Defend Trade Secrets Act

Join Epstein Becker Green attorneys, Brian G. Cesaratto and Brian E. Spang, for a discussion of how employers can best protect their critical technologies and trade secrets from employee and other insider threats. Topics to be discussed include:

  • Determining your biggest threat by using available data
  • What keeps you up at night?
  • Foreseeing the escalation in risk, from insider and cyber threats to critical technologies
  • New protections and remedies under the Trade Secret Protection Act of 2014
  • Where are your trade secrets located, and what existing protections are in place?
  • What types of administrative and technical controls should your firm consider implementing for the key material on your network to protect against an insider threat?
  • What legal requirements may apply under applicable data protection laws?
  • How do you best protect trade secrets and other critical technologies as information increasingly moves into the cloud?
  • Using workforce management and personnel techniques to gain protection
  • The importance of an incident response plan
  • Developing and implementing an effective litigation response strategy to employee theft

Wednesday, October 3, 2018.
12:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. ET
Register for this complimentary webinar today!

Effective as of October 1, 2018, Massachusetts will become the 49th state to adopt a version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (leaving New York as the only holdout). Massachusetts did so as part of a large budget bill recently signed into law, which also resulted in the adoption of the Massachusetts Noncompetition Agreement Act. (The text of the Massachusetts version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act is set out on pages 47-52 of the bill, H. 4868, while the effective date is set out on page 117. Here is a link to the entire budget bill.)

While there are differences from existing Massachusetts law regarding trade secrets, the new law is similar in most respects to the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”). Nevertheless, the remedy provisions of the two laws are not identical, and there will be situations where greater relief is available under one statute than the other. For example, ex parte seizure orders are only available under DTSA, and attorney’s fees and exemplary damages are only available under DTSA if certain required disclosures about whistleblower immunity were made in agreements containing confidentiality provisions. The new Massachusetts law allows attorneys’ fees in circumstances of willful and malicious misappropriation and/or where claims or defenses are pursued in bad faith.

Additionally, employers should be aware that the Massachusetts statute does not apply to “misappropriation occurring prior to” October 1, 2018 or to “continuing misappropriation that began prior to” that date but continued after it.

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.”

In First Western Capital Management Co. v. Malamed, Case Nos. 16-1434, 16-1465 & 16-1502 (10th Cir. Oct. 30, 2017), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a district court erred in issuing a preliminary injunction to a party under federal and state trade secret law where the court presumed that the party would be irreparably harmed absent the injunction.

Ordinarily, in order to obtain a preliminary injunction, a moving party needs to establish, among other things, that it will suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is denied. This requires the party to show that there is a significant risk that it will experience harm that cannot be compensated by money damages.  In First Western Capital Management, however, the district court held that the plaintiff (First Western) was not required to establish irreparable harm because both the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) and the Colorado Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“CUTSA”) provide for injunctive relief to prevent misuse of trade secrets, and the evidence showed that the defendant was misusing or threatening to misuse trade secrets regarding First Western’s clients.  Thus, the district court held that irreparable harm “presumptively exists and need not be separately established.”  Had First Western not been excused from showing irreparable harm, the district court would have denied its request for injunctive relief because evidence was presented that showed that monetary damages could be reasonably quantified and would adequately make First Western whole.

The Tenth Circuit explained that courts may presume irreparable harm only when a party is seeking an injunction under a statute that mandates injunctive relief as a remedy for a violation of the statute.  When Congress or a state legislature passes such a statute, it effectively has withdrawn the court’s discretion to determine whether such relief is appropriate.  By contrast, when a statute merely authorizes injunctive relief, courts may not presume irreparable harm, as doing so is contrary to equitable principles.  Because DTSA and CUTSA only authorize, but do not require, injunctive relief, and because the evidence presented to the district court showed that monetary damages could be quantified in order to compensate First Western, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of the injunction to First Western.  Legal practitioners thus should carefully review the applicable statute to determine whether it mandates or merely permits injunctive relief; where such relief is not required, they should make a fulsome showing that their client will suffer irreparable harm without an injunction.

Epstein Becker Green attorneys Peter A. Steinmeyer, Robert D. Goldstein, and Brian E. Spang are pleased to be presenting 2017 Year in Review: Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Developments webinar on Wednesday, December 6, 2017 from 1:00 p.m. — 2:15 p.m. with Practical Law.

