Two western states, Utah and Idaho, have recently passed or amended their statutes dealing with post-employment restrictions on competition.  This continues a national trend in which new state law in this area is increasingly the product of legislative action rather than judicial interpretation.  Thus, even if an employer has no current presence in these states, it is worth one’s time to understand these changes because they could soon be coming your way.

In Utah, the legislature amended the two-year old Post-Employment Restrictions Act (which we had written about before) to limit the enforcement of non-compete agreements against employees in the broadcasting industry.  The statute (HB 241) imposes a compensation test that precludes non-competes for broadcast industry employees making less than $47,476 annually, limits broadcast company employment contracts to four years or less, and nullifies any restriction that would limit competition beyond the original contract expiration date (meaning that an employee with a one year restriction who leaves a broadcast employer three months before contract expiration would have a three-month non-compete rather than a one-year non-compete).  The amendment also allows enforcement only if the employee is either terminated “for cause,” or the employee breaches the employment contract “in a manner that results in” his or her separation, curious language that seems to leave unaddressed whether a non-compete can be enforced where a non-breaching employee simply resigns.  While this amendment is certainly part of the trend of states (Arizona, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York) having statutes specific to non-compete agreements in the broadcasting industry, it also fits in the broader trend of industry-specific limitations targeting an expanding list of industries and the even broader attack on non-compete agreements more generally.

The Idaho legislature also took action recently by amending its non-compete statute to remove an important pro-employer presumption applicable to non-compete agreements for “key” employees.  The Idaho statute, Idaho Code §44-2701 et seq., had since 2016 included a provision (§44-2704(6)) providing that an employer would be entitled to a rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm when a key employee found that employer likely to succeed on its claim that the employee had violated the covenant.  The legislature, in S 1287a, repealed that provision, restoring Idaho law to its pre-2016 status, as Idaho’s governor noted in his statement concerning the bill.  The governor did not sign the bill, but simply allowed it to become law without his signature.  He stated that he refrained from signing the bill because there was “no consensus” in the business community or the tech sector on such agreements, and went on to note that the next session of the legislature should re-adopt a modified version of the presumption provision just jettisoned.  As in Utah, this legislative back-and-forth illustrates the continued attention states are paying to non-compete issues in political, rather than judicial, forums.

On April 3, 2018, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (“DOJ”) announced that it had entered into a settlement with two of the world’s largest railroad equipment manufacturers resolving a lawsuit alleging the defendant employers had entered into unlawful “no-poach” agreements.  The DOJ’s Complaint, captioned U.S. v. Knorr-Bremse AG and Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corp., 18-cv-00747 (D. D.C.) alleges that three employers referred to as Knorr, Wabtec and Faively,[1] unlawfully promised one another “not to solicit, recruit, hire without approval, or otherwise compete for employees.”  It goes on to allege “[t]hese no-poach agreements denied American rail industry workers access to better job opportunities, restricted their mobility, and deprived them of competitively significant information that they could have used to negotiate better terms of employment.”

This development should come as no surprise; since October 2016 federal antitrust enforcement agencies[2] have been vocal about their increased focus on no-poaching and wage-fixing agreements among employers.  This past January, the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division reiterated that no-poaching agreements among employers remained an enforcement priority and employers could expect the DOJ to announce an increasing number of enforcement actions in the coming months.

Although the allegations against Knorr and Wabtec concern agreements between high-level corporate officers, employers should take steps to ensure that all managers, recruiters, and human resources professionals comply with applicable antitrust laws. For example, seemingly innocuous activities like discussing employee salary and benefits at industry conferences can constitute an unlawful information exchange.  Consulting the joint FTC and DOJ Antitrust Red Flags for Employment Practices provides an accessible starting point for understanding this area of the law.  However, employers will be well served to take additional steps to audit their business practices and communications with competitors throughout the organization in order to detect, and mitigate any legal risk associated with potentially unlawful agreements with competitors.

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[1] “Knorr” refers to Knorr-Bremse AG, including its wholly owned US subsidiaries.  “Wabtec” is an abbreviation of Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation.  “Faiveley” refers to Faiveley Transport S.A.  Faiveley is not included in the case caption because it was acquired by Wabtec in 2016.

