Federal Trade Secrets Protection — Finally Something Both Parties Can Agree On

In recent months, two bipartisan bills have been introduced in Congress providing for a Federal civil remedy for trade secret misappropriation — the Defend Trade Secrets Act , introduced in the Senate in April, and the Trade Secrets Protection Act, introduced in the House in July.   These companion bills are substantively similar in that they both amend the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 to establish a private right of action for a trade secret violation.  So far, the House bill is moving faster, having been approved on September 17, 2014, by the House Judiciary Committee and presumably moving toward a full House vote in the near future (or at least that’s what I learned on School House Rock).

The significance of these bills is that they finally extend Federal civil protection and regulation to trade secrets, currently the only category of intellectual property not so covered (copyrights, trademarks, and patents already have Federal protection).  The practical effect of these bills, if passed, will not be as game-changing as the casual observer might think, however.   The Uniform Trade Secrets Act (the “UTSA”) was first published in 1979, amended in 1985, and has been adopted by 47 states in some form, so civil remedies currently exist for trade secret theft and are similar to that offered in these two Federal bills.  Moreover, trade secret claims arising under state law often wind up in Federal Court based on diversity jurisdiction, so the access to Federal Courts is not as big of a deal as the bill sponsors might make it out to be.

Despite the similarities to the existing body of state statutes, however, the new bills, if passed, would certainly provide a new, improved hammer with which companies can pound unfair competitors and deceitful former employees. Some advantages of the proposed bills over the current state statutes based on the UTSA include the following:

  • Strong statement that trade secret protection is an important U.S. public policy;
  • Uniformity in trade secret law across the country;
  • Direct access to Federal Courts, regardless of the location of the parties or amount in controversy;
  • Longer statute of limitations;
  • Increased recoverable damages; and
  • Procedures for ex parte seizure of evidence.

BURR POINT: Rare bipartisan support, similar bills in both the House and Senate, and a quick and favorable reporting out of the House Judiciary point to Federal trade secrets legislation being something that this hamstrung Congress might actually be able to pass.

Derek Jeter Retires: Can He Compete?

For two decades Yankees fans and baseball aficionados everywhere have reveled in Derek Jeter’s statesmanship and poise. Jeter exemplified leadership. Despite having played alongside several teammates embroiled in controversy, Jeter remained above the fray. He spoke with his bat. He spoke with his glove. His ability to keep his tongue spoke loudly enough for all to hear. He was, as all baseball fans know, a fierce competitor. Yankees fans around the globe imagine a day when Jeter might return to the organization. Will he coach? Will he manage? Will he run the front office?

Jeter is not the first employee to retire after years of dedicated and valuable service. Nor is Derek Jeter a typical employee.   If a professional baseball team offered Derek Jeter the job of Manager ̶ any baseball team ̶ Yankees fans would likely collectively say “Good for you, Captain.”

This author is unaware of any instance in which a retiring baseball player was subject to a non-competition agreement. However not all successful retiring employees in Florida face as easy a path to continued success. Readers of this blog are well aware that under defined circumstances Florida law allows employers and employees to negotiate non-competition agreements that can restrict for a limited period of time the former employee’s future employment. Under Florida law, an employer and its employee can agree on future restrictions pertaining to location, specialty and time period. An employer and its employee can agree on what information constitutes a trade secret and on limitations to the former employee’s use of the employer’s trade secrets.

Can you imagine the trade secrets an athlete like Derek Jeter must possess? Insight on the various pitchers throughout the league could prove invaluable to a Yankees competitor. Jeter’s insight into the Yankees organization itself could prove invaluable to a Yankees competitor. Sure, professionals throughout baseball command high salaries to possess just such insight.   Professional scouts abound. Each Manager is aware of the characteristics of nearly every other player in the league. And yet how many of them has faced a 97 MPH fastball and deftly flicked it into right field with a runner in scoring position to win the game?

