Huge Verdict in Trade Secrets Case

It’s a little out of this blog’s Southeastern focus area, but a $22.7MM verdict in a Minnesota trade secrets and non-compete case, as reported by the West Central Tribune at wctrib.comshould be a reminder to all employees and employers that a violation in this area of the law can have disastrous consequences for a defendant. The plaintiff, a dairy and food processing equipment company, successfully argued that two former employees took confidential equipment designs from the company’s computer systems and used them on behalf of a Wisconsin-based competitor, Cheese Systems, Inc. The new employer was also found liable for interference with current or prospective contracts.

Maybe it’s just me, but my mental image of the defendants is this.

If you would like additional information on non-compete agreements and trade secrets law, please contact one of the Burr & Forman Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members.

Is An Assigned Non-Compete Agreement Enforceable?

In the case of a merger or acquisition, the successor company might take an assignment of the current non-compete agreements in favor of the predecessor company.  The enforceability of an assigned non-compete agreement, however, varies from state-to-state, as is true with most issues concerning non-compete law.  Below is a quick survey of how some of the states in the Southeast address the issue:

Georgia – Non-compete agreements, similar to most contracts in the state, are assignable provided that the duties under the agreement do not materially vary from the performance required by the original parties and provided that the contract is not for personal services.  West Coast Cambridge, Inc. v. Rice, 262 Ga. App. 106 (2003) (finding that successor partnership could enforce noncompete agreement against doctor because the law provided no prohibition against the assignment of the agreement and the agreement was expressly binding on successors and assigns, and noting that contract was not for personal services because it only obligated the doctor to not take certain actions).

Tennessee - Tennessee law recognizes that covenants not to compete are assignable absent specific language in the covenants prohibiting assignment.  See Packers Supply Co. v. Weber, 2008 Tenn. App. LEXIS 226 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 14, 2008) (citing Bradford & Carson v. Montgomery Furniture Co., 115 Tenn. 610, 92 S.W. 1104 (Tenn. 1906)).

Alabama - Because non-compete agreements are disfavored as a restraint on trade (see Ala. Code § 8-1-1), a successor employer cannot enforce an employee’s covenant not to compete.  Construction Materials v. Kirkpatrick Concrete, 631 So. 2d 1006 (Ala. 1994) (refusing to enforce noncompete agreement for successor of employer and noting that the legislature’s omission of a specific provision in Ala. Code § 8-1-1 establishing a successor employer’s right to enforce an employee’s covenant with the predecessor employer creates an affirmative interference that this code section was not intended to allow enforcement by successor employers).

Florida - In Florida, the question is answered specifically by  Fla. Stat. § 542.335(1)(f)(2), which provides that a “court shall not refuse enforcement of a restrictive covenant on the ground that the person seeking enforcement is . . . an assignee or successor” provided that “the restrictive covenant expressly authorized enforcement by a party’s assignee or successor.”  Recently, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal held that a general assignment clause (such as a statement that the agreement will “inure to the benefit of and be binding upon . . . assigns and successor) is sufficient to assign the agreement to a successor.  DePuy Orthopaedics, Inc. v. Waxman, 95 So. 3d 928 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1st Dist. 2012).

BURR POINT:  Special attention should be paid when drafting a non-compete covenant to ensure that the assignability of the covenant is in accordance with the parties’ expectations and the applicable state law.

 

If you would like additional information on non-compete agreements and trade secrets law, please contact one of the Burr & Forman Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members.

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.

Weeding through the Legal Uncertainty of Garden Leave

Employers seeking to limit employees from taking customers with them to new jobs should consider including “garden leave” provisions in their form employment agreements, in addition to or in place of the more traditional non-compete and non-solicitation covenants. A garden leave clause requires an employee to provide a certain period of notice to the employer before voluntarily terminating employment (usually 30-60 days) and restricts the employee from competing against his or her employer during the notice period.  During the notice period, the employee is paid full salary and benefits and is usually directed not to report to work during the notice period. Thus, the  “garden leave” term comes from the notion that, at least metaphorically, the employee will stay at home and tend to his garden during the restricted period, while the employer secures relationships with its customers before the employee goes to work for a competitor.

The potential benefit to garden leave clauses is that they are viewed more favorably by Courts from an enforcement standpoint because the employee is still being paid during the restricted period. Because the concept is relatively new in the United States (as opposed to its common use in the United Kingdom), there is not a lot of case law guidance about their enforceability.   As with non-competes, the law controlling these provisions is very jurisdiction-specific.  For example, garden leave provisions have been regularly enforced in New York. See Estee Lauder Co. v. Batra, 430 F. Supp. 2d 158, 182 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (granting preliminary injunction of five months against employee in charge of developing strategies for certain brands of employer’s skin care products and finding that risk of employee’s “loss of livelihood is entirely mitigated by the fact that [employer] will continue to pay [his] salary of $375,000 per year for the duration of the ‘sitting out’ period”); Ayco Co., L.P. v. Frisch, 795 F. Supp. 2d 193, 197 (N.D.N.Y 2011) (granting preliminary injunction against employee financial advisors and finding that agreement by employees to “give [employer] ninety days notice of termination, during which time they would remain . . . employees and continue to receive their base salary or salary draw, but would no longer participate in [employer's] compensation plan” was enforceable).

The law in the Southeast is significantly less developed.  The last word in Georgia, for instance, came in Carvalho v. Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 80651 (N.D. Ga. October 31, 2007).  Carvalho indicates that courts applying Georgia law may view garden leave provisions less favorably than those applying New York law.  In Carvalho, the Northern District of Georgia considered the enforceability of a garden leave provision, which provided that the employees were entitled to their base salary and benefits during an unspecified notice period.  The court denied a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, reasoning that “[t]he income of these employees is substantially higher than their base salary [and] the employer has the ability to significantly reduce their income and prohibit them from working for another employer of any kind during the notice period.”  The Court also expressed doubt as to whether the covenant was enforceable in light of Georgia’s at will employment standard codified at O.C.G.A. § 34-7-1, reasoning that “because the employee may resign at any time, the Court questions whether he can be ordered to continue in his employment, especially under less favorable terms of employment.”

BURR POINT: Employers should consider adding garden leave provisions in addition to or in place of non-compete provisions in employment contracts.

If you would like to add a garden leave provision to your employee agreements, the Burr & Forman team would be happy to assist you. Please contact us at any time.