This webinar will provide insights into recent developments and expected trends in the evolving legal landscape of trade secrets and non-competition agreements. This webinar will focus on how to navigate this continually developing area and effectively protect client relationships and proprietary information.

Topics will include:

  • A review of recent developments and litigation trends under the Defend Trade Secrets (DTSA) since its enactment in 2016.
  • Newly passed state statutes addressing restrictive covenants, including who can enter into them, industry restrictions, and temporal restrictions.
  • Increased usage of “garden leave” clauses in lieu of non-competes.
  • Recent decisions regarding restrictive covenants, including whether a LinkedIn “invitation to link” is an improper solicitation.
  • Significant recent trade secret cases, including the level of detail required when pleading the existence of a trade secret.
  • Administrative agency developments regarding confidentiality clauses, including shifting agency trends under the Trump administration.
  • When are employers actually filing suit against former employees?

Click here for more information and to register for the webinar.

Plaintiff Art & Cook, Inc., a cookware and kitchenware company, brought suit in New York federal court against a former salesperson, Abraham Haber, when a search of his work computer revealed that he had emailed to his personal email account two categories of documents alleged by Art & Cook to be trade secrets: (i) its customer contact lists and (ii) its designs and branding/marketing strategies. Although the court already had issued a temporary restraining order, in Art & Cook, Inc. v. Haber, No. 17-cv-1634, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164366 (E.D.N.Y. Oct 3, 2017), the court denied Art & Cook’s motion for a preliminary injunction brought exclusively under the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) because the company failed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits of a DTSA cause of action.

First addressing the customer lists at issue, the court noted that the Second Circuit has long held that, under certain circumstances, a customer list may be deemed a trade secret – particularly where the customer list contains individual customer preferences or represents the list owner’s work to create a market for a new service or good. Where the list contains little more than publicly available information, even if it takes considerable effort to compile, it is not accorded protection under DTSA. The customer lists at issue in this case fell into the latter category, as they contained nothing more than a compilation of publicly available information including emails and phone numbers. The court said that that the fact that it took the company “tens if not hundreds of hours” of research to compile those lists was insufficient under DTSA.

Turning next to the company’s designs and branding/marketing strategies, the court noted that such material was exactly the kind of business information that DTSA was designed to protect because they derive independent economic value from not being generally known. However, the company failed to show that it took “reasonable measures” to keep the information secret. For example, the company’s president testified that he spoke to Haber many times about confidentiality, but the company did not require him to sign a non-disclosure agreement. In fact, the company asked him to sign a non-disclosure agreement three years into his employment and, when he refused to sign, nevertheless gave him access to what it contended was confidential information. The court found that the company’s other steps to secure its information, such as utilizing a password-protected server and folders, were inadequate given such circumstances.

Given the lack of a likelihood of success on the merits as to the DTSA claim, the court denied Art & Cook’s motion for a preliminary injunction and advised that the claim was susceptible to a motion to dismiss. The court’s decision provides companies with insight into what kinds of information are trade secrets under DTSA and how they should protect their trade secrets.

Consider the following scenario that was the premise of the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), and later adapted into the classic film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971): your company (Willy Wonka Chocolates) is in the candy business and develops an idea for an everlasting gobstopper (a sucking candy that never gets smaller).  Anticipating substantial profits from the product, the company designates the everlasting gobstopper formula as a trade secret.  As in the book and film, a rival chocolate company (Slugworth Chocolates) seeks to steal the trade secret formula in order to develop and market a competing gobstopper.

While Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is premised on a local competitor seeking to steal trade secrets for its own business, this post focuses on an adaptation to the story based in today’s global economy, and more specifically, the actions a company may take within the United States and abroad to protect against trade secret misappropriation.

Most U.S. companies are now aware of the protections afforded by the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1836, et seq. (the “DTSA”).  Of most importance is that the DTSA created a uniform legislation that provides companies with a private civil cause of action for trade secret misappropriation.  As a result of enactment of the DTSA, a company that is the victim of trade secret theft has standing to file a civil suit in federal court.  The company may also report the theft to the United States Department of Justice because, in certain cases, the theft of trade secrets constitutes a crime under the federal Economic Espionage Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1831, et seq. (the “EEA”).