[2] The DOJ Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”)

Earlier this month, Colorado amended its law governing physician non-compete agreements (C.R.S. § 8-2-113(3)).  Since its enactment in 1982, that statute generally has prohibited agreements restricting the rights of physicians to practice medicine, but has allowed contractual provisions requiring a physician to pay damages arising from his or her competition if the damages are reasonably related to the injury suffered by the employer or other contracting party.  Under the amended statute, “a physician may disclose his or her continuing practice of medicine and new professional contact information to any patient with a rare disorder…to whom the physician was providing treatment.”   The goal of the amendment is to avoid interruptions to the continued care of individuals with rare disorders.  The statute looks to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc. to maintain a database of diseases considered “rare disorders.”

Colorado physician practices should review and, if necessary, update any restrictive covenants in their physician agreements to ensure they are enforceable under the amended statute, bearing in mind that physicians now have the right to communicate personal contact information to patients suffering from rare disorders. Going forward, to avoid future disputes, physicians and their employers or practices may even wish to agree upon the language departing physicians can use to communicate information regarding their new practice to persons with rare disorders.

Also, any such review of physician agreements should consider the recent Colorado Supreme Court decision limiting the damages physicians’ practices can recover against physicians in breach of their non-compete agreements.

A little-noticed decision from earlier this year rendered by the Supreme Court of New York, Westchester County, demonstrates how enforcement of post-employment restrictive covenants will often boil down to a single question: does the restriction protect a legitimate business interest of the employer?

In Cindy Hoffman, D.O., P.C. v. Raftopol, plaintiff applied for a preliminary injunction against its former employee, a physician’s assistant, who began working for a competitor in technical violation of her past employment non-compete restriction which barred her for two years from working for competitors located within fifteen miles of any of the plaintiff-employer’s several offices.  Plaintiff asked the court to apply relaxed scrutiny to the covenant, arguing that the physician’s assistant position could be considered to be a “learned profession” in which her services performed were unique and extraordinary.  The court declined to apply such deference where the defendant was not in fact a physician.  Examining the two year restriction under New York’s traditional reasonableness standard, the court still was reluctant to enforce it as written.  Instead, Justice Terry Jane Ruderman blue-penciled the agreement and granted the preliminary injunction only to the extent of preventing the defendant from affirmatively soliciting clients of the plaintiff’s practice for a period of two years.

Safeguarding the plaintiff’s client relationships was the true legitimate business interest worthy of protection, and the court was willing to go no further than that in granting its injunctive relief.

The Colorado Court of Appeals, in Crocker v. Greater Colorado Anesthesia, P.C., recently examined several unique enforceability considerations with respect to a physician non-compete agreement.  Of particular interest was the Court’s treatment of a liquidated damages provision in the agreement.  Pursuant to a Colorado statute (8-2-113(3), C.R.S. 2017), the Court held that the provision was unenforceable because the liquidated damages were not reasonably related to the injury actually suffered.

Michael Crocker, a former physician-shareholder at Greater Colorado Anesthesia (Old GCA), signed an employment agreement with Old GCA that contained a non-compete provision that prohibited Crocker from practicing anesthesiology within 15 miles of a hospital serviced by Old GCA, for two years following termination of the agreement. The employment agreement also included a liquidated damages clause that required a former employee who violated the non-compete agreement to pay “(1) the three-year annual average of the gross revenues produced by the doctor’s practice; (2) minus the three-year annual average of the direct cost of [Old GCA] employee; (3) multiplied by two, to reflect two years of competition; and (4) plus $30,000 to cover the estimated internal and external administrative costs to terminate and replace the competing doctor.”

In January of 2015, Old GCA’s shareholders voted to approve a merger. Crocker dissented. Crocker severed his employment relationship with Old GCA and later began working for another anesthesiology group within the non-compete area outlined in his employment agreement. After the merger, New GCA sought damages for Crocker’s breach of his non-compete. The district court determined that the non-compete was unenforceable. The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision on several grounds, including hardship on Crocker and Crocker’s rights as a dissenting shareholder with respect to the merger.

