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.

Preparing for a Smack Down: Local Wrestling Company Sues Former Employee and World Wrestling Entertainment for Trade Secrets Violation

A local professional wrestling promotions company, TNA Entertainment, LLC (“TNA”), has sued former employee, Brian Wittenstein, and direct competitor, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (“WWE”), for unlawfully using TNA’s trade secrets against them in unfair competition.  The case, entitled TNA Entertainment, LLC v. Wittenstein and World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., was filed on May 23, 2012 in the Davidson County Chancery Court, Docket No. 12-746-III and alleges that Wittenstein and WWE violated Tennessee’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act.

According to TNA, Wittenstein was terminated from the company on August 3, 2011.  In connection with his separation, Wittenstein entered into a Separation Agreement and General Release (the “Agreement”), which expressly prohibited him from disclosing TNA’s confidential trade secrets, including information about TNA’s contracts with other wrestling talent.

TNA claims that Wittenstein violated the agreement by downloading TNA’s company policies, contractual agreements with other wrestling talent, and detailed information about its wrestling talent (including compensation). TNA then claims that Wittenstein disclosed the gathered information to his new employer, and direct competitor of TNA, WWE.  TNA asserts that WWE’s possession and use of TNA’s confidential trade secrets provide WWE an unfair competitive advantage regarding wrestling talent.

TNA alleges that WWE has used TNA’s confidential trade secrets to solicit wrestling talent currently, under contract with TNA, and encourage them to join WWE.  Wrestler Ric Flair is a recent example of a client that TNA claims attempted to terminate his exclusive contract with them to sign up with WWE.

To date, the court has entered a temporary restraining order, prohibiting WWE from using TNA’s confidential information.  Though this case is relatively new, it is a prime example of how costly unlawful use of trade secrets can be to former employees and new employers.  Under the Tennessee Uniform Trade Secrets Act, the unlawful user of trade secrets can be liable for the plaintiff’s actual loss caused by the misappropriation of trade secrets and any “unjust enrichment.”  In certain cases, the defendant may also be liable for “exemplary damages” resulting in up to twice the award for the plaintiff’s damages and the plaintiff’s attorney fees.

Ultimately, employers should always be aware of and protect themselves against potential liability when hiring an employee who may possess a former employer’s confidential trade secrets. If you need more information on confidential trade secrets and defenses against former employees, please contact any of the Burr & Forman Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members for assistance.

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!