Smith & Fuller, P.A. v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Company

No. 11-20557
June 21, 2012
Federal Court
Texas
United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

In Trenado v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., the surviving members of the Trenado family brought a products liability suit against Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. (“Cooper”), alleging the manufacturer was responsible for the family’s tragic rollover car accident. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant, which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in March, 2012.

As part of the litigation, plaintiff’s attorneys (“Smith & Fuller”) were privileged to Cooper’s trade secrets and confidential information. Smith & Fuller accidentally disseminated the information when it mistakenly copied the confidential files onto compact discs, which were then distributed to other personal injury attorneys. According to court documents, the recipients were attending a conference that specifically discussed “obtaining discovery from Cooper,” and were lawyers that generally “sue[d] Cooper and other tire manufacturers.”

Smith & Fuller’s dissemination violated the trial court’s Protective Order of Confidentiality regarding Cooper’s trade secret and confidential information. Following trial, the district court held that Smith & Fuller did not willfully violate the Protective Order. It determined, however, that sanctions should be imposed based on: (i) Cooper’s vigorous enforcement of the protective order prior to the violation; (ii) the costs Cooper incurred as a result of the violation; and (iii) the fact that Smith had previously violated similar protective orders. Pursuant to Rule 37(b)(2)(C), the court ordered Smith & Fuller to reimburse Cooper $29,667.71 in attorneys’ fees and expenses incurred as a result of Smith’s violation.

On appeal, Smith & Fuller argued the violation of the Protective Order was inadvertent and that the court erred by imposing sanctions. They further argued that the district court’s remedial powers were limited to the “Inadvertent Disclosure” provision of the Protective Order. However, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the damages award. The Court held that:

[p]ursuant to Rule 37(b), the [district] court is authorized to impose
sanctions against parties or counsel, “‘including attorney’s fees,’ caused
by the failure to comply with discovery orders.” The district court provided
specific and well-reasoned grounds to impose sanctions as it determined that
any lesser penalty would not have been an adequate future deterrent. Appellants
concede that they violated the court’s Protective Order, and it was well within
the court’s discretion to use sanctions as a tool to deter future abuse of
discovery.

The Court’s decision cleared up ambiguity over whether Rule 37(b) sanctions can be imposed for violating Rule 26(c) protective orders. The Court not only questioned the Eleventh Circuit’s “narrow reading” of Rule 37(b), but moreover held that a Protective Order can also constitute an “order to provide or permit discovery.” The decision further exhibits the extremely delicate nature of trade secrets, such that an even accidental dissemination can destroy the vitality of the secret forever. Courts must decide whether a party should be punished for such a disclosure, and if so, how much.

P.A., Smith & Fuller
Cooper Tire & Rubber Company
Uniform Trade Secrets Act