Securities brokerage firm Charles Schwab & Co. Inc. has filed suit against former financial consultant Douglas Castro, employed in the brokerage’s Garden City, New York office from until December 2011, when he allegedly abruptly left Schwab and immediately began work at ADC Wealth management, Castro’s newly formed wealth management firm. Schwab’s complaint alleges that Castro was responsible form managing a portfolio worth neatly $275 million, and possessed voluminous information about his former clients and access to extensive amounts of client account information, assets and tax information, as well as investment objectives and other client financial records. The Schwab brokerage complaint includes allegations of Castro’s breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of duty of loyalty, and unfair competition. According to Schwab, Castor utilized Schwab trade secret customer information without authorization, and therein misappropriated said information by soliciting Schwab clients for his newly formed competing firm ADC Wealth Management (ADC).
Not surprisingly, Castro executed confidentiality, non-solicitation and assignment agreements that barred him from using Schwab customer information to divert Schwab business to a new company or solicit Schwab clients to transition their accounts outside the brokerage. In the terms of his agreement with Schwab, Castro agreed not to solicit Schwab customers upon the termination of his employment, to protect the confidentiality of customer information, and not to use or disclose Schwab’s confidential information for any purpose aside from performing his duties and responsibilities on behalf of Schwab” (Complaint, 5). According to Schwab, Castro violated the terms of this agreement after he quit and subsequently contacted Schwab clients with accounts he managed, in attempts to have these individuals transfer their accounts to Castro’s new firm. The case against Castro presents a familiar factual import where a former employee is alleged to have violated previous contractual and statutory obligations not to utilize investor-client information for financial or personal gain. Here, Schwab asserts that Castro could not have possibly learned of the identities of the individual he solicited for ADC’s business services without the information Castro obtained through Schwab.
However, somewhat unique to the case at bar is that both the identities of the Schwab customers themselves, in addition to their respective financial portfolio and wealth management information are seemingly claimed as Schwab trade secrets in this matter. While simply customer names themselves are likely not considered trade secret information, generally customer lists developed by a business through substantial effort and kept in confidence may be treated as a trade secret and protected at the owner’s instance against disclosure to a competitor, provided the information it contains is not otherwise readily ascertainable. See North Atlantic Instruments v. Haber, 188 F.3d 38 (2d Cir. 1999). Determination of whether the Schwab customer information is trade secret will include a consideration of the cost, energy, and time taken by Schwab to cultivate their customer information, a question of fact rather than law. Importantly, the complaint goes to great lengths to outline the steps taken by Schwab to maintain the secrecy of their client information, an essential element for client-lists to be considered trade secrets under common law and count III of the complaint at bar. No answer has been filed by Fisher and Phillips LLP, the New Jersey firm representing Douglas Castro.