On April 13, 2015 we blogged about the decision of the Ninth Circuit in Golden v. California Emergency Physicians Medical Group, 782 F.3d 1083 (9th Cir. 2015). There, the Ninth Circuit considered whether, under California law, an employee could be ordered to sign a settlement agreement that included language that restricted him, inter alia, from future employment with his former employer.

Dr. Golden is an emergency-room doctor who sued California Emergency Physicians Medical Group (“CEP”), among others, regarding his loss of staff membership at a medical facility.  His lawsuit was based on various state and federal causes of action, including racial discrimination.  The parties orally agreed in open court to settle the case and the settlement terms included “a substantial monetary amount,”  dismissal of the action, a release of CEP and a waiver of any and all rights to employment with CEP or at any facility that CEP may own or with which it may contract in the future (the “no-employment provision”).  Dr. Golden refused to sign the written agreement and attempted to have it set aside.  His attorney moved the court to withdraw as counsel, moved the court to intervene and further moved the court to enforce the settlement agreement so he could collect his contingency fee. In further proceedings, a magistrate judge recommended that Dr. Golden be ordered to sign an amended agreement, and that recommendation was adopted by the district court judge who concluded the settlement agreement was not within the ambit of Business and Professions Code § 16600, which makes unlawful in California (with limited exceptions) any contract to the extent it restrains someone from engaging in a lawful trade, business or profession.  Dr. Golden refused to sign the agreement and filed a notice of appeal.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s enforcement of the settlement agreement and remanded the case to the district court to determine whether a no employment provision in the agreement is a “restraint of substantial character” to the Plaintiff’s medical practice.

On remand, the district court again ordered Dr. Golden to sign the settlement agreement, concluding that the no-employment provision was not a restraint of substantial character. Dr. Golden again appealed.

In its July 24, 2018 decision, the Ninth Circuit surveyed California law and noted first that a contractual provision imposes a restraint of substantial character if it significantly or materially impedes a person’s lawful profession, trade, or business.  The Ninth Circuit noted that a provision need not completely prohibit the business or professional activity at issue, nor need it be sufficient to dissuade a reasonable person from engaging in that activity.  Rather, the “restraining effect must be significant enough that its enforcement would implicate the policies of open competition and employee mobility that animate Section 16600.”  The Court noted that it “will be the rare contractual restraint whose effect is so insubstantial that it escapes scrutiny under Section 16600.”

Looking to the provision in the settlement agreement at issue, the Ninth Circuit noted that it impeded Dr. Golden’s ability to practice medicine in three ways.

First, the settlement agreement prohibited Dr. Golden from working or being reinstated at any facility owned or managed by CEP.

Second, the settlement agreement prohibited Dr. Golden from working at any CEP-contracted facility.

Third, the settlement agreement provided that if CEP contracts to provide services to, or acquires rights in a facility where Dr. Golden is currently working as an emergency room physician or hospitalist, CEP has the right to terminate his employment with no liability.

The Ninth Circuit held that the first provision, which barred Dr. Golden from future employment at facilities owned or managed by CEP did not impose a substantial restraint on his medical practice. The Ninth Circuit further held, however that the second and third provisions did substantially restrain Dr. Golden’s practice of medicine and were therefore barred by Section 16600.  These two provisions limited employment with third parties based merely on whether CEP contracted with them. As a result, if Dr. Golden was employed by a hospital that later contracted with CEP to provide, for example, anesthesiology services, Dr. Golden would be ineligible for employment with the hospital.

Given the size of CEP’s business in California—it staffs 160 facilities in the state and handles between 25% and 30% of the state’s emergency room admissions, these provisions were a substantial restraint on Dr. Golden’s trade.

The Ninth Circuit’s ruling may leave open whether a provision in a settlement agreement that permits an employer to terminate the employment of an employee where it acquires the employee’s new employer will pass muster under Section 16600.  The provisions at issue in Golden were extremely broad: Plaintiff was prohibited from employment with entities with which CEP contracts to provide services to, or “acquires rights” in.  A different, more limited provision that prohibited employment at entities as to which the employer acquires outright may be held not to impose a substantial restraint on trade.  Further, the Ninth Circuit relied in part on CEP’s broad reach in the state of California.  This leaves open that smaller employers may be able to impose restrictions that larger employers with more market share may not.

California has always been a challenging jurisdiction for employers in terms of limiting unfair competition by former employees and protecting trade secrets. However, employers in the state can significantly enhance their ability to protect their business interests in these areas with a little planning and strategic thinking.

In this issue of Take 5, we look at some proactive steps that employers can take to prevent unfair competition by departed employees and protect trade secrets from misappropriation:

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

NuScience Corporation is a California corporation that researches, develops and distributes health and beauty products, including nutritional supplements. In 2009, NuScience obtained by default a permanent injunction in a California federal court against Robert and Michael Henkel, the nephew of a woman from whom NuScience purchased the formula for a nutritional supplement, prohibiting them from selling or marketing NuScience’s trade secrets. Before the federal court injunction was entered, NuScience terminated the employment of David McKinney, NuScience Vice President of sales and marketing. McKinney signed a separation agreement wherein he agreed to maintain the confidentiality of certain NuScience-related matters. What followed might be good book material.

In June 2010, NuScience received an email from a third-party which included an email string between Robert Henkel and McKinney that caused NuScience to conclude Robert Henkel was violating the federal court injunction. Based on the emails, NuScience sued McKinney and Robert Henkel in California Superior Court for misappropriation of trade secrets, among other claims. (“NuScience I”) Robert Henkel again did not appear and the court entered a default against him in March 2011.