It’s true, an employer and employee in Florida can agree on limitations to the employee’s future employment upon his or her departure from a current job. If you’re subject to non-competition agreement in Florida and are restricted from working in your chosen field for a period of time, you need not panic. Rumor has it that a job is now available in the Bronx. The Yankees need a shortstop.

On the other hand, if you lack that particular talent and need legal advice on Florida non-competition agreements, make sure you call an attorney experienced in this area of the law. At Burr & Forman we have attorneys in nine offices throughout the Southeast experienced in dealing with these issues. And yes, Derek, we also need a shortstop…

Georgia Court of Appeals Provides Ammunition for Saving Unenforceable Non-Competes

In the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks and his platoon of grunts cross dangerous enemy territory to rescue an American soldier before he becomes the fourth member of his family to be a casualty of the Big One.  In similar fashion, a trial court and a Georgia Court of Appeals panel in Fab’rik Boutique, Inc. v. Shops Around Lenox, Inc., 2014 Ga. App. LEXIS 612 (Ga. Ct. App. Sept. 8, 2014), led by Judge McFadden, recently marched through 40-plus years of hostile Georgia non-compete law to save an equally vulnerable restrictive covenant.

If you’ve been paying attention to this Blog or Georgia non-compete law in general, you know that May 11, 2011, is Liberation Day for Georgia restrictive covenants.  Following the enactment of Georgia’s  new non-compete statute, O.C.G.A. §13-8-50, et seq., restrictive covenants in agreements executed on or after May 11, 2011, were freed from the often draconian constraints of the prior body of case law governing, and usually dooming, Georgia non-compete agreements.  Of most significance, the new law allows a Court to blue-pencil (or modify, for you non-lawyers out there) an overbroad covenant so that it can be reasonable and thus enforceable.  Agreements that pre-date Non-compete Liberation Day, however, must strictly comply with the applicable body of case law or else be deemed not worth the paper they’re written on.  Decisions from state and Federal courts following the enactment of the new statute made it clear that they understood that Georgia non-compete law now existed in two parallel but supremely disparate dimensions — a litigant seeking to enforce a post-May 11, 2011 restrictive covenant could expect a benevolent jurist with a newly-sharpened blue-pencil eager to assist the over-zealous drafter of the non-compete by softening the effect of the over-reaching contractual language.  For those non-compete plaintiffs with a an older covenant, however, the judge’s ruling would likely continue to be as deadly as the bible-quoting sniper in Tom Hanks’ platoon.

InFab’rik,the Court of Appeals construed a restrictive covenant in a lease that prohibited the tenant, a women’s clothing boutique, from opening or operating “another store” within five miles of the leased premises.  Read literally, the clause would prevent the tenant’s owners from opening up an ice cream shop or hardware store in the restricted area, even though such uses would not be competitive with the tenant’s clothing store in the landlord’s retail center.  The tenant argued that under the pre-2011 strict scrutiny to be applied by Courts to restrictive covenants, the provision was grossly overbroad as drafted and thus unenforceable.

If I were a gambling man, I would have put my money on the tenant in succeeding in this argument, having seen many a similarly vague restrictive covenant felled by the prior body of employee-friendly non-compete law. I’m glad Vegas doesn’t take odds on appellate cases, however, because my wallet would be a little lighter today.  The Court of Appeals, recognizing that it could not use the new statute to blue-pencil the covenant, instead applied the rules of contract construction to narrow what it deemed to be an ambiguous phrase and held that, following such judicial construction, the covenant was reasonable and enforceable against the tenant.  In rationalizing its decision, the Court said that “the application of the rules of contract construction, and not the ‘blue pencil’ method, resolve any ambiguity in the lease.” Id. at *7.  It would be interesting to see how many of the legions of unenforceable non-competes from past opinions could be saved in similar fashion, but alas, that is an endeavor well-beyond the scope of this casual blog post.

BURR POINT:  The prevailing thought among non-compete lawyers In Georgia has been that pre-May 11, 2011 non-compete agreements would not receive any benefit of the change in public policy towards restrictive covenants heralded by the 2011 statute.  The most recent Court of Appeals case on the issue perhaps signals that there may yet be hope for Private Ryan-like older non-compete agreements under attack by a barrage of unfriendly pre-statutory case law.

