The Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine — A Glimmer of Hope in the Absence of a Non-Compete Agreement

In the hilarious movie Dumb and Dumber, the imbecilic and unattractive character played by Jim Carrey is told by the beautiful woman he is pursuing that the chances of them winding up together are about one in a million, to which he excitedly replies, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!” Similarly, if an employer wants to enjoin a former employee from working for a competitor, but the employee is not under any sort of non-compete agreement with the former employer, has taken no company records and property, and has not revealed any confidential information or trade secrets to the new employer, the inevitable disclosure doctrine of trade secrets law provides the employer with at least a “chance” of getting the desired injunction.

The inevitable disclosure doctrine is used by employers to stop former employees from working for competitors, even in the absence of a non-compete agreement, on the basis that it is inevitable that the employee will use or disclose the former employer’s trade secrets in connection with the new employment. The significance of this theory is that the employer is not required to prove an actual misappropriation of a trade secret, but rather that the disclosure of the trade secret is inevitable based on the nature of the information and the circumstances of the employee’s new position.

As with all trade secret issues, the law on inevitable disclosure varies somewhat from state to state. For instance, California courts have rejected the doctrine as creating a “de facto covenant not to compete”, Bayer Corp. v. Roche Molecular Sys., Inc., 72 F. Supp. 2d 1111, 1120 (N.D. Cal. 1999), and held that the doctrine “cannot be used as a substitute for proving actual or threatened misappropriation of trade secrets.”  Whyte v. Schlage Lock Co., 125 Cal. Rptr. 2d 277, 294 (4th Dist. 2002). The Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, however, applied a relatively lenient standard under Pennsylvania law for successfully using the theory, holding that an employer need only show a “substantial likelihood” of disclosure of a trade secret. Bimbo Bakeries USA, Inc. v. Botticella, 613 F.3d 102,110 (3d Cir. 2010). (For an excellent nationwide survey of the doctrine, see Ryan A. Wiesner, A State-by-State Analysis of Inevitable Disclosure: A Need for Uniformity and a Workable Standard, 16 Intellectual Property L. Rev. 211 (2012)).

The Georgia Supreme Court has recognized the inevitable disclosure doctrine, although not referring to it by name, in the case of Essex Group, Inc. v. Southwire Corp., 269 Ga. 553, 501 S.E. 2d 501 (1998). In that opinion, the court upheld the trial court’s injunction prohibiting Southwire’s former employee from working for Southwire’s direct competitor’s logistics department for a period of five years. As the basis for its ruling, the court concluded that the competitor had “sought to obtain, by the simple act of hiring [Southwire's former employee], all the logistics information it had taken Southwire millions of dollars and years of testing and modifications to develop as part of Southwire’s plan to acquire a competitive edge over other cable and wire companies ….” Id. at 557. There was neither mention in the opinion of the employee having a non-compete agreement nor any mention of an actual misappropriation by the employee of the alleged trade secret. Instead, the implication of the decision was that disclosure of Southwire’s logistics system was inevitable because of the identity of Southwire and its competitor’s business.

BURR POINT: Even in the absence of an enforceable non-compete agreement, the inevitable disclosure doctrine provides a means for enjoining a former employee’s competitive activities in certain circumstances. For more information on the inevitable disclosure doctrine or how it might apply to your business, don’t hesitate to contact one of the Burr & Forman team members.

Eleventh Circuit Confirms Georgia Legislature Wisely Did a “Do Over” on the New Non-Compete Statute

In golf, a hacker who slices his tee shot into the woods will often announce that he’s going to take a “mulligan”, i.e., hit another ball as if the first one never happened. Georgia’s General Assembly took a legislative mulligan in re-enacting its new non-compete statute, and a recent Eleventh Circuit opinion, Becham v. Synthes (U.S.A.), 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 11225 (11th Cir. 2012), should make the folks under the Gold Dome glad they did.

In 2009, the Georgia General Assembly passed HB 173, which was a bill designed to make non-compete agreements and other post-employment restrictive covenants much easier for employers to enforce. The effectiveness of HB 173 was dependent upon a positive ratification by Georgia voters of a state constitutional amendment authorizing the new law. In November 2010, Georgia voters passed the amendment by a 2-1 margin. Because HB 173 specifically stated that it would become effective the day after ratification of the amendment, legislators, lawyers and employers all assumed that Georgia finally had its new employer-friendly non-compete statute in place as of November 3, 2010.

