Cases from Uniform Trade Secrets Act

United States District Court for the District of Minnesota
Minnesota Trade Secret Law Preempts Unitherm Food Systems Claims

Unitherm is a developer of processes and equipment for cooking meat. Hormel is a manufacturer and marketer of brand-name food and meat products. In 2007, the companies entered a joint development agreement to develop an oven that would make bacon products using high levels of steam for cooking.  

Under the agreement, both parties agreed that "following completion of a commercially viable application of the Project, the parties will negotiate an agreement by which Unitherm will be the exclusive supplier to Hormel of equipment related to the Project for an initial period of five (5) years," with the possibility of an extension. The parties also agreed that all information shared relating to the Project would be considered confidential in accordance with the terms of the Mutual Confidential Disclosure Agreement ("MCDA") signed by both parties.

In 2008 Unitherm filed a patent application covering the process of cooking food at high steam levels.  In 2010, Hormel withdrew from the agreement with Unitherm and filed for patent protection of its own method of cooking bacon.  However, Unitherm alleged that the method claimed by Hormel was developed by Unitherm during the course of the joint development agreement and was proprietary. In September 2014, Unitherm filed suit against Hormel, claiming breach of contract, unjust enrichment, trade secrets misappropriation, accounting, and declaratory relief.

On January 27, 2015, the Honorable Paul A. Magnuson dismissed the trade secrets and accounting claims. In turn, Hormel answered and filed breach of contract and declaratory judgment counterclaims. Each remaining claim and counterclaim is covered by one or both of the summary judgment motions.

On July 25, 2016, United States District Judge Joan N. Ericksen ruled on Unitherm's motion for partial summary judgment and Hormel's motion for summary judgment. Unitherm's breach of contract and unjust enrichment claims were dismissed with prejudice, Hormel's breach of contract counterclaim was dismissed with prejudice, Hormel's declaratory judgment counterclaim was dismissed with prejudice to the extent it claims ownership of the Unitherm Process. The claim remains unresolved to the extent it claims ownership of the Hybrid Process. Unitherm's claim for declaratory relief remains unresolved.

Unither's unjust enrichment claim brought in lieu of its breach of contract claim is of significance. "Unjust enrichment is an equitable theory which cannot be asserted where the rights of the parties are governed by a valid contract." Holiday Hosp. Franchising, Inc. v. H-5, Inc., 165 F. Supp. 2d 937 , 941 (D. Minn. 2001). Since Unitherm's claim is based on conduct that is governed by the joint development agreement, the unjust enrichment claim fails. Unitherm's claim based on Hormel's disclosure of confidential information and reverse engineering of the oven also fails because it was governed by the MCDA. Lastly, to the extent that Unitherm's claim is based on the allegations that Hormel stole the Unitherm Process, the claim fails becuase it is based on the same operative facts and is therefore preempted by Unitherm's dismissed claim under Minnesota's Uniform Trade Secrets Act.

Ramsey County District Court
Breaking News

Last week, Bryan Szweda, a former vice president at St. Jude Medical was charged with theft of trade secrets in Ramsey County District Court in Ramsey County, Minnesota. While at St. Jude Medical, Szweda filled the role of vice president of operations for global manufacturing of structural heart devices. Szweda presently works at Edwards Lifesciences, one of St. Jude’s competitors that manufactures artificial heart valves. In addition to five felony counts of theft by swindle, Szweda is accused of taking over 4,000 files related to his work at St. Jude before he was placed on administrative leave in September 2014. The stolen files included one of St. Jude’s most restricted documents- its strategic plan which detailed a roadmap of St. Jude’s research and marketing initiatives. Szweda had already moved out of state by the time investigators executed the search warrant on Szweda’s former home in Plymouth, Minnesota. Stay tuned for more developments in this case.

For more information on the case see here and here.

Supreme Court of the State of Utah
Utah Supreme Court Holds That Misapropriation Under the UTSA Gives Rise to a Rebuttable Presumption of Harm

On August 28, 2015, the Supreme Court of the State of Utah reversed the Utah trial court’s grant of summary judgment to defendant Amanda Mercer, holding that trade secret misappropriation under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA) gives rise to a rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm.

