Recent Decisions and Case Developments

March 25, 2015 | Eastern Division, Northern District of Illinois
Social Media Group Membership Lists May Be Trade Secrets

In CDM Media, the Defendant, former employee Robert Simms, was granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss the multiple claims filed in CDM’s complaint. CDM sued its former employee, Simms, for refusing to transfer control of a LinkedIn group allegedly owned by CDM and allegedly wrongfully retaining CDM’s confidential information after Simms left CDM and using it in competition with CDM. The court denied the motion with regard to one claim, but granted the motion regarding the remaining two claims.
CDM asserted Trade Secret protection under the Illinois Trade Secret Act over three separate aspects of CDM’s business. First, CDM asserts Trade Secret protection over a LinkedIn group called “the CIO Speaker Bureau,” a private online community of chief information officers and senior Information Technology executives interested in participating in or speaking at CDM events. Second, CDM asserts Trade Secret protection over the confidential information contained in this LinkedIn group. Lastly, CDM asserts Trade Secret protection over information from CDM’s Event Logistic Management database (“ELM”), which included CDM’s sensitive information including CDM vendor and customer lists, pricing and cost data regarding its products and services and profit or loss information. The court also denied Defendant’s motion to dismiss based on common law misappropriation.
The Northern District of Illinois denied the motion to dismiss, holding that there was a question of fact which a jury must decide regarding the Speaker Bureau membership list. The court denied the Defendant’s motion to dismiss regarding the confidential information contained in the LinkedIn group, holding that “[w]hile a private communication can contain a trade secret, it is not itself a trade secret. It is therefore insufficient for plaintiff to allege that the LinkedIn group’s private communications were trade secrets under the Illinois Act.” The court also denied the motion to dismiss regarding the ELM database, holding that the Plaintiff failed to allege that the defendant actually used the data from the ELM database after he left CDM, and therefore this claim was not viable.
Moving forward, cases that involve business development though social media will continue to mold the landscape of trade secret jurisprudence. Here, the Nothern District of Illinois court is willing to extend trade secret protections to cover social media business development and holds the defendant to a high bar to have the claims dismissed. The court is willing to consider the confidential nature of communications via social media and recognizes that a jury can find that business development through social media may have required a significant investment of time and money. It will be interesting to see in the future how other states interpret its own trade secret statutes as it applies to social media.

March 23, 2015 | New Castle County Superior Court
Delaware Superior Court Denies Exemplary Damages

In this case during a twelve day trial, the jury found that Plaintiff, Professional Investigating & Consulting Agency, Inc.’s (“PICA”) Channel Management Program, was a trade secret and that Defendant, Hewlett-Packard Company (“HP”) wilfully and maliciously misappropriated the Channel Management Proposal. On the Channel Management Proposal misappropriation claim, the jury awarded PICA $300,000 in damages for out of pocket expenses and lost profits as well $700,000 for HP’s unjust enrichment.

On March 23, 2015, the New Castle County Delaware Superior Court decided on the parties’ post-trial motions. The court granted in part and denied in part PICA’s motions for exemplary damages and attorneys’ fees, attorneys’ fees and expenses, and costs and interest. The court also denied HP’s motion for a new trial or remittitur and renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law. Regarding the trade secret misappropriation verdict, HP argued that PICA did not present evidence that it derived any economic value from the Channel Management Program not being generally well-known because “every aspect of PICA’s proposal was generally known”, and that PICA attempted to keep the program confidential. The court, however, applied Delaware’s Uniform Trade Secret Act (“DUSTA”) and found that PICA provided extensive evidence at trial that though some of the components of PICA’s program was a trade secret, the program as a whole was a trade secret and that the jury’s damage award was not duplicative.

The court also applied the DUSTA when it granted in part and denied in part PICA’s motion for exemplary damages and attorneys’ fees. Although PICA moved for the court to grant two million dollars in exemplary damages (the maximum amount allowed under the DUSTA), the court followed the guidance of Agilent Technologies, Inc. v. Kirkland and denied exemplary damages. Agilent took the approach of making the plaintiff “whole and to deprive [the defendant] of unjust rewards.” The court here analogized this case to Agilent, where further punishment through exemplary damages were unnecessary because the court had already granted a “stringent remedy that [would] sufficiently vindicate the interests of [the plaintiff] and those more generally protected by the Delaware Uniform Trade Secrets Act.” In the current case, the court held that “the jury’s $1 million award reasonably compensates PICA for misappropriation of its trade secrets… [and] in light of the total jury verdict, the Court decline[d] to impose an additional amount for exemplary damages for punitive purposes.”
This case is significant because the court demonstrates that though the DUTSA permits a court to award exemplary damages in cases where wilful and malicious misappropriation exists, the bar for granting exemplary damages will be set high in cases where the total jury verdict already reasonably compensates the plaintiff for the misappropriation. Though the bar is set high for exemplary damages, this wasn’t much of a total loss for the plaintiff because the court granted the plaintiff’s requested 75% of attorneys’ fees for the entire litigation of the Channel Management Program misappropriation claim as well as 75% of attorneys’ fees and expenses incurred by PICA since July 29, 2013 due to HP’s bad faith throughout the discovery process. Although PICA was not able to obtain exemplary damages, the court did grant PICA to recover for most of the costs incurred with the claims which it prevailed on.

