Cases from United States District Court for the Northern District of California

United States District Court for the Northern District of California
Battle of Self-Driving Cars

Waymo LLC, a self-driving car startup under Alphabet (originally known as Google’s Self-Driving Car Project), filed a complaint in California’s Northern District accusing Uber of violating the Defense of Trade Secrets Act and the California Uniform Trade Secret Act, as well as patent infringement. Waymo alleges that a former Google employee, Anthony Levandowski, secretly downloaded 14,000 files of “highly confidential data” from Google’s hardware systems before resigning a month later and launching a self-driving truck startup called Otto. Uber acquired Otto in August 2016 and put Levandowski in charge of its self-driving efforts. Waymost alleges that Levandowski used the information from Google’s system to launch Otto.

The complaint very specifically names the ways in which Levandowski stole the data. The data revolves around a key piece of technology called LiDAR ("Light Detection and Ranging"), which uses high-frequency, high-power pulsing lasers to measure distances between one or more sensors and external objects to build a detailed map of the environment around the car. Waymo has invested millions in its own LiDAR hardware and alleges that Levandowski misappropriated this data in developing Otto and working for Uber.

Filed complaint: http://nyti.ms/2mMwBcA

United States District Court for the Northern District of California
California Court Renders First Decision Under Defend Trade Secrets Act

A federal district court in California handed down the first decision made under the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) since Congress signed it into law in May 2016. The court granted plaintiff Henry Schein, Inc.’s (“HSI”) motion for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to enjoin defendant Jennifer Cook from accessing and disclosing any of its confidential data or accepting business from its customers.

Cook worked for HSI as a sales consultant, and entered into a confidentiality and non-solicitation agreement when HSI hired her in 2005. HSI alleges that prior to leaving the company, Cook began to collect confidential information and trade secret documents in several ways, some of which included forwarding emails to her personal account, keeping her laptop for up to 2 weeks after she left the company, and illegally accessing the HSI computer system to obtain purchase data for HSI customers. HSI also claims that Cook tried to divert customers from the company and destroyed some of the company’s customer information.

On June 9, 2016, HSI applied for a TRO and filed a complaint alleging eight causes of action, one of which was for misappropriation of Trade Secrets under the DTSA. HSI brought additional claims under the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act and multiple common law claims. Furthermore, HSI moved for expedited discovery to immediately obtain data on Cook’s personal accounts and devices.

The court granted HSI’s motion for a TRO because (1) there was a likelihood of irreparable injury to HSI, (2) HSI was likely to succeed on the merits, (3) Cook was not likely to suffer undue hardship, and (4) public interest would be served by protecting trade secrets. The court denied HSI’s request for expedited discovery because HSI had not established that the circumstances warranted intruding on Cook’s personal data and property.

United States District Court for the Northern District of California
Federal prosecutors indict a state-owned Chinese company and its executive on charges of conspiracy to steal DuPont’s trade secrets

On February 7, 2012, in a rare action, federal prosecutors indicted Pangang Group Limited Company (“Pangang”), a state-owned steel manufacturer in China, and a Pangang executive on charges of conspiracy to steal DuPont’s trade secrets about titanium dioxide technology in violation of the Economic Espionage Act (EEA), 18 U.S.C. §1831 et seq. This indictment supercedes a 2011 indictment in which federal prosecutors originally charged Californians Walter and Christina Liew with witness tampering and making false statements in a federal criminal investigation into the alleged trade secrets theft. DuPont is the world’s largest manufacturer of chloride-route titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in paint, plastics and paper, and defendants allegedly made a “long-running effort” to obtain DuPont’s trade secrets about the process to benefit Chinese companies. Arraignment is scheduled for March 1, 2012.

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.

United States District Court for the Northern District of California
Tech company’s suit against former employee for misappropriation of trade secrets related to Twitter account survives motion to dismiss

PhoneDog is a company that delivers news about mobile phones, and provides information about them for consumers to use when comparison shopping. The company had employed Noah Kravitz to write online reviews of phone products using a variety of online mediums; one such medium was Twitter, where Kravtiz’s handle was “@PhoneDog_Noah.” However, after Kravitz left the company, he refused relinquish use of the Twitter account, and instead changed the handle to “@noahkravitz,” and installed a new password. Whether an exiting employee can take his Twitter followers with him, and the potential trade secret implications involved, is a case of first impression.

PhoneDog sued Kravitz in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California on July 15, 2011. The suit claimed misappropriation of trade secrets, interference with economic advantage, and conversion. On November 8, 2011, the court denied Kravitz’s motion to dismiss the trade secrets and conversion claims, noting that PhoneDog had described the elements of trade secrecy in sufficient detail. The case received publicity for potentially determining “ownership” of an employees Twitter account and followers. However, the alleged trade secrets at issue is actually the Twitter account password itself. Although PhoneDog’s conversion claim explicitly asserted ownership of the Twitter account, courts have interpreted the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act to preempt common law claims (such as conversion) if they are based on the same nucleus of facts as a concurrent trade secret misappropriation claim. Thus, the court can decide the case without analyzing the parties’ competing ownership claims. Moreover, even if the court finds in favor of PhoneDog, the specific remedy and calculation of damages could influence whether it would be cost-effective for parties to bring these types of claims moving forward.

