A Short Primer on Tennessee’s Trade Secrets Law

In recent postings, we have discussed cases involving claims that a former employee wrongfully used the employer’s confidential information and trade secrets.  In TNA Entertainment, LLC v. Wittenstein and World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., Davidson County Chancery Court, Docket No. 12-746-III, the employer alleged that its former employee used confidential information concerning wrestling talent to gain an unfair competitive advantage.  In Veit v. Event Logistics, Inc., Davidson County Chancery Court Docket No. 12-945-III, the former employee sued her former employer to determine whether her skills as an events coordinator and the identity of customers of event planning services were trade secrets under a separation agreement.

These cases are based on the principle that an employee has a general duty to not disclose confidential information or trade secrets belonging to her former employer.  In many cases, this general duty is memorialized by a written agreement which may include a non-compete agreement, though a contract is not required to protect trade secrets.  If the former employee violates her general duty and contractual obligations, the former employer may seek damages against her.

In Tennessee, the protection of trade secrets has been codified in the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”) found at Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 47-25-1701 et seq.  Under the UTSA, an employer may sue a former employee for the misappropriation and disclosure of trade secrets.

A “trade secret” is information in any form which gives a business a competitive advantage over other businesses which do not have that information.  Trade secrets include technical and nontechnical information, financial data, patterns, compilations, programs, devices, methods, techniques, processes, or plans that have economic value due to the fact that they are secret.  Confidential information is often treated as trade secrets.  One of the best known examples of a trade secret is the formula for Coke.  In TNA Entertainment, LLC, the trade secret at issue was contractual information related to wrestling talent.  In Veit, the trade secrets at issue were event coordinating skills and customer information.

An employee violates the UTSA when he discloses his employer’s trade secrets which he acquired by improper means (theft, bribery, or misrepresentation) or in violation of his duty to maintain its secrecy.  A new employer may also violate the UTSA if it uses the former employer’s trade secret which was improperly acquired or disclosed by the former employee.  Such an allegation was made in TNA Entertainment, LLC.

The UTSA gives an employer broad remedies if its former employee and the new employer acquires and uses its trade secrets.  These include injunctive relief, a court order requiring the return of and prohibiting the use of the former employer’s trade secrets.  In some cases, the court may award the former employer its actual damages and damages for unjust enrichment received by the defendants.  Punitive damages up to twice the award for actual damages and unjust enrichment along with attorney fees may be awarded in cases of willful and malicious misappropriation of trade secrets.

Tennessee law recognizes the need for fair competition in the marketplace.  However, it also recognizes and prohibits unfair competition arising out of the wrongful acquisition and use of trade secrets.  If you would like additional information on trade secrets law, please contact one of the Burr & Forman Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members.

How To Avoid Trade Secret Disputes

Although non-compete and trade secret litigators by definition make our living from disputes involving unfair competition, often the most useful part of our practice involves advising clients on how to avoid litigation.  John Marsh of Hahn Loeser has compiled an excellent list for employers and their new hires, of things not to do when the employee leaves the old job, titled The Trade Secret Litigator’s 7 Deadly Sins of Departing Employees in Trade Secret and Non-Compete DisputesThis should be required reading for any transitioning employee; if universally followed, it could put trade secret lawyers out of business!

Two Recent High-Stakes Trade Secrets Decisions Demonstrate Broad Protection and Potential for Large Exposure

When a party breaches a confidentiality agreement, claims for misappropriation of trade secrets and breach of the confidentiality agreement are often asserted simultaneously. As two recent federal court decisions based on Texas law demonstrate, trade secrets law can sometimes protect employers where confidentiality agreements cannot. These cases also highlight the potential for very large exposure of violators.

On July 26, 2012, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Texas entered a final judgment in the amount of $15,873,383 in favor of TXCO Resources, Inc. and against Peregrine Petroleum, L.L.C. for misappropriation of trade secrets. TXCO Res., Inc. v. Peregrine Petroleum, L.L.C. (In re TXCO Res., Inc.), 2012 Bankr. LEXIS 3425 (Bankr. W.D. Tex. July 26, 2012).  Both TXCO and Peregrine are oil and gas companies based in Texas.  Peregrine signed a confidentiality agreement that allowed it to obtain information about certain of TXCO’s properties. TXCO alleged that Peregrine breached the confidentiality agreement and misappropriated TXCO’s trade secrets, among other causes of action.  In a lengthy opinion issued after a 41-day bench trial, the Court found Peregrine was not liable for breach of the confidentiality agreement since TXCO could not prove that its damages were proximately caused by Peregrine’s breach. The Court did find, however, that Peregrine misappropriated TXCO’s trade secrets by using confidential information about TXCO’s land subsurface data, production data and operations data to acquire oil and gas leases formerly held by TXCO, which gave Peregrine a competitive advantage over TXCO and other companies.

In Raytheon Co. v. Indigo Sys. Corp., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 15892 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 1, 2012), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the decision of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Texas, which granted summary judgment against a misappropriation of trade secrets claim to Indigo and against Raytheon.  Raytheon and Indigo, who are both manufacturers of infrared imaging equipment, entered into a series of confidentiality agreements in 1996 in connection with consulting services to be provided by Indigo to Raytheon.  In 1997, Raytheon became concerned that Indigo was recruiting Raytheon personnel to gain access to Raytheon’s trade secrets, but Indigo assured Raytheon that these accusations were baseless.  Five years later, in 2007, Raytheon disassembled a camera of Indigo’s and discovered evidence of patent infringement and trade secret misappropriation and quickly brought suit.

In granting summary judgment to Indigo, the district court found that the confidentiality agreements were unrelated to the infrared technology at issue and found that Raytheon’s trade secret claim was barred by the three-year statute of limitations under Texas law. The appellate court discussed the “discovery rule,” which allows tolling for claims of trade secret misappropriation until when the plaintiff knew or reasonably should have known of the facts that give rise to the claim. The court also noted that the question of whether Raytheon “should have known” about its claims earlier was for the jury.  The Circuit Court held that the district court erred by resolving this factual question against Raytheon, the non-moving party, at summary judgment.

BURR POINT:  Trade secrets violations can lead to large judgments and the “discovery rule” can be used to preserve the ability to obtain these judgments for older claims.