The court also independently rejected New GCA’s request for liquidated damages, determining that the company suffered no damages, and that the liquidated damages clause was unenforceable because it was not reasonably related to “any injury [New GCA] actually suffered due to Crocker’s departure.” Citing the Colorado statute governing liquidated damages clauses in physician non-compete agreements, the court explained that “a damages term in a non-compete provision such as here is enforceable only if the amount . . . is reasonably related to ‘the injury suffered’ in the past tense. Under this plain language, the reasonableness of the relationship between the two amounts must be demonstrated, and it cannot be analyzed prospectively; by definition, it can only be determined upon the termination of employment.”

This case underscores the need for employers seeking to enter into restrictive covenants with their employees to consult with counsel when drafting such covenants. In the circumstances of this case, there was a state statute specifically bearing upon the liquidated damages provision in the physician non-compete agreement, which effectively prevented that provision from being enforced against the employee. The world of restrictive covenants can be tricky and compliance with state laws (statutes and case law) is crucial when the time comes to enforce them.

In managing workforces, particularly when addressing employee turnover, employers often find themselves facing issues regarding how best to safeguard their confidential business information and how to protect their relationships with clients and employees. In recent years, the legal landscape underlying these issues has been evolving, as lawmakers and judges grapple with the tension in these matters between protection and free competition.

In this Take 5, we examine recent developments, both in the courts and legislative bodies, concerning trade secrets and employee mobility:

  1. Antitrust Action Against No-Poaching Agreements: The Trump Administration Continues Obama Policy
  2. Drafting “Garden Leave” Clauses in Employment Agreements
  3. Will Insurance Cover a Company Sued in a Trade Secrets Lawsuit?
  4. Defend Trade Secrets Act Developments in 2017
  5. New and Proposed State Statutes and Federal Legislation Limiting Non-Compete Agreements

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

In 2017, there were several cases worth noting under the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”). These cases addressed (i) time periods covered by the DTSA, (ii) pleading requirements under the DTSA, and (iii) standards for obtaining ex parte seizure orders under the DTSA. We will discuss these three issues in turn.

Timing

The DTSA became effective May 11, 2016, which raised the questions of if, when, and how it might apply to pre-May 11, 2016, conduct. Simply stated, defendants may have a “timing defense” when the alleged misappropriation occurred before the DTSA’s enactment (May 11, 2016). See Cave Consulting Grp., Inc. v. Truven Health Analytics Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62109 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 24, 2017). As the Cave Consulting court noted,

[W]ithout facts about when post-enactment use occurred and whether the information disclosed was new or somehow different from the prior misappropriation, plaintiff has failed to state a claim under the DTSA.[1]

The court, however, gave the plaintiff the opportunity to amend, while pointing out that “[t]he Act’s text contemplates three theories of liability: (1) acquisition, (2) disclosure, or (3) use . . .” and that “[n]othing suggests that the DTSA forecloses a use-based theory simply because the trade secret being used was misappropriated before DTSA’s enactment.”[2] Thus, there is no “timing” defense when the plaintiff can show that misappropriation has continued to (or likely will) occur on a date after the statute’s May 11, 2016, effective date. Brand Energy & Infrastructure Sev. v. Irex Contracting Grp., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43497 (E.D. Pa. March 23, 2017) (a plaintiff is allowed to pursue a DTSA claim because the amended complaint alleged multiple uses of trade secrets that occurred after the DTSA was enacted). Courts’ focusing on the timing of alleged misappropriations continues into 2018. Indeed, in Ultradent Prods. v. Spectrum Sols., LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3858 (D.Utah Jan. 8, 2018), the court dismissed the complaint precisely because “[n]one of the allegations against Spectrum indicate[d] when the alleged misappropriation occurred,” leaving one to speculate as to whether the misappropriations were alleged to have occurred after the effective date of the statute.