Due to jurisdictional limitations, however, the DTSA and EEA may not provide adequate protection when there has been a misappropriation of trade secrets in the international arena. Companies should, therefore, be aware of other methods to protect against trade secret misappropriation abroad.  One method is through the United States International Trade Commission (the “ITC”), an independent, quasi-judicial federal agency with broad investigative responsibilities on matters of trade. Pursuant to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 (the “Act”), the ITC has jurisdiction to investigate and can render unlawful, the importation of goods stemming from “unfair methods of competition and unfair acts in the importations of articles … in the United States.”  The ITC has determined that trade secret misappropriation is a form of unfair competition that is protected under Section 337 of the Act, and the United States Courts of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has affirmed this interpretation in two separate cases. See Sino Legend Chemical Co. v. ITC, 623 Fed. Appx. 1016 (Fed. Cir. 2015), cert. denied, 196 L. Ed. 2d 517 (2017); TianRui Group Co. Ltd. v. ITC, 661 F.3d 1322, 1327 (Fed. Cir. 2011).

In Sino Legend Chemical Co., employees had been working for a U.S.-based company at a facility in China.  The employees stole trade secrets from the company and brought them to Sino Legend Chemical Co., a competitive Chinese company that began developing a competitive product and sought to sell it in the United States.  The U.S. company filed a complaint with the ITC, and after investigation, the ITC instituted a 10-year ban on the importation of products resulting from trade secret misappropriation that had occurred entirely outside the United States.  On appeal, Sino Legend urged the Federal Circuit to overturn the ITC’s decision, arguing that Section 337 of the Act should not apply because the trade secret misappropriation occurred entirely outside the United States.  The Federal Circuit disagreed and affirmed the 10-year ban instituted by the ITC, and in 2017, the United States Supreme Court declined review.

A company should be aware that even if a theft of trade secrets occurs abroad, the company may seek relief through the ITC to prevent the importation of competitive products into the United States that are developed as a result of the stolen trade secrets. Of course, relief through the ITC is limited because the ITC cannot stop the offending company that stole the trade secrets from marketing a competitive product in countries outside the U.S.  There remain, however, other methods to protect against the misappropriation of trade secrets abroad.

Similar to the DTSA, the European Union (“EU”) enacted its own framework for the protection of trade secrets via a directive that went into effect on June 8, 2016. The EU directive provides protection of “undisclosed know-how and business information against their unlawful acquisition, use and disclosure.”  Although the EU directive does not establish criminal sanctions, it does provide for civil means through which victims of trade secret misappropriation can seek protections, such as: (i) allowing for temporary restraining orders and injunctive relief; (ii) removal from the market of goods manufactured based on stolen trade secrets, and (iii) monetary damages.  Pursuant to the EU directive, each member country must incorporate the required provisions into its laws by June 9, 2018.  Importantly, the EU directive contains only the minimum requirements for the protection of trade secrets; however, each EU member country may elect to enact stronger protections.  It remains to be seen whether the EU countries will enact provisions more stringent than the EU directive.

Companies need to protect themselves from the Slugworths of the world. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Slugworth was a local competitor that sought to steal Willy Wonka’s trade secrets, but in today’s global economy, Slugworth can steal trade secrets from anywhere and can also market competitive products throughout the globe.  As a result, companies need to be well versed in the various global protections against misappropriation of trade secrets.  Use of counsel knowledgeable of these various protections is critical to ensure that all avenues of relief are considered.

With the law’s first anniversary in the rear view mirror, defendants have established a viable defense to claims arising under the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) – a plaintiff may be precluded from bringing a claim under DTSA if it only alleges facts that show acts of misappropriation occurring prior to May 11, 2016 (the date of DTSA’s enactment).   In the last few months, four different courts have tackled this “timing defense,” and defendants raising it in motions to dismiss DTSA claims have encountered mixed results.

In Brand Energy & Infrastructure Servs. v. Irex Contr. Grp., No. 16-cv-2499, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43497 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 23, 2017), a Pennsylvania federal court rejected the defendants’ attempt to invoke the timing defense because the plaintiff’s amended complaint alleged various times after the enactment of the DTSA that the defendants “used” the plaintiff’s alleged trade secrets.  The court also noted the plaintiff’s inclusion of allegations in the amended complaint showing that “to this day, the defendants continue to ‘obtain access to [its] confidential and proprietary business information ….”  Based on this pleading, the court held that the plaintiff could pursue its DTSA claim.  Similarly, in AllCells, LLC v. Zhai, Case No. 16-cv-07323, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44808 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 27, 2017), a California federal court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss a DTSA claim because “even if [defendants] copied and thus acquired the alleged trade secrets before May 11, 2016, [the plaintiff] has sufficiently alleged that there was at least use of the trade secrets after that date.  Hence, the Act applies.”

