Massachusetts Noncompete Ban and Modified Version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act Reported Out of Committee

cropped-cimg27721.jpgOn April 29, the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development favorably reported out a bill (available here) very close to Governor Patrick’s proposed adoption of a version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”) coupled with a ban on noncompetes in Massachusetts. Governor Patrick’s bill is available in whole here or relevant part here. (See What to do if noncompetes are eliminated in Massachusetts.)

Putting aside where you come out on the advisability of eliminating noncompetes (a political and economic decision that has staunch advocates on both sides), the proposed Massachusetts Trade Secrets Act (“MUTA”) is intended to enhance available trade secrets protections, given that they will be weakened by the elimination of noncompetes (one of the main tools currently used to protect them). (Note that it expressly leaves unaffected other restrictive covenants, including nonsolicitation agreements, no-raid/anti-piracy agreements, and nondisclosure agreements.)

The MTSA changes the UTSA in several respects, and, contrary to its intended purpose, may in fact create some additional hurdles to protecting trade secrets.

For example, the UTSA requires that reasonable measures to be taken to protect a trade secret; that makes sense given that the sine qua non of a trade secret is secrecy. However, as currently drafted, MTSA section 1(4)(ii) requires that reasonable measures be maintained even after the secret has been stolen. The result – in some cases – is that a person who steals a trade secret can potentially escape liability if the trade secret owner decides that it is no longer worth spending the money to protect a secret that the misappropriator has publicly disclosed (or even just stolen). In short, it potentially encourages very bad behavior and exposes trade secret owners to increased risk of harm.

Similarly, the same section (MTSA section 1(4)(ii)) permits only the “owners” of a trade secret to protect the secret. While that may seem innocuous, it’s not; it arguably means that licensees and other people who have purchased or otherwise acquired rights to use/protect the trade secrets would be left with nothing; it will kill the value of many trade secrets.

Section 5(b) requires that “averments of trade secrets and misappropriation thereof shall be stated with reasonable particularity in light of the circumstances of the case.” That language, like some other changes in the MTSA, is intended to address an issue that courts wrestle with (with increasing frequency) under the existing language of the UTSA, specifically, how clearly and how early someone claiming misappropriation must identify the trade secrets alleged to have been misappropriated. The problem with section 5(b) in particular is that it may be read to elevate the pleading standard to the point of making it impossible for some companies to protect their secrets.

With regard to the language of the noncompete ban (section 11), while section 2(a) (like the UTSA) permits injunctions, the bill leaves unaddressed whether it permits or precludes a court from issuing injunctive relief essentially in the nature of a noncompete as a remedy in the event of a breach of the other restrictive covenants. In other words, may a court issue an injunction prohibiting someone from continuing to work at a competitor when they have demonstrated themselves untrustworthy, by, for example, breaching a nonsolicitation covenant?

The Governor’s version of the bill is in a separate committee and it remains to be seen how that will be handled. Afterward, whatever bills survive will still need to pass the house and the senate before heading to the Governor.

The deadline is July 31. Stay tuned!

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