Cases from 6th Circuit

United States court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
Sixth Circuit Protects Confidential Information Under Non-Disclosure Agreement

On November 17, the Sixth circuit held that Orthofix, Inc.’s (Orthofix) non-disclosure and non-compete clauses protected Orthofix’s confidential information regardless of whether the information achieved trade secret status or not. The defendant, Eric Hunter (“defendant” or “Hunter”) was a medical device salesman for Orthofix from 2000 to November 2012. Hunter sold bone growth stimulators and Orthofix was among the three main competitors for this type of product. Upon his hiring with Orthofix, Hunter signed an employment agreement that contained both a non-compete and non-disclosure provision. During his time with Orthofix, Hunter developed relationships with prescribing doctors and acquired valuable information about their “schedules, prescribing habits, and preferred brands of bone growth stimulators.”
In July 2012, Hunter and a fellow employee began negotiations to join DonJoy Orthopedics with an area vice president of DonJoy Orthopedics, Orthofix’s competitor. In the course of the negotiations Hunter provided DonJoy with information he had acquired over his past twelve years at Orthofix which he would use if he became employed with DonJoy, “including his Orthofix employment agreement, his W-2 wage statement, copies of his Orthofix sales reports, and an account-by-account breakdown of some of his sales of bone growth stimulators.” Hunter, his fellow Orthofix employee, and DonJoy made a plan for Hunter and his fellow employee to join DonJoy and begin selling DonJoy bone growth stimulators to Orthofix customers. Additionally, Hunter introduced other DonJoy salesmen to Orthofix customers. Hunter also “maintained Orthofix confidential information in the form of documents and spreadsheets on his personal laptop and memory,” including “customer lists, wholesale price information, sales data, staff contacts, physician schedules and preferences, and physicians’ prescribing habits.” Orthofix claimed these materials are protected as a trade secret or as “confidential information” under Hunter’s employment agreement.
In considering the Non-disclosure agreement, the Sixth Circuit applied Texas state law holding that the “confidential information” covered by the agreement was not limited to only trade secrets. Further, the court found that when Hunter promised in the non-disclosure agreement “that he would ‘never use or disclose any confidential information which [he]… acquired during the term of his[] employment with [Orthofix],’” the referenced “confidential information” includes “Orthofix ‘customer lists or identification,’ ‘business and trade practices,’ ‘sales or distribution methods and techniques,’ ‘business strategies,’ ‘and ‘other confidential information pertaining to [Orthofix’s] business or financial affairs.’” The court also found that the non-disclosure agreement was not an unreasonable restraint of trade under Texas law, despite its absence of geographical or durational limits. Since Orthofix’s confidential information is protectable under the non-disclosure agreement and the information is not publicly available or the subject of Hunter’s general knowledge, the non-disclosure agreement is not an unenforceable non-compete agreement under Texas law.

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Sixth Circuit Vacates Defendant's Sentencing in Goodyear Trade Secret Theft Case and Remands for Re-evaluation of the Misappropriated Information

In United States v. Clark Alan Roberts and Sean Edward Howley, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated the Eastern District of Tennessee’s sentencing of Roberts and Howley for seven counts related to the theft of trade secrets under the Economic Espionage Act and three counts related to wire fraud.

Roberts and Howley were both employed as engineers for Wkyo Tire Techonology (“Wyko”). Wyo made a deal to supply Chinese tiremaker HaoHua with certain tire-building parts; however, Wyko did not actually know how to create parts. Roberts and Howley leveraged Wyko’s business relationship with Goodyear Tire and Rubber co. (“Goodyear”) to surreptitiously photograph Goodyear's designs for Wyko. Roberts and Howley’s conduct was was in violation of confidentiality agreements both engineers signed with Goodyear, and a federal jury found them guilty on all counts in December, 2012.

The Sixth Circuit upheld Roberts and Howley’s convictions. However, it threw out the District Court’s lenient sentencing. The District Court erred by assigning zero value to the misappropriated trade secrets. Although it was within the District Court’s discretion to disregard the government’s expert's testimony regarding the value of the information under Daubert, it was still required to assign some value to the trade secrets.

The EEA provides guidelines for sentences, which are tied to the value of the misappropriated trade secret. Here, the District Court held the trade secrets had no value, and imposed sentences of four months of home confinement, 150 hours of community service and four years of probation for each defendant. The Sixth Circuit basically instructed the District Court that it could not artificially lower the defendants’ sentences through the “legal fiction” that the trade secrets in question were worthless (which is clearly not the case). As the Circuit Court instructed:

“Yes, all else being equal, an estimate of a substantial loss necessarily will increase the guidelines range, but it will not override the district court’s duty to exercise discretion in deciding what sentences to impose on the defendants, whether within the guidelines range or outside of it.”

Southern Division, United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan
How One Auto Parts Company Successfully Defended a Misappropriation Suit

Dana, a maker of car parts such as axles, recently lost a trade secrets misappropriation action against American Axle, a fierce competitor in the auto-parts industry, after three Dana employees downloaded Dana’s files and then went to work for American Axle. Dana's unsuccessful attempt to protect its trade secrets provides a useful lesson to practitioners about how to defend a misappropriation case.

The court’s decision was based on the following three main criteria: (1) Dana did not make a strong enough showing that American Axle was a direct and fierce competitor and American Axle successfully argued that it targets a different market segment (Asia instead of the United States); (2) Dana failed to show that American Axle used the trade secrets, and failed to show that the employees misused them. The court made this point by saying, “the fact that [some of the defendants] copied their work files before departing their employment does not create an inference that they did so in an attempt to steal confidential information from Dana or to bring that information to American Axle. Copying work files at the conclusion of employment does not, in and of itself, support an inference of suspect behavior”; and (3) American Axle was able to show that it did not poach the employees it hired since those employees had been laid off by Dana.

Additionally, “Dana had not previously enforced any prohibition against copying Dana files for personal use.” Defendant Adelman “said he copied the files so that he could review all the projects he had worked on before he updated his resume.” To remedy what might otherwise seem like a valid reason to copy such files, a company policy that states that company property cannot be taken for personal use could have strengthened Dana’s case. Dana lacked such a policy. To that effect, a company has to enforce its policy, not just print it and distribute it. Defendant Wenstrup testified that he was accompanied by a Dana HR employee when he went to his office after he was terminated and copied the entire contents of the “My Documents” file from his office computer to his personal computer. This type of corporate behavior opens the door for defendants to successfully argue that such behavior is tolerated by the plaintiff corporation.

Lastly, Dana's lawyers failed to properly organize the large volume of data that they claimed was stolen. The court noted that “[t]he manner in which the evidence was presented tended to blur the distinctions between what was confidential and what was not, what was reasonably protected and what was not, what was used and what was merely downloaded, what was copied and what was returned.” Since the first step of a successful misappropriation claim is to establish the existence of a trade secret, practitioners should be thorough and methodical about parsing out and encapsulating the confidential information and tracing a direct connection the defendants’ use of that information.