970 much like the bill introduced by Maryland (see above). The text is as follows:

BE IT ENACTED by the Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey:

      1.    An unemployed individual found to be eligible to receive benefits pursuant to the “unemployment compensation law,” R.S.43:21-1 et seq., shall not be bound by any covenant, contract, or agreement, entered into with the individual’s most recent employer, not to compete, not to disclose, or not to solicit. This section shall not be construed to apply to any covenant, contract, or agreement in effect on or before the date of enactment of P.L.   , c.  (C.   )(pending before the Legislature as this bill).

      2.    This act shall take effect immediately.

Thank you to both Douglas Neu and Janette Levey Frisch for bringing this to my attention. For some additional reading, see Heated discussion as attorneys debate merits of noncompete bill and New Jersey Joins Wave Of States Considering Limitations on Noncompete Agreements. Thanks to Sue Reisinger for her article, Looking at the Future of Cybersecurity.

Texas: The Texas legislature is considering SB 953, which would effectively adopt the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, making Texas the 48th state to adopt some version, leaving just Massachusetts and New York as the last-remaining holdouts.

Related Items of Interest:

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