Pleading

Under the now well-known Twombly/Iqbal standard, applicable on motions to dismiss under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), DTSA plaintiffs must adequately allege, among other requirements, that they took reasonable steps to maintain the secrecy of protected information. In Aggreko, LLC v. Barreto, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35573 (D. N. Dak. Mar. 13, 2017), the plaintiff alleged that it required employees to sign a confidentiality agreement and that information was not disseminated outside the workplace. That was deemed sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). But in Raben Tire Co. v. Dennis McFarland, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26051 (W.D. Ky. Feb. 24, 2017), the plaintiff failed to allege that employees were required to sign confidentiality agreements or to allege any other indicia of reasonable steps to maintain secrecy. This led to a dismissal with prejudice.

Likewise, to avoid dismissal, a plaintiff must adequately allege improper acquisition and/or improper disclosure or use and must do so through more than conclusory allegations or labels. See Prominence Advisors, Inc. v. Dalton, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 207617 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 18, 2017) (dismissing the DTSA count).

Ex Parte Seizures

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, courts have limited the applicability of the DTSA seizure mechanism. That puts a damper on some of the initial enthusiasm that trade secret holders held for the possibility of expanded enforcement rights under the DTSA. For example, courts in California and Indiana each held that statutory seizure orders are only available in extreme circumstances and only when traditional injunctions or temporary restraining orders (“TROs”) sought under Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure would be inadequate. See OOO Brunswick Rail Mgmt. V. Sultanov, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2343 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 6, 2017) (“A court may issue a seizure order only if, among other requirements, an order under Fed. R. Civ. P. 65 or another form of equitable relief would be inadequate.”), and Magnesita Refractories Co. v. Mishra, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10204 (N.D. Ind. Jan. 25, 2017) (traditional Rule 65 TROs are still the preferred means of ordering a seizure of property in DTSA cases; “[o]bviously, in this case, Rule 65 did the trick.”). Rather than making seizures easier and more likely, these cases suggest that the standards for a DTSA seizure order are more strenuous than those under Rule 65.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Keeping Pace in the Fast-Moving World of Trade Secrets and Employee Mobility.”

Consider the following scenario: your organization holds an annual meeting with all Research & Development employees for the purpose of having an open discussion between thought leaders and R&D regarding product-development capabilities. This year’s meeting is scheduled outside the United States and next year’s will be within the U.S. with all non-U.S. R&D employees traveling into the U.S. to attend. For each meeting, your employees may be subject to a search of their electronic devices, including any laptop that may contain your company’s trade secrets. Pursuant to a new directive issued in January 2018 by the U.S. Custom and Border Protection (“CBP”), the electronic devices of all individuals, including U.S. citizens and U.S. residents, may be subject to search upon entry into (or leaving) the U.S. by the CBP. CBP Directive No. 3340-049A (Jan. 4, 2018).

The directive allows for the warrantless border search of electronic devices without a showing of reasonable suspicion. It differentiates between a basic search and an advanced search. A basic search allows officers, with or without suspicion, to examine an electronic device, including an examination of the information that is resident and accessible on the device. Information that is solely stored remotely may not be accessed. An advanced search is one in which the officer connects external equipment, through a wired or wireless connection, to an electronic device in order to “review, copy, and/or analyze” the contents of the electronic device. Advanced searches are permitted where there is a “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity or for national security concerns. While the directive states that “[m]any factors” may create a reasonable suspicion or a national security concern warranting an advanced search, it articulates examples particularly aimed at national security concerns but does not provide much color as to what may constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

By issuing the directive, the CBP appears to align its position with that of the majority of federal courts that held reasonable suspicion is not required for border searches of electronic devices. See, e.g., United States v. Ickes, 393 F.3d 501, 506-07 (4th Cir. 2005) (rejecting reasonable suspicion requirement for laptop computer searches at the border); United States v. Linarez-Delgado, 259 Fed. Appx. 506, 508 (3d Cir. 2007) (rejecting reasonable suspicion requirement for border search of electronic data). Thus, the CBP may have also sought to reject the statements by at least one other court suggesting a requirement for a showing of reasonable suspicion before search of an electronic device. See, e.g., United States v. Cotterman, 709 F.3d 952 (9th Cir. 2013) (implying that officers need reasonable suspicion to conduct a border search of complex personal computing devices).