March 20, 2015 | Northern District of California
Northern District of California Declines to Allow Plaintiffs to Use Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to Allege Misappropriation

In this case, Plaintiff, Koninklijke Philips N.V. (“Philips”), et al. brought ten causes of action alleging that Dr. Chen, who was an employee of Plaintiff Lumileds Lighting Company, downloaded thousands of files “containing Philips Lumileds’ trade secrets and confidential business information onto a portable storage device." Complaint, ECF 1 ¶ 5. Dr. Chen then became employed by Defendant, Elec-Tech international Co., Ltd (“ETI”) and only six months into this employment, ETI announced two “new high-energy LED lighting products, an amount of time Plaintiffs claim is ‘unprecedented’ in the lighting industry.” Koninklijke Philips N.V. v. Elec-Tech International Co., Ltd., no. 14-cv-12737-BLF, 2015 WL 1289984 at *1 (N.D. Ca. March 30, 2015). The Plaintiffs used one claim under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”) to bring the other nine state claims. The court here held that the Plaintiffs did not state a CFAA claim upon which relief can be granted and therefore dismissed the nine state law based trade secret claims as well as the CFAA claim.

The Plaintiffs in this case were creative in finding a way to try to get their Trade Secret claims into federal court. However, the court took a strict stand against using the CFAA for misappropriation purposes. The court pointed out that the CFAA is interpreted by courts as “an anti-hacking statute.” Koninklijke Philips N.V. v. Elec-Tech International Co., Ltd., no. 14-cv-12737-BLF, 2015 WL 1289984 at *3 (N.D. Ca. March 30, 2015) (citing United States v. Nosal, 676 F.3d 854, 858 (9th Cir.2012)). Additionally, in the past, the Ninth Circuit has expressly refused to expand this statute to cover misappropriation. Id. While this is a blow for Philips here, this does help the argument for federal trade secret legislation. If courts are going to hold the bar this high for federal statutes that could be expanded to include misappropriation, then federal trade secret legislation is necessary in order to afford trade secret protection by the federal courts as well as state courts.

March 13, 2015 | Supreme Court of Texas
"Treasure Map" Misappropriation Award Upheld in Texas

On March 13, 2015, the Texas Supreme Court denied review of Lamont et al v. Vaquillas Energy Lopeno, Ltd. et al, thereby upholding a $4.9 million jury award for Vaquillas in its trade secret misappropriation suit. At the center of the dispute is the seismic map of oil and gas prospects that Ricochet Energy, Inc. generated pursuant to an agreement with Vaquillas in 2003 and 2004. The seismic map, or “treasure map” as both parties had referred to it, had identified a lucrative prospect – a gas reservoir containing natural gas estimated as much as $60 million.

The instant controversy began when Thomas Lamont, a co-owner of Ricochet, separated from Ricochet in 2006, and then formed a new entity, Montecristo II, with another oil and gas investor, Rosendo Carranco in 2007. Because Lamont had continued to own a working interest in the gas prospect, after Lamont’s separation, Ricochet shared the treasure map with Lamont as a potential investor, without signing any confidentiality agreements. Montecristo II then outbid Ricochet to lease property adjacent to the gas reservoir, and depleted it, foreclosing any opportunity for Ricochet to withdraw any gas.

On appeal from the jury’s verdict in favor of Vaquillas, Lamont argued that the trade secret’s status was destroyed when Ricochet shared the treasure map with Lamont after his effective resignation date. However, the court noted that the disclosure to Lamont was in his role as a potential investor, and as such, the limited disclosure did not destroy its trade secret status. The disclosure was never meant to enable a potential investor to compete directly against Ricochet, but instead, to work with them in an investment opportunity. Further, the court noted that Ricochet took proper means to protect its trade secret, by keeping it a secret from its employees, competitors, and the public. Next, the appellate court concluded there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that Lamont and Carranco’s actions fell below the generally accepted standards of commercial morality, because they used improper means to locate the gas reservoir when they misused the map. Notably, Lamont and Carranco had never conducted any independent research, indicating their reliance on the map, which they used to enrich themselves off of Ricochet’s work and investment.