In Molon Motor & Coil Corp. v. Nidec Motor Corp., No. 16-cv-03545, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71700 (N.D. Ill. May 11, 2017), a plaintiff’s DTSA claim survived dismissal, overcoming the defendant’s argument that “no acts occurred after the effective date of the Act.”  The court held that the plaintiff’s allegations regarding the inevitable post-enactment disclosure of its trade secrets to the defendant by its former employee were sufficient to state a plausible DTSA claim:  “[i]f it is plausible that some of the alleged trade secrets maintain their value today, then it is also plausible that [defendant] would be continuing to use them.”  The court noted, however, that further discovery would be needed to determine whether post-enactment disclosure of the trade secrets was in fact inevitable.

By contrast, a California federal court granted a defendant’s motion to dismiss where a complaint lacked sufficient allegations regarding the timing of the alleged appropriation in Cave Consulting Grp., Inc. v. Truven Health Analytics Inc., No. 15-cv-02177, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62109 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 24, 2017).  In Cave, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant acquired trade secrets and used them in a 2014 client meeting, but that conduct predated the enactment of the DTSA.  The court held that plaintiff had failed to make any “specific allegations that defendant used the alleged trade secrets after the DTSA’s May 11, 2016 enactment.”  Because the plaintiff failed to allege that any “postenactment use occurred,” the plaintiff had not stated a plausible DTSA claim.

These decisions illustrate that the likelihood of success of the timing defense largely is a matter of drafting, and provide an important takeaway for both sides of a trade secrets dispute. A plaintiff should be mindful in drafting its pleading to include factual allegations showing that the defendant’s misappropriation occurred (or inevitably will occur) after DTSA’s enactment.  The defendant, on the other hand, should carefully scrutinize the complaint to determine whether a timing defense applies.

Before the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) became federal law in the spring of 2016, Supreme Court watchers would likely care little about prospective justices’ approach to trade secrets matters.  Such matters were the province of state law, and the phrase “trade secret” might be avoided, even in passing, in the opinions of the Supreme Court for entire terms or more.  But with DTSA cases being reported with increasing regularity, differences in interpretation are beginning to emerge.  Supreme Court attention may follow.

Because DTSA says that “misappropriation of a trade secret” can involve unlawful acquisition of a trade secret, or improper disclosure of a trade secret, or unauthorized use of a trade secret, the impact of the statute’s May 11, 2016 “effective date” has been the subject of some debate.  For instance, should the act apply to a trade secret unlawfully acquired on May 10, 2016 but improperly used or disclosed on May 12, 2016 or thereafter?  Likewise, what if a trade secret unlawfully acquired and used before May 10, 2016 is used again after May 11, 2016?  These issues have come up in cases in March and January 2017 in the Northern District of California, in March 2017 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and earlier in the Middle District of Florida.  The answers and analysis found in these opinions is not always entirely consistent, which suggests that this issue under DTSA  as well as others will continue to be litigated.

Should differences arise between circuits, the Supreme Court might be called upon to interpret the reach of DTSA. In that vein, one might wish to look at the Court’s newest member, Neil Gorsuch, and his opinions while a 10th Circuit judge in Storagecraft Technology Corp. v. Kirby, 744 F. 3d 1183 (10th Circuit 2014), and in Russo v. Ballard Medical Products, 550 F. 3d 1004 (10th Circuit 2008). Each reveal interesting elements of Judge — now Justice — Gorsuch’s approach to trade secrets matters.

Storagecraft proves interesting opinion on several levels.  That case involved the Utah trade secrets act in a case coming to the 10th Circuit after being brought in the federal district court as a matter of diversity jurisdiction.  In addressing one of the appealing defendant’s arguments, the Gorsuch opinion rejected the notion that one need show that a defendant facilitated another’s commercial gain to recover under the statute:

Continue Reading Court’s Newest Member Has Trade Secret Protecting Track Record