McKinney appeared in the state court action and was represented by Stephen E. Abraham. McKinney filed a motion to compel further discovery responses from NuScience and a motion for sanctions against NuScience which NuScience initially opposed. But before the motion was heard, NuScience filed a request for dismissal without prejudice. McKinney responded to the NuScience voluntary dismissal with a motion for attorney’s fees and costs under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, California Civil Code Section 3426 et seq. (“UTSA”). The trial court granted the motion for attorney’s fees, concluded the record showed subjective bad faith on NuScience’s part, and awarded McKinney the $32,842.81 he requested.

NuScience moved for reconsideration contending that after it took Henkel’s default, Henkel called NuScience’s attorney and said NuScience “better back off and leave [them] alone” and that Henkels thereafter began posting threats to publish NuScience’s trade secret formula on the Internet. NuScience’s attorney reported the threat to the FBI, which informed him that it had assigned an agent to investigate and the pending investigation should remain confidential. NuScience asserted that Henkel then told NuScience’s attorney that he “would release NuScience’s formula to the world unless [NuScience] dismissed this lawsuit” and “cease all enforcement of the federal judgment against the Henkels.” NuScience asserted that only later did the FBI “reluctantly acquiesce[ ]” and allowed NuScience to discuss the investigation.

The court denied the motion for reconsideration.

NuScience appealed the attorney’s fees award and the Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the lower court. The Appellate Court found that the email exchange between McKinney and Henkel on which NuScience I was premised was evidence that they were engaged in internal experimentation with NuScience’s trade secret formula and further stated McKinney had been using the samples. The court found this was sufficient evidence of actual or threatened misappropriation under the UTSA. The court further found that the email exchange was evidence that McKinney intended to use the NuScience customer list to market to buyers in Asia and that since McKinney was unlikely to have derived information about customers interested in the formula other than through his employment with NuScience, a trier of fact could conclude McKinney intended to use the information he derived from NuScience’s customer list to compete.

The day after the trial court awarded fees under the UTSA in NuScience I, McKinney filed a malicious prosecution action against NuScience and was represented again by Stephen Abraham (“NuScience II”). NuScience filed a motion to strike under California’s Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Policy) statute. The trial court granted the motion, and rejected McKinney’s claim that the dismissal prior to the hearing on the discovery motion was a favorable determination on the merits, noting “undisputed evidence… that the case was dismissed in response to extortionist threats.” The court awarded NuScience attorney’s fees of $129,938.75. The order was affirmed on appeal.

NuScience then filed an action against McKinney, Abraham and his law firm, and two other individuals in March 2014 alleging malicious prosecution and intentional interference with contractual relations against Abraham. Abraham responded with special motions to strike the causes of action.

Abraham attacked the intentional interference cause of action under the California Anti-SLAPP statute on the grounds that the conduct Abraham was alleged to have engaged in – the filing of declarations in federal and state court lawsuits that were signed by McKinney – is protected conduct. The trial court, and subsequently the Court of Appeal, concluded there could be no breach of contract absent a disclosure or public disparagement and the disclosure/disparagement NuScience alleged was Abraham’s public filing of McKinney’s declarations. As such, it was protected activity.

The trial court also granted Abraham’s SLAPP back action in the malicious prosecution claim. The Court of Appeal agreed, finding that NuScience had not demonstrated that the underlying malicious prosecution claim was initiated with malice because, in part, the malicious prosecution was alleged against a former adversary’s attorney, and not the former adversary. The court held that malice harbored by an adversary may not be attributed to its attorney. NuScience tried to identify additional evidence of Abraham’s own malice on appeal asserting, in part, that Abraham “told NuScience that he intends to destroy NuScience,” but the court pointed out that the actual evidence stated “NuScience will be out of business in six months” and “NuScience will be done in six months,” which the court stated suggested, at most, that Abraham believed that litigation would be successful and that NuScience’s demise was imminent, “not that he intended to cause its demise.” The Court of Appeal affirmed the order dismissing the claims against Abraham and affirmed the award of Abraham’s attorney’s fees of $99,595.00.

While the initial trade secret dispute between the parties here was relatively straightforward, this case is worth highlighting because of the extensive litigation that followed. Despite the company’s legitimate interest in protecting its threatened trade secrets, there were certainly unintended consequences as a result of the company’s vigorous advocacy to protect its interests. NuScience became embroiled in litigation spanning the course of the next eight years, itself even becoming the defendant to a lawsuit. This serves as a cautionary tale and a reminder of the inherent risk to engaging in litigation.

The case is NuScience Corp. v. Abraham, B264334 (Ca. Ct. of App. 2/1/17).

In a complimentary webinar on May 20 (1:00 p.m. ET), our colleagues James A. Goodman and Ian Carleton Schaefer will lead a webinar focusing on how the cloud and employee mobility are impacting trade secret protection strategies.

Join the Technology, Media, and Telecommunications (TMT) strategic industry group and the Non-Competes, Unfair Competition, and Trade Secrets group of Epstein Becker Green’s Labor and Employment practice for a discussion on the following topics: 

  • The Cloud and Its Impact on Employee Mobility and Trade Secrets
  • Trade Secret Law, Disclosure Risks, and Reasonable Efforts to Safeguard Trade Secrets
  • Employment Law and Corporate Strategies to Identify and Mitigate Risks When Operating in the Cloud

Click here to read more about this webinar, or click here to register.