Shortly after the ratification of the amendment, however, some non-compete attorneys and commentators, including this author, began to have serious concerns about the effectiveness of the new law due to a discrepancy between the effective date of the new law, November 3, 2010, and the effective date of the constitutional amendment, which by law was January 1, 2011 (because the amendment, due to a legislative oversight, did not have a specified effective date).  The analysis was that because the new statute was not constitutionally authorized on the date it became effective, it was unconstitutional and could not be revived by the later effectiveness of the amendment. This author shared the concerns of practitioners with the sponsor of HB 173, Rep. Wendell Willard, and he eventually concluded that the statute needed to be re-passed in the next session in an abundance of caution. (Go here for a discussion between the author and Rep. Willard about the events leading up to re-passage of the bill).

Thus, in 2011, the General Assembly passed a new bill, HB 30 (codified at OCGA §13-8-50 et seq.), that was essentially identical to the 2009 bill. This new statute, however, by its terms only applied to agreements executed on or after the new effective date of May 11, 2011. This left some uncertainty about how Courts would treat non-compete agreements executed during the legislative twilight zone period between the effective dates of the first and second versions of the new non-compete statute. Would courts give any deference to employers who had their employees execute new non-competes in reliance upon the much ballyhooed passage of the new statute?

That question was answered in the negative by the Eleventh Circuit in the recent Becham opinion. In that case, an employer was attempting to enforce a non-compete agreement dated December 1, 2010, after the ratification of the constitutional amendment and the effective date of HB 173, but before the effective date of the corrective 2011 statute. In affirming the grant of summary judgment in favor of the employee-defendant, the Eleventh Circuit held that “HB 173 was unconstitutional and void the moment it went into effect”, thus confirming the analysis of the practitioners who first reached out to the bill sponsor. The effect of that ruling was that the Court applied the much more onerous pre-statute body of Georgia non-compete law, and the plaintiff’s non-compete covenants were held to be unenforceable

BURR POINT:  The Georgia lawmakers’ nimble legislative repair of its previous misstep on the timing of the new non-compete statute means that all’s well that ends well, unless you’re an employer caught in the gap of the effective dates of the two versions of the law.  For Georgia employers, it is now clear that your non-competes must be executed on or after May 11, 2011, in order to take advantage of the more lenient new statute. For more information or help further understanding the changes to Georgia’s non-compete laws, contact a member of Burr & Forman’s Non-Compete and Trade Secrets team.

“Full Time and Attention” Provisions Provide an Additional Weapon in Non-Compete Cases

An employer seeking to stop or slow down a former employee who is unfairly competing with business needs to examine every possible legal claim as options to use against the employee. In many cases, the employee spent time laying the groundwork for new employment or business ventures while still employed by the previous employer. These situations present another legal opportunity to employers, in addition to the usual considerations of non-compete, non-solicitation and trade secret violation claims. The employer and its attorney should consider a claim against the former employee based on a common provision in employment contracts: the requirement that the employee devote his “full time and attention” (or similar language) to the employment.

There’s not a lot of case law interpreting these provisions, but the cases that do show that this boilerplate language can potentially provide another arrow in the employer’s quiver. In example:

BURR POINTWhile non-compete claims focus on what an employee did after they left their employment, the employee’s activities prior to their departure could lead to a claim for breaching a contractual duty to devote their “full time and attention” to the former employer’s business.

Results Matter Radio Discussion on Georgia’s New Non-Compete Employment Statute

Results Matter Radio host Lee Kantor sat down last week with State Representative Wendell Willard and Burr & Forman attorney Chip Collins to discuss the ins and outs of Georgia’s new non-compete employment statute.

Although Georgia has only recently enacted a non-compete statute, it’s not from lack of trying. Rep. Willard, the sponsor of the bill that became the new statute, discussed the difficulty that Georgia has faced trying to codify non-compete standards. Georgia first passed a non-compete statute in 1989, only to have it ruled unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court shortly thereafter.   The state legislature passed another non-compete statute in 2009, which was supposed to become effective upon a majority referendum vote in November 2010 for a constitutional change that would authorize the new statute.   Following the approval of the referendum, however, Collins raised with Rep. Willard some technical concerns that he and other practitioners had with the new statute that potentially exposed it to a legal challenge.  As a result of those concerns, Rep. Willard sponsored what was essentially a re-passage of the statute in the 2011 legislative session, and Gov. Deal signed it into effect on May 11, 2011.  The new statute is codified at OCGA § 13-8-50 and applies to all non-compete agreements signed after May 11, 2011.