While Texas adopted a version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, it only took effect on September 1, 2013, and does not apply to prior misappropriation. As such, in the instant case, the appellate court relied heavily on the 3rd Restatement of Unfair Competition, which notably, is aligned with the Act. Therefore, this case is still persuasive in situations where a company must rely on common law to protect its trade secrets if it is in a state where the UTSA, or any version of the model Act, has not been adopted. Further, and more significantly, this case demonstrates that companies which did not employ confidentially or non-disclosure agreements, may still be protected in the scenario a potential business investor misuses their secrets. While certainly helpful in situations where negotiations could be stalled for such agreements, it is always better to employ these agreements, if for no other reason than it may define the scope of litigation.

March 6, 2015 | United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas
Texas Jury Awards $58 Million for Breach of Confidentiality Agreement

On March 6, 2015, the jury awarded Texas Advanced Optoelectronic Solutions Inc. (TAOS) $58 million dollars for its trade secret misappropriation suit against Intersil after seven years of litigation in the Eastern District of Texas.

TAOS patented technology that empowers flat panel video displays to adjust brightness based on different light exposures. Intersil approached TAOS in 2004 to negotiate a potential merger to enter the light sensor market. During the course of negotiations, both parties signed confidentiality agreements to protect TAOS’ technology and competitive trade secrets – including vendor information.

Then after what TAOS characterized as an unreasonable offer, Intersil severed all ties with TAOS and soon introduced a competing light-sensor product. TAOS demonstrated that Intersil used its patented technology to create this competing product. Additionally, TAOS also demonstrated how Intersil secured supply contracts with Apple by using trade secrets procured from the failed negotiations.

While Intersil states that it will appeal the verdict, the case is a good example for the necessity of employing confidentiality agreements in preliminary negotiations where trade secrets are at stake. In the event a party breaches the agreement, it goes a long way to demonstrate fraud, malice and gross negligence.

February 28, 2015 | Court of Chancery of Delaware
Court of Chancery Finds Choice of Law Clause Void

On January 28, 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery released an opinion finding that a choice of law clause in a noncompete contract, designating Delaware as the venue and choice of law for dispute resolution, did not govern the dispute because the state of California had a materially greater interest in the issue. The parties here engaged in an employee investment agreement (“EIA”) in July of 2008, in which Defendant Underwood agreed not to compete with Ascension or its parent for two years after leaving his position at Ascension. Plaintiff Ascension sought to enforce the non-compete clause in the EIA and the Court of Chancery was presented with the question of whether California’s employee friendly statute or Delaware’s contract-friendly policies should govern the validity of the non-compete clause.

In the EIA both parties agreed to Delaware venue as well as Delaware choice of law. However, the court found that California was the state with the strongest contacts to the contract because the EIA was entered between a California resident and a Delaware limited liability company that now has its principal place of business in California, the non-compete clause was negotiated in California, and but for the choice-of-law provision, California law would apply to the EIA. Additionally, California’s interest in its employee-friendly public policy is greater than Delaware’s interest in the sanctity of a contract.

This decision is significant because the Chancery Court, which is historically corporate-friendly, took a strong stance against allowing corporations to contract around unfavorable state laws. The court emphasized that California’s public policy against non-compete clauses is so fundamental that it would prevail over a contracted to term which goes against this policy. This decision empowers employees and ensures that they will be able to rely on his or her state’s employee protection policies as long as he or she is engaging in the employment relationship in his or her state. Even if an employee agrees to a choice-of-law clause, applicable state policies will still be able to protect him or her. In the future, this decision should cause corporations to investigate the state policies on non-compete clauses in the states in which it engages in employee relationships.

February 26, 2015 | United States District Court for the District of Delaware
Solazyme Counter-Claims Trade Secret Misappropriation

Solazyme is alleging that Roquette Freres SA misappropriated its trade secrets regarding algae-based nutritional products.

The companies agreed to a research and development joint venture in November 2010 on microalgae-derived products. After the agreement fell apart, a subsequent arbitration between the parties held that Solazyme was entitled to all of the improvements made to the intellectual property it brought to the agreement.

Roquette sued in the federal court of Delaware in November 28, 2014 to vacate the arbitration order and for a declaration of joint ownership of the algae Intellectual Property rights. Solazyme answered on February 26, 2015 that Roquette agreed to the secrecy of Solazyme's IP under the agreement and violated the agreement by filing patent applications on the IP material.

The case is Roquette Freres SA v. Solazyme Inc., 14-cv-01442, U.S. District Court, District of Delaware (Wilmington). https://www.pacermonitor.com/public/case/5370069/Roquette_Freres_SA_v_So...

