Recent Decisions and Case Developments

August 27, 2014 | 127th Judicial District Court
Schlumberger Case Potentially Raises the Stakes in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation

The 127th Judicial District Court of Harris County, Texas might have raised the stakes of bringing Trade Secrets litigation in Texas by allowing for the grant of attorney’s fees and sanctions in such cases under the Texas Citizens’ Participation Act (“TCPA”).

Schumberger originally sued Charlotte Rutherford, former Schumberger chief intellectual property attorney, for Rutherford’s use of the company’s confidential information to help Acacia launch two patent infringement suits. Schumberger filed claims of misappropriation of trade secrets, conversion, breach of fiduciary duties, violations of the Texas Theft Liability Act and breach of contract.

Rutherford denied the claims and filed a motion to dismiss the suit under the TCPA. To survive the TCPA motion, Schumberger had to produce “clear and specific” evidence that the Rutherford had used the company’s trade secrets against it. Judge Sandill ruled that the company did not meet this burden and dismissed all causes of action save for the breach of contract claim, ordering Schlumberger to pay $350,000 in attorney’s fees and $250,000 sanction fees.

The TCPA is a statute passed to curb lawsuits threatening free speech. Various sources have voiced concern over the expansive reading of the TCPA that led to this hefty penalty against the Plaintiff and the resultant heightened burden of proof that the Plaintiff must meet to survive a TCPA motion to dismiss.

August 18, 2014 | Court of Appeals of the State of Washington, Div. I
Plaintiff's Burden to Show Sales but not Damages from Sales

According to a Washington state appeals court, once a plaintiff in a trade secrets misappropriation case has established sales, the burden then shifts to the defendant to establish what portion of those sales were not attributable to the misappropriated trade secret.

The appeals court overturned a jury's finding of no damage from the misappropriation on the grounds that the jury instructions had misstated the law, and in doing so had improperly shifted the burden of proof from the defendant to the plaintiff.

The instruction, the appeals court held, was a “misstatement of law” given that “the plaintiff's initial burden is to prove only ‘sales,' not ‘damages from sales,' before the burden shifts to the defendant.”

July 15, 2014 | U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
$31 Million Trade Secrets Verdict Affirmed

The Eighth Circuit affirmed a $31.1 million jury verdict, including $10 million in putative damages, in favor of Hallmark Cards, Inc. against a private equity firm that misappropriated confidential information including Hallmark’s Power Point presentations on consumer behavior which constituted trade secrets. This appellate ruling is merely the latest development in a long-running legal battle between Hallmark and Clipper, coming more than a year after U.S. District Judge Ortrie D. Smith awarded Hallmark $103,000 — slightly under 20% of the greeting card company's $519,000 it sought in court fees.

June 30, 2014 | Minnesota Court of Appeals
Trade Secrets are not Synonymous with Confidential Information

Relco LLC of Willmar, Minnesota, sued former employees in May 2011, alleging they took confidential information to their new jobs at Custom Fabricating & Repair Inc. of Marshfield, Wisconsin, and violated terms of their employment agreement. As a reminder that confidential information and trade secrets are not synonymous, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that the Uniform Trade Secrets Act does not necessarily apply to all confidential information. As a result, however, it is not necessary information be a trade secret to be protected, since a trial court may issue an injunction against a party who has, in violation of an explicit agreement or a common law duty, wrongfully used confidential information or trade secrets obtained from his employer.

June 24, 2014 | United States District Court for the Northern District of California
Man sentenced for theft of Trade Secrets from DuPont

Walter Liew was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and fined $28 million following his conviction under the Economic Espionage Act. The conviction arose from the theft of trade secrets from DuPont, particularly information and documents pertaining to the production process of a white pigment, titanium dioxide (TiO2). The pigment is what DuPont uses to achieve its whitest whites in everything from cars to paper.

Judge White, writing in the Northern District of California on a post-conviction motion for acquittal, explained that the evidence demonstrating the intent to injure Dupont, and intent to benefit a foreign government was sufficient for a rational juror to find Liew guilty. It was also noted that the money was tracked to various accounts in Singapore and China, but could not be recovered.