Collins and Willard agreed that the new statute dramatically shifts the legal landscape of Georgia’s non-compete law in favor of employers, with perhaps the biggest impact being a Court’s ability under the new statute to “blue-pencil”, or modify,  an overbroad agreement. Under the pre-statute rules, non-compete agreements were often deemed unenforceable by trial courts for being overbroad in scope—either in terms of duration, territory, or restricted activities. Now, however, almost any non-compete is potentially enforceable, at least to a degree deemed reasonable by the court tasked with enforcing it.

As reassuring as the effects of Georgia’s new non-compete law may be for employers, Collins and Rep. Willard give a strong warning to employers that this new statute only applies to non-compete agreements signed after May 11, 2011; the old pro-employee rules still apply to any agreements that pre-date the statute. Thus, if you are an employer who has not had a new agreement drafted and executed by your employees in the last year, they urge you to do so as soon as possible.

For more details, listen to Georgia State Representative Wendell Williard’s and Burr & Forman attorney Chip Collins Jr.’s full broadcast on Results Matter here.

Wendell Willard, State Representative 49th District Georgia House of Representatives, is the co-sponsor of Georgia’s new non-compete employment statute that became effective last year and drastically changed the legal landscape for non-competes. Read more about the Georgia House of Representatives

William (Chip) Collins, Jr. is the attorney who heads Burr and Forman’s new non-compete and trade secrets group. He continues to successfully help businesses of all types prevent unfair competition. Read more about Chip and his experience on the Burr & Forman site.

Burr & Forman LLP’s Results Matter Radio brings you pertinent business information and real life solutions to help drive desired results for you – whatever your business may be. Please join us right here every Tuesday 10:00 am Eastern for our LIVE Broadcast, and CLICK HERE to listen to our Archived Shows anytime.

Want more information on non-compete agreements and state legislation? Contact Burr & Forman for more insights on the enforceability of non-compete clauses.

Early Court Opinions Construing Georgia’s New Non-Compete Statute Confirm Need For Employers to Have Employees Execute New Agreements

As previously reported by this commentator and others, Georgia enacted a new non-compete statute (O.C.G.A. §13-8-50 et seq.), effective May 11, 2011, which drastically alters non-compete agreements in Georgia.  Georgia was previously one of the most difficult states in which to enforce a non-compete agreement, but overnight, Georgia law and public policy changed to become more favorable to employers. The most significant deviation from the prior law is that courts are now allowed to judicially modify (“blue-pencil”) non-compete agreements that are deemed to be overbroad. Before this change, Georgia court had no choice but to rule as void any non-compete that did not meet Georgia’s strict drafting requirements.  Thus, under the new statute, any agreement is potentially enforceable to some degree.  The one catch with the statute is that it only applies to non-compete agreements executed on or after the effective date.

While the new statute was favorably received by Georgia employers, it immediately raised at least two questions for attorneys practicing in the non-compete arena: (1) How would judges use their new found blue-pencil powers for agreements they deemed to be overbroad? and (2) Would courts give any deference to Georgia’s new pro non-compete public policy in interpreting and enforcing non-compete agreements that pre-date the effective date of the statute, even though technically it’s not applicable to those agreements? Eight months into life under the new statute, those questions are starting to get answered, as evidenced by two opinions by Judge Story of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Judge Story’s ruling on a motion for preliminary injunction in Pointenorth Insurance Company v. Zander (2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11341) provides the first published opinion wherein a court applied the new statute and used the judicial “blue pencil” to modify and then enforce a no-compete agreement.  In this case, the plaintiff-employer sued a former employee to enforce a customer non-solicitation covenant contained in an employment agreement dated May 11, 2011 (the effective date of Georgia’s new non-compete statute).  Judge Story found the non-solicit provision to be overbroad because it purported to forbid the employee from soliciting “any of the Employer’s clients”, as opposed to just those with whom the customer interacted.  In exercising the powers granted under the new statute, however, the court modified the non-solicit provision to apply only to customers that the former employee “contacted and assisted” while employed with the plaintiff and granted the requested injunction in accordance with the blue-penciled terms of the agreement.