February 6, 2015 | United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
8th Circuit Finds Global Noncompete to be Overbroad

On February 6, the 8th Circuit released an opinion finding that a Global Noncompete Agreement was overbroad, and therefore unenforceable. Arunya Suresh began working at NanoMech in 2010, agreeing to the noncompete which was for two years following termination with or without cause, and would have prevented Suresh from working or consulting with any business that competes with NanoMech. The agreement did not state a geographic limitation, and so was presumably enforceable anywhere in the world.

Suresh left NanoMech in May 2012, stating she was going to pursue her doctorate degree. However, NanoMech discovered she had actually accepted a position as a chemist at competitor BASF. At the district court level, NanoMech was unsuccessful in obtaining an injunction against Suresh, and ultimately the 8th Circuit Court upheld the decision.

This sort of global noncompete is frowned upon by most courts, and will often not stand up to the three-part test used in Arkansas (but fairly typical elsewhere), that looks at 1) whether the employer has a valid interest to protect, 2) whether the geographical restriction is overly broad, and 3) whether the time limit imposed is reasonable. In this case, the court ruled the combination of the broad restriction on the things Suresh could not do, considered together with the complete lack of geographic limitation, renders the noncompete overbroad and unenforceable. In the court's words, the lack of geographic limitation was particularly oppressive because the agreement "prohibits her from working in any capacity for any business that competes with the company."

This decision is interesting since Arkansas affords trade secrets particularly strong protection. In fact, Arkansas has previously upheld certain global noncompetes, but as the court pointed out, the restrictions in those cases were far more narrowly tailored as to the prohibited conduct. In both cases discussed, the employees simply couldn't solicit clients with whom they had contact with while employed by their respective former employers. It was this very narrow limitation on what conduct they could not do do that the courts found to justify a lack of geographic limitation in the noncompete agreements.

February 5, 2015 | Texas District Court
Fake Evidence Leads to Dismissal with Prejudice

One month into a complex case involving energy production in post-Soviet Russia, Moncrief Oil International abruptly dropped its $1.37 billion lawsuit that included a trade secret misappropriation claim against Gazprom after the Fort Worth company was accused of producing a falsified key document in the case. The company’s lawsuit hinged upon the allegation it had shared with Gazprom the secret details of an LNG plant it wanted to build with Occidental Petroleum in Ingleside, Texas in 2004.

State District Judge Melody Wilkinson dismissed the case with prejudice at the request of attorneys representing Moncrief Oil, which was suing the Moscow-based energy company for backing out of a deal for rights to develop a natural gas field in Siberia. During the trial last week, a document prepared by an accountant at Moncrief Oil International was found to include a key error, making it impossible to continue with the case

By dismissing the case with prejudice, Wilkinson prevents Moncrief Oil from continuing with any lawsuit on the same claims. This case shows the necessity of following all rules, both ethical and procedural, whilst litigating such claimes.

December 31, 2014 | Court of Appeals of North Carolina
Assignability of Non-Competes

The Court of Appeals of North Carolina overturned a trial court's ruling that an assigned non-compete was unenforceable.

TSG is a company that specializes in "fabric finishing," or the use of chemicals to effect the color and textures of various textiles. Former employee Bollinger had signed a non-compete agreement with TSG in 2007, and TSG subsequently filed for bankruptcy, and transferred its assets to a subsidiary corporation with a similar name. While Bollinger's job remained the same, he technically now worked for a different company, who had been assigned his employment contract including the non-compete agreement. When Bollinger decided to go work for American Custom Finishing, a competitor located just 5 miles down the road, TSG sued to enjoin him from doing so based on the non-compete agreement. The trial court, however, decided that the agreement was unenforceable, primarily because there was no explicit assignability clause in the non-compete, and the trial court found that a balancing of the equities weighed against enforcement.

The Appellate Court disagreed with the trial court's approach. The Court explained that the case relied on by the trial court, Hess v. Gebhard & Co., 808 A.2d 912 (PA 2002), was different from the present case in that the assignor and the assignee were basically strangers, while here the assignment was just part of a restructuring following a bankruptcy. Thus the non-compete is being enforced by TSG who is certainly not a "stranger to the original undertaking," as was the case in Hess, and so the requirement that there be an assignability clause is substantially relaxed. Further, the fact that Bollinger was given an annual raise of $1,300 and a signing bonus of $3,500 for signing the non-compete, and that he left abruptly after 27 years of service at TSG to work at a competitor 5 miles down the road, both weigh strongly in favor of enforcing the non-compete. While the trial court was persuaded by Bollinger's argument that he is unemployable outside the textile industry, and so enforcing the non-compete would be particularly burdensome on him, the Appellate Court was far less sympathetic.