Joan Rivers and Non-Competition Agreements: Can We Talk?

Sadly, Joan Rivers ̶ the famous comedienne who was perhaps best known for sitting down with celebrities and asking “can we talk?” ̶ died recently at the age of 81. Ms. Rivers’ self-deprecating nature and ability to use laughter to put people either at ease or to otherwise coerce them to divulge information often resulted in her getting the scoop. This unique ability allowed her to remain popular and visible for decades. And how, you might ask, does Ms. Rivers’ story relate at all to Florida non-competition agreements? To borrow a phrase: let’s talk.

If you have followed this blog (or merely happened upon it through an internet search) you likely already know that under Florida law the legal bases for non-competition agreements are found in the statutes under the name “Valid Restraints of Trade.” After all, that is exactly what a non-competition agreement does: it restricts, for a defined period, a former employee from working in a field that might compete with the former employer. The result is a “restraint of trade,” which is to say an obvious restriction on the future employment of the former employee. If drafted properly, a non-competition agreement is legally enforceable against the former employee. The question is: Does it always make sense for a company to litigate a potential violation of an otherwise valid non-competition agreement?

This is certainly a topic worthy of serious discussion. Courts strictly enforce non-competition agreements. When interpreting any ambiguities within these agreements, courts are also compelled to reach an interpretation that favors the former employee’s right to unrestricted work. This is an important factor to consider, because almost all non-competition agreements include a provision for the prevailing party in any enforcement action to have the losing party pay its attorneys’ fees and costs. As a result, what might look like a very strong case for a company against a former employee for violation of a non-competition agreement can turn into a prolonged and expensive battle over potential ambiguities in the agreement.

And now the benefit of talking: Ask yourself why your company wanted its employees to execute a written non-competition agreement. Did the employee’s potential departure pose a unique business risk to your company? Ask yourself what exactly it is you want to protect. Is there a specific trade secret at risk? Is there a client relationship at risk? If the overarching reason for the non-competition agreement is a client relationship, then consider whether the client will react positively to knowledge that your company initiated an action to enforce its non-competition agreement, thus potentially keeping the client from working with someone familiar? Once you answer these and any other relevant questions regarding the need and origin of your non-competition agreement, ask yourself one more. Ask yourself: “What is in the best interests of my company right now?” If, after consulting with your legal counsel and the company decision-makers, you remain confident that the best strategy is to quickly file an enforcement action, then the best thing to do is to secure competent counsel and to work with counsel to immediately set a company budget line-item specifically intended to fund the effort. On the other hand, sometimes the best thing about having your employees execute a valid non-competition agreement is your ability to negotiate a reasonable pay-out at the time of the employee’s departure. If you decide to negotiate instead of seeking to enforce, then the manner in which your company can benefit is often limitless. This is also the time when you can exercise an extreme amount of corporate creativity. Will a simple cash pay-out accommodate whatever pecuniary loss your company anticipates with the employee’s departure? Will your company benefit from entering into a joint venture agreement with the departing employee (presumably on favorable terms)? Is there a realistic opportunity to protect existing client relationships in the absence of the former employee? What is the value to the former employee to continue to work with your company’s (otherwise restricted) clients and contacts? In other words, talk it out within the company. You might discover that early interventional negotiation you will better serve the company’s overall goals than an often-unpredictable legal battle.

And so, back to Joan Rivers, sometimes it’s best to ask: “Can we talk?” Litigating a non-competition claim certainly sends a message to all departing employees that the company is willing to seek strict enforcement of its employer/employee agreements. It’s just not always your company’s best legal strategy.

This blog ends, like most others in this series, with some advice. When it comes to a decision of how to enforce a non-competition agreement, to drafting an enforceable non-competition agreement, or to litigating over the validity of a non-competition agreement, it’s necessary to arm your company with competent legal counsel experienced in these matters. At Burr & Forman we have experienced attorneys throughout the Southeast ready to address your questions and concerns.