May 13, 2014 | California Court of Appeal Third Appellate District
California Courts Affirms Attorneys' Fees for Defendants

As a reminder that attorneys’ fees can be awarded to a defendant under the uniform trade secrets act, where a misappropriation claim is brought in bad faith, a California appellate court, in an unpublished opinion, affirmed such an award on May 13, 2014. The attorney's fees were the sole issue on appeal in a case that had proceeded through two trials, and dates back to 2007. In the second trial, the court awarded defendants attorneys fees and a "lodestar" multiplier of 1.33 even though attorney Peter Scott agreed to represent defendants free of charge in order to settle a malpractice claim by defendants.

May 9, 2014 | N.J. Super. Ct. Ch. Div.
The Employee Who Was Allowed to Compete from His Garage

This case starts with an unusual employment agreement, which allowed Felix Ferrer to operate a business called FNA out of his garage while working for his employer, SAS Stressteel. Ferrer is an experienced construction engineer who was an important sales manager for his previous employer, DYWIDAG-Systems International, with 31 years' experience, when SAS hired him in 2001.

The agreement gave Ferrer 10% of the company, a guaranteed salary and benefits, and contained a non-solicitation provision but no non-compete.

SAS did not learn until 2012 that FNA was earning over $1 million per year, that FNA was using SAS equipment and personnel, and that Ferrer also owned 40% of Retech, a major SAS customer.

SAS tried to acquire FNA but Ferrer decided instead to sell his interest in FNA and then several SAS employees joined FNA. SAS sued.

The court denied a preliminary injunction, finding no irreparable harm, but allowed the case to proceed on several issues. The case will be interesting to practitioners for two reasons: 1) the agreement allowing for competition but not solicitation presents interesting lessons and 2) the case contains a concise and well-written analysis, under New Jersey's UTSA, of the plaintiff's burden for proving misappropriation of trade secrets.

May 9, 2014 | Cal. Super. Ct.
Guardsmark Wins Noncompete Order in California

In a settlement, former employees of Guardsmark and their current employer agreed to not solicit Guardsmark's customers and to not use Guardsmark's trade secrets for a period of one year. Guardsmark sued Derick Bowman, the former manager of its San Francisco branch for founding a competing security company. The settlement agreement, published in May, came after the court granted Guardsmark a preliminary injunction in February.

May 1, 2014 | United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh)
U.S. Government Files Charges Against Chinese Officials for Cybertheft of Trade Secrets

In the first time charges have ever been brought against a state actor for cyber-espionage including theft of trade secrets, the U.S. government has alleged that five Chinese Officials stole valuable information from a number of U.S. companies. The indictment, filed in the Western District of Pennsylvania, enumerates the alleged conduct, including: stealing confidential and proprietary technical and design specifications for pipes, pipe supports, and pipe routing for a Westinghouse Power Plant; stealing confidential information from SolarWorld regarding their cash flow, manufacturing metrics, production line, and costs; installing malware on U.S. Steel computers in an attempt to identify and exploit vulnerable servers; stealing network credentials for nearly every ATI employee; stealing e-mails from senior USW employees containing sensitive information about USW strategies related to pending trade disputes with China; and stealing emails from Alcoa pertaining to an agreement between Alcoa and a Chinese State Owned Enterprise.

Estimating the cost of cyber-espionage on the U.S. economy is quite tricky, but some economists have claimed the damages are on the order of tens of billions of dollars. Over the past year, the U.S. has made it clear that they will intensify their efforts to put an end to the theft. John Carlin, the Assistant A.G. for National Security, stated that “State actors engaged in cyber espionage for economic advantage are not immune from the law just because they hack under the shadow of their country’s flag.”

April 14, 2014 | Washington Superior Court, King County
Washington Trial Court Refuses to Invoke Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine

On March 5, 2014, Errol Samuelson was hired by Zillow. He had worked at Move, Inc. for over a decade and most recently was its Chief Strategy Officer, a position that resembled head of sales with the added responsibility of running newly acquired business units.

The Washington state trial court found no evidence of actual trade secret misappropriation. It refused to grant an injunction under the inevitable disclosure doctrine, but did not explain why.

The case continues. Samuelson's attorneys have asked the court to grant them access to the trade secrets that Samuelson allegedly misappropriated.