Can’t your employees just encrypt everything before international travel? Under the directive, travelers are required to present the electronic device (and the information contained within the device) in a condition that allows for the inspection of the device and its contents. Therefore, under the directive, officers may request an individual’s assistance in accessing the device if it is encrypted or password protected, and officers are authorized to detain a device pending a determination as to its admissibility in to the U.S.; they may also exclude a device if access to it is prevented by encryption or password protection.

The directive provides officers with instructions regarding the handling of certain sensitive materials, including business information, medical records, and information protected under the attorney-client privilege. Upon encountering business or commercial information resulting from a search, such as confidential business information, officers are required to “protect that information from unauthorized disclosure[.]” Such confidential business information may only be shared with agencies or entities that have mechanisms in place to protect the information.

Companies should alert employees of the requirements under the new directive. Certain preventative steps should be considered to minimize the potential for disclosure of confidential information at the border, including: (1) minimizing the number of electronic devices with trade secret or confidential information; (2) minimizing the amount of confidential information on a device; (3) to the extent possible, using electronic devices that do not contain confidential information when international travel is required; and (4) considering whether confidential information on the device should be encrypted but with the knowledge that CBP may request that the device be unlocked. Companies should also be cognizant of other issues relating to encrypted devices, including U.S. export control requirements for traveling to certain countries and licenses that may be required for individuals traveling into certain countries with an encrypted device.

In the event of an inspection request by an officer, your employees should be prepared to alert the officer that the device contains confidential business information in order to protect against its disclosure. Employees should also carry company business cards to show officers requesting an inspection that they are an employee of your company.

Of the various types of post-employment restrictions imposed on employees, a restriction on the recruitment of former co-workers (sometimes referred to as a “no-poach” or “anti-raiding” clause) is the type most likely to be enforced by a court. As a result, this is one type of post-employment restriction that is frequently drafted without the careful thought generally put in to traditional non-competes and client non-solicitation clauses.  But in what could be a foreshadowing of closer judicial scrutiny of co-worker non-solicitation clauses nationwide, the Wisconsin Supreme Court recently held that the Wisconsin non-compete statute applies to such clauses, and that the particular clause in question was unenforceable because it was not “reasonably necessary for the protection of the employer.”

Specifically, in Manitowoc Company v. Lanning, 2018 WI 6 (Jan. 19, 2018), the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin’s non-compete statute, Wis. Stat. § 103.465, broadly applies to restrictions on competition, including post-employment restrictions on the ability to solicit former co-workers.  In Lanning, the defendant, an engineer and former employee of the plaintiff, resigned and immediately began working for the plaintiff’s direct competitor. Defendant did not have a non-compete agreement but he did sign an employment agreement that included a non-solicitation clause that prohibited him from soliciting or inducing any employees from the plaintiff’s company to join a competitor within the two-year period following his resignation. After joining the competitor, defendant allegedly began to recruit employees to join the competitor company. Plaintiff argued that the defendant’s actions violated the non-solicit provision and sued him. The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the non-solicitation provision was an unreasonable restraint on trade which failed to meet the statutory requirement that the restriction “be reasonably necessary for the protection of the employer.”

Wis. Stat. § 103.465 sets forth five requirements that must be met for a restrictive covenant to be enforceable. The restraint must: “(1) be necessary for the protection of the employer, that is, the employer must have a protectable interest justifying the restriction imposed on the activity of the employee; (2) provide a reasonable time limit; (3) provide a reasonable territorial limit; (4) not be harsh or oppressive as to the employee; and (5) not be contrary to public policy.”

Here, the court looked to several factors when determining that the non-solicit provision was an unreasonable restriction on trade, including the fact that the provision contained no limitation based on the employee’s position, no limitation based on the employee’s “familiarity with or influence over a particular employee,” and no geographical limitation. The company argued that the provision was written to protect the company’s “investment of time and capital involved in recruiting, training and developing its employee base from ‘poaching’ by a ‘former employee who has full awareness of the talent and skill set of said employee base.’” The Court rejected this claim, instead determining that the provision was overbroad and restricted competitors’ access to the labor pool.

This case sends a message to employers that all types of post-employment restrictions on employees, even those which are not traditional non-compete agreements, should be drafted narrowly to protect legitimate business interests of the company, and should be no broader than necessary.