The case exemplifies the complex challenges companies face when trying to protect their confidential information in the digital era, and more specifically, the dangers of not instituting explicit internal policies for employees and their social media accounts.

On or around December 19, 2012, the parties settled. Although the actual details of the settlement were confidential, it appears Kravitz has been permitted to retain ownership of the Twitter account.

United States District Court for the Northern District of California
Contrary to California’s public policy against non-competes, the District Court for the Northern District of California narrowly construes an ambiguous non-compete to find it enforceable

Although California Business and Professions Code §16600 generally voids non-compete provisions, the District Court for the Northern District of California narrowly construed an ambiguous non-compete provision to find it enforceable in Richmond Technologies, Inc. v. Aumtech Business Solutions. Richmond Technologies, Inc. (“Richmond”) provides software for financial service companies who provide credit card terminals to merchants. In 2007, Richmond entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Aumtech Business Solutions (“Aumtech) and in 2009, the same parties entered into a Confidentiality and Non-Disclosure Agreement (“NDA”). The NDA contained three broad provisions regarding non-solicitation, non-interference and non-competition. These provisions broadly prohibited Aumtech from doing business with Richmond’s clients or employees, or competing with Richmond, for a year unless that client or employee had ceased his business relationship with Richmond for at least six months. Richmond alleged in its complaint that in 2010, Aumtech solicited and worked with a former employee to market competing services to Richmond's clients.

In its analysis, the Richmond court acknowledged a non-compete may be enforced to protect a former employer’s trade secrets. It declared that the non-solicitation and non-interference clauses in the NDA were unenforceable because they were drafted more broadly than necessary to protect Richmond’s trade secrets. However, it construed the non-compete to bar the use of Richmond’s trade secrets, such as “confidential source code, software or techniques developed for [Richmond’s] products or clients" and therefore found it enforceable.

United States District Court for the Northern District of California
N.D. Cal.: Free Exercise Clause Does Not Preclude Evaluation of Asserted Trade Secrets of Spiritual Nature

The Northern District of California recently held that its involvement was not so “entangled” with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment that it should be precluded from evaluating a plaintiff’s trade secrets claim.

The Art of Living Foundation brought an action for copyright infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets under the California UTSA against former members of its movement who turned to blogs to voice their criticism under the monikers “Skywalker” and “Klim.” The organization provides courses on “healthy living” topics such as yoga and controlled breathing that are embodied in manuals and teaching notes. As part of their criticism, the bloggers posted some of these teaching notes and other materials on their blogs and/or linked to other sites that hosted them.

Defendants asserted that the court should be barred from assessing the plaintiff’s trade secrets claim due to excessive entanglement with the Free Exercise Clause. Specifically, as the plaintiffs had argued that they had added novel elements to traditional Hindu concepts, the defendants claimed that this necessarily involved an adjudication of what is traditionally religious or not and therefore would ensnare the court in impermissible evaluation of religious doctrine. The court rejected this, noting that even though the nature of the work is religious, it could still evaluate the trade secrets claim as it would any other: by comparing the allegedly novel portions to what is generally known to the public and then assessing the value of nondisclosure of those elements.

After a lengthy discussion that concluded that the training materials might be eligible for trade secret status, the court dismissed the motion to strike as to Skywalker, as he had personally posted some of the materials on his blog, constituting enough evidence of potential misappropriation for the case to move forward. However, the motion to strike was granted as to Klim because there was no evidence that he posted any materials to his blog.

United States District Court for the Northern District of California
Settlement reached in dual-screen eReader technology misappropriation case

In January 2011, a federal judge in San Jose, California ruled that Spring Design, Inc., an electronic reader (or eReader) development company, could proceed to trial over its claims that Barnes & Noble stole confidential information to create its Nook eReader device. In 2006, Spring Design developed a patent pending, dual-screen eReader design. Barnes and Noble expressed interest in Spring Design’s dual-screen design. In October 2009, after eight months of discussions between Spring Design and Barnes & Noble over a possible collaboration, Barnes & Noble independently launched the Nook, an Android-based, dual-screen eReader. Spring Design has sued the bookseller's website division, Barnesandnoble.com, LLC, for misappropriation of trade secrets and unfair competition. Barnes & Noble has argued that Spring Design's information does not qualify for trade secret protection because the information at issue was publicly available and because Spring Design failed to take reasonable steps to protect the secrecy of its design, among other defenses.

The case was settled on March 3, 2011. Pursuant to the settlement, Spring Design will grant Barnes & Noble a non-exclusive, royalty-free license to its patent portfolio. Other terms were not disclosed.