Another ruling by Judge Story, however, highlights the answer (in the negative) to the question of whether the new public policy would have any effect on non-compete agreements pre-dating effective date of the new statute.  In Boone v. Corestaff Support Services, Inc. (2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85454 (N.D.Ga. 2011)), the court reconsidered a previous decision and held that Georgia’s new non-compete statute, and the employer-friendly public policy it embodies, cannot apply in any way in interpreting and enforcing a non-compete executed prior to the statute. For the agreements drafted prior to the statute, the more-strict prior rules apply, regardless of whether the outcome may be vastly different than if the new statue applied.  In so holding, Judge Story followed the decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals in Bunker Hill Int’l, Ltd. v. Nationsbuilder Ins. Servs, Inc., (309 Ga. App. 503, 710 S.E. 2d. 662 (2011)).  This same conclusion has subsequently been reached by other Federal District Court judges and appellate panels in the state.  See Fantastic Sams Salons Corp. v. Maxie Enterprises, Inc., (2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8106 (N.D.Ga. 2012)); Hix v. Aon Risk Servs. South, Inc., (2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134569 (N.D. Ga. 2011)); Murphree v. Yancey Bros. Co. (311 Ga. App. 744, 716 S.E. 2d. 824 (2011)).

BURR POINTThe early indication is that courts in Georgia are readily willing to use their new statutory power to judicially modify overbroad non-compete agreements, but only for those agreements executed on or after the effective date of the statute (May 11, 2011).  Any older agreements will still be reviewed under the previous statutes with no help from the newly declared pro non-compete public policy.  Accordingly, Georgia employers should consult an attorney to assist them in having employees under non-compete agreements predating May 11, 2011, execute new agreements.

Key Ingredients for an Effective Non-Compete Agreement

In increasingly competitive business environments consisting of mobile and tech-savvy workforces, employers need to take full advantage of the most important protection available against unfair competition by former employees: a comprehensive and effective non-compete agreement. Employers should have non-compete agreements reviewed and/or drafted by an attorney familiar with the laws of any state that the agreement will be active in (usually the states in which employees reside). This is especially important because the laws governing non-compete agreements vary from state to state.

However, regardless of state, the key ingredients to a successful and protective agreement include the following types of provisions:

  • Non-Competes — While a “Non-Compete Agreement” usually refers to an employment contract that includes many of the provisions in this list, an actual non-compete provision is the one that actually prohibits an employee from working for a competitor.  To be enforceable, this type of provision typically must be reasonable in terms of the duration, the territory, and the scope of prohibited activities.  What is deemed reasonable varies from state-to-state and is often fact-specific based on the circumstances of each particular employee.
  • Non-Solicitation of Customers — In a world where anyone on the globe is potentially accessible by email or cellphone, an employer’s vulnerability to competition is often defined not by geography but by customers.  Accordingly, a provision for the non-solicitation of customers is essential for most modern businesses.  A non-solicitation covenant does not by itself prevent an employee for working for a competitor, but rather it prohibits an employee from affirmatively soliciting the customers of the former employer.  A non-solicitation provision often works in tandem with a non-compete clause, but a non-solicitation term is a must where employees are reluctant to agree to an absolute prohibition from competing in a certain area.
  • Confidentiality/Non-Disclosure — These provisions limit an employee’s ability to use or disclose non-public information relating to the employer’s business and customers.  Even in the absence of a non-compete or non-solicitation provision, confidentiality agreements can be used to hinder unfair competition and solicitation of customers by a former employee if it can be shown that the employee is using the confidential business information from the former employer.  Additionally, confidentiality agreements are usually necessary, at minimum, to prove the key element of a claim for a trade secret violation: efforts to maintain the “secrecy” of a purported trade secret.
  • Non-Recruitment — A non-recruitment provision seeks to limit a former employee’s ability to recruit other employees away from the employer.  There are few common law and statutory restrictions on the recruitment of a company’s employees, so these types of covenants are an important tool for staving off mass defections.
  • Return of Property — Many post-employment problems can be avoided, or grounds for a remedy improved upon if there is a problem, by a contract requiring that an employee return all company-related property, information, or documents obtained or created by the employee upon termination of the employment relationship.