In InnoSys Inc. v. Amanda Mercer, plaintiff defense industry technology company sued its former engineer, defendant Amanda Mercer, for violating her non-disclosure agreement and misappropriating the company’s trade secrets, protected material under the UTSA. Mercer had forwarded confidential emails to her private email account and copied a confidential business plan to her own personal external storage device. Further, after InnoSys ended her employment and she was later denied unemployment benefits, she submitted these protected documents into the administrative record of her appeal before the Department of Workforce Services.

The Utah trial court granted Mercer’s summary judgment motion based on InnoSys’ failure to establish any actual or threatened harm. Additionally, the lower court entered rule 11 sanctions against Innosys and awarded Mercer attorney fees. The lower court’s reasoning stemmed in part from the fact that Mercer had apparently destroyed the confidential documents that she misappropriated, thereby defeating the potential for harm to InnoSys.

The state’s Supreme Court reversed the lower court and remanded for further proceedings, reviving InnoSys’ claims against Mercer. Because it was undisputed that Mercer misappropriated these protected documents, the sole issue on appeal concerned the evidence of harm. The Utah high court reasoned that the instant facts demonstrated a prima facie case of misappropriation under the UTSA and thus, gives rise to a rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm. Judge Lee instructed that “trade secrets are a right of property”1 and upon proof of misappropriation, the “trade secret claimant is entitled to a rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm for the purposes of injunctive relief . . . .”2 Judge Lee observed that such a principle is widely accepted under UTSA caselaw and is considered a core standard of trade secret law. Additionally, even though Mercer had apparently destroyed the protected documents at the center of the case, such actions were not sufficient to rebut the presumption of harm to InnoSys. Judge Lee noted that injunctive relief would yield little harm to Mercer if she did indeed destroy the documents, and would provide great protection to InnoSys if she did not, and had intentions to continue misappropriating the confidential information.

1 InnoSys Inc. v. Amanda Mercer, 2015 UT 80U, ¶33.
2 Id. at ¶34.

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.

United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
Florida's Litigation Privilege Bars Misappropriation Claims Under the FUTSA

On December 10, the 3rd Circuit upheld a district court decision dismissing Microbilt Corporation's claims for misappropriation of trade secrets under the Florida Uniform Trade Secrets Act ("FUTSA"). Microbilt claimed that Gunster violated the FUTSA when they attached copies of invoices from customers of a Microbilt subsidiary as an exhibit in a complaint alleging breach of contract, filed in the Middle District of Florida.

On appeal, the 3rd Circuit explained that it is "well-settled under Florida law that the absolute litigation privilege applies to statements in pleadings filed with the court." Thus the court reasoned, foreign state exceptions to the privilege, relied on by Microbilt, are irrelevant to the case at present. Further, since the privilege is settled law, the court need not submit it as a certified question to Florida Supreme Court.

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...

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.

Central Division, County of Los Angeles, Superior Court of the State of California
Still Fighting over Dolls: MGA Refiles its Claim Against Mattel in Cal. State Court, Claiming UTSA Violation

In the latest chapter of this saga, MGA Entertainment filed a $1 billion suit against Mattel in a California state court claiming that Mattel engaged in willful and deceptive business practices regarding the Bratz line of dolls. The complaint alleges that for over fifteen years, Mattel employees snuck into trade shows in order to steal advertising lists, price lists and new product concepts. One year ago, a Ninth Circuit panel threw out a $170 million jury award in favor of MGA on grounds that MGA's counterclaim was not properly before that jury; the Ninth Circuit left the door open for MGA to refile.

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.

E.D. Cal.
Court Finds CUTSA Preemption Issue Must be Raised at Summary Judgment, not Motion to Dismiss

U.S. Legal Support, Inc., a provider of court reporting services, sued two of its former employees and their new employer for misappropriating its customer lists in order to set up a competing business in the area of Northern California.

In a decision that may be reviewed by the circuit court, the E.D. Cal found that defendants' motion to dismiss some claims based on the pre-emption of common law trade secrets claims by California's Uniform Trade Secrets Act (CUTSA) was premature. The court said that the question turned in part on whether plaintiffs had succeeded in showing that defendants had violated a common law property right that was based "on grounds that are qualitatively different from the grounds upon which trade secrets are considered property" (citing Bryant v. Mattel, Inc., No. CV 04–9049 DOC (RNBx), 2010 WL 3705668 at *22 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 2, 2010)). Because this was a question of fact rather than law, "[d]efendants can determine in discovery whether Plaintiff’s contentions have any merit, and when appropriate, bring a summary judgment motion as to the issue of supersession."