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.

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!