BURR POINTWhile there are multiple other terms that are a part of a well-drafted non-compete agreement, the list above provides the backbone terms that will serve as protection for the employer.

What is a Trade Secret?

Most businesses are familiar with the concept of a trade secret, but few can accurately define the legal meaning of the term.  Those seeking protection will claim that basically all of their business information qualifies as a trade secret, while defendants fighting a claim will argue that the requirements for something to be a trade secret are extremely restrictive. The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle.  So, what exactly constitutes a trade secret?

The Uniform Trade Secrets Act has been adopted by 46 states (all except New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas).  Georgia’s version of the Act defines a trade secret as follows:

“Trade secret” means information, without regard to form, including, but not limited to, technical or nontechnical data, a formula, a pattern, a compilation, a program, a device, a method, a technique, a drawing, a process, financial data, financial plans, product plans, or a list of actual or potential customers or suppliers which is not commonly known by or available to the public and which information:

(A) Derives economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by, other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and

(B) Is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.

Whether or not a supposed trade secret satisfies the definition of a trade secret often decides the winners and losers in trade secret disputes.  Here are some examples of decisions by state and Federal courts in Georgia regarding the determination of a trade secret:

Items Ruled as Trade Secrets

  • Written, or electronically-stored, customer lists, if not readily available to the public
  • Computer software
  • Packaging idea
  • Logistics system
  • Healthcare provider’s referral log and workbook containing doctor referral statistics

Not a Trade Secret

  • Intangible customer information existing in the mind of the former employee
  • Recollection of cities that franchisor considered to be good location for future franchises (deemed to be similar to intangible customer information, and thus not protectable)
  • Accumulated technical information in employee’s mind
  • A particular bearing in a cleaning system  (since bearing was stamped with the name of a third party, anyone could call the bearing manufacturer to find out the specifications of the bearing)
  • Name for future newspaper planned by publisher
  • Matters generally known in the industry
  • Process of evaluating amount to bid on tax deeds   (the information was available to the public, and the process was not a unique combination affording possessor a competitive advantage)
  • A customer list that does not provide a competitive advantage (even though it was not publicly available)
  • Investor lists

BURR POINT:  The Uniform Trade Secret Act can be a powerful tool for protecting a confidential business and customer information, but claiming a trade secret and meeting the legal definition of same are two different matters.  Businesses of all types would be well-served to have an attorney review their processes, employment agreements and policies to ensure they are set up to take full advantage of the protection that trade secrets laws provide.

 

Welcome to Burr & Forman’s Non-Compete and Trade Secrets Law Blog!

Welcome to Burr & Forman’s Non-Compete and Trade Secret Law Blog!

In an increasingly competitive and mobile workplace, non-compete agreements and trade secret laws have become necessary tools for employers to protect their valuable customer relationships and confidential information and to avoid unfair competition from former employees and competitors. Continual changes in non-compete and trade secrets law, as well as technological advances providing increasing avenues for unfair competition, make it imperative that businesses in all fields stay abreast of the latest developments in this area.

For these reasons, the attorneys of Burr & Forman’s Non-Compete and Trade Secrets Group have launched this blog to help employers, executives and attorneys keep up with news, statutory changes, legal opinions and practical tips involving all areas of unfair competition law:  non-competes, trade secrets, customer non-solicitation, non-recruitment, non-disclosure, confidentiality agreements, tortious interference with business relations, employee piracy, computer theft, breach of fiduciary duties, employee loyalty, and intellectual property rights.

Because the law relating to most of these areas is state-specific, we will focus on developments in Burr & Forman’s Southeastern focus of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida. However, we will also cover any particularly impactful or interesting events in other parts of the country relating to unfair competition. If you need help in a state outside of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi or Florida, let us know. We’ve aligned our firm with trusted practices across the country and around the world and we will get your questions answered at the right law firm.

We hope that our clients, as well as other employers, executives and their attorneys, will find this blog informative and entertaining and will make it a regular part of their business reading. If you ever have a question about something on the blog or have an unfair competition issue, feel free to contact any of the Burr & Forman’s Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members and we will be happy to assist you.

Thanks for reading!