In another decision expansively interpreting California Business & Professions Code § 16600 and which could have a significant effect on employment litigation settlements, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s enforcement of a 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.  Golden v. California Emergency Physicians Medical Group; Med America; Mark Alderdice; Robert Buscho, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (No. 12-16514) (April 8, 2015).

The case has an interesting procedural history.  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 ordered Dr. Golden to sign an amended agreement, which recommendation was adopted by the district court judge who concluded the settlement agreement was not within the ambit of § 16600.  Dr. Golden refused to sign the agreement and filed a notice of appeal.

The court concluded the case was ripe for review because (1) Dr. Golden argued the agreement was currently void because the no-employment term was a material term and (2) Dr. Golden’s argument that the no-employment provision was void was in response to his former attorney’s motion to enforce the agreement.  The court concluded the issue before it concerned the present enforcement of the settlement agreement rather than the future interaction between the no-employment provision and his emergency medicine practice.

Dr. Golden argued because of CEP’s emergency medicine dominance in California and its aggressive plans to expand, the agreement would substantially limit his employment opportunities because CEP not only could refuse to employ him, it could terminate him without any liability if it subsequently acquired an interest in a facility where he would be working.

The court pointed out that § 16600’s scope is not limited to covenants not to compete between employees and their employers.  Rather, the court held, the text of § 16600 voids “every contract” that “restrain[s]” someone “from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business.”  The court relied on the California Supreme Court decision in Chamberlain v. Augustine, 156 P2nd 479 (Cal. 1916) and concluded the issue is “not whether the contract constituted a covenant not to compete, but rather whether it imposes ‘a restraint of substantial character.'”  The court concluded that the § 16600 prohibition extends to any restraint of a substantial character no matter its form or scope and remanded the case to the district court to determine in the first instance whether the no-employment provision constitutes a restraint of substantial character to Dr. Golden’s medical practice.

Judge Kozinski dissented because the only limitation imposed by the agreement on Dr. Golden’s ability to practice his profession “at this time” (emphasis in original) was that he could not work for CEP.  Since his employment with CEP was the subject of the controversy in his lawsuit, it could not possibly violate § 16600 and it would mean few employment disputes could ever be settled.  Judge Kozinski opined the only real limitation on Dr. Golden’s ability to practice would be if, in the future, CEP acquired a facility at which he worked.  He concluded if that scenario occurred, Dr. Golden would have the ability to raise § 16600 as a defense to his dismissal and a court could adjudicate that issue based on the concrete circumstances which existed at that time.

We will be very interested to learn how the district court resolves this issue.  This case has important implications for employment law litigation in California because most settlement agreements contain a no future employment provision.  The district court’s decision following remand and any potential appeal should further clarify the issue.  However, employment attorneys will have to be very careful in including no employment provisions in settlement agreements.  Absent a provision providing  that any unenforceable terms may be severed from the agreement, attorneys must be careful in deciding whether  no employment provisions should be included in that, based on the Golden case, it might invalidate the settlement agreement if a court concludes the prohibition is a restraint of substantial character.

In Fifield v. Premier Dealer Services, Inc., an Illinois Appellate Court determined that, absent other consideration, at-will employment must continue for two years in order to constitute consideration for the enforcement of competition restrictions.  Clients continue to ask how Fifield has been applied by subsequent courts.  So far, the results have been mixed.  This month, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois rejected Fifield’s bright line test in the case of Bankers Life and Casualty Co. v. Miller, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14337 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 6, 2015).  In doing so, Judge Shah explained that in light of the Illinois Supreme Court’s recent decision emphasizing the need to consider the totality of the circumstances in evaluating competition restrictions, the Illinois Supreme Court “would not adopt a bright-line rule requiring continued employment for at least two years in all cases.”  Bankers Life, at *11-12.  Previously, Judge Castillo too rejected Fifield’s bright-line test in Montel Aetnastak, Inc. v. Miessen, 998 F. Supp. 2d 694 (N.D. Ill. 2014).  However, Judge Holderman reached a different result in Instant Technology, LLC v. Defazio, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61232 (N.D. Ill. May 2, 2014) and determined that competition restrictions were not enforceable against employees who had worked for 10, 19, and 21 months and received only that employment as consideration for the restrictions.  Instant Technology is currently on appeal.   So far, however, the score in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois is 2-1 against Fifield’s bright-line test.

After a bench trial, a Connecticut state court rejected a violation of trade secret complaint by an employer against a former employee in BTS USA v. Executive Perspectives, Superior Court, Waterbury, Docket No. X10-CV-116010685 (Oct. 16, 2014). The plaintiff, BTU USA, provides training and consulting services to corporate clients using learning maps, computer simulations and board games. The defendant, Executive Perspectives (“EP”), offers essentially the same services and products.

Marshall Bergmann, a former BTS Senior Director who had access to much of BTS’ proprietary information, had signed a non-compete clause stating, among other things, that when he left, he would not solicit current BTS customers, or any client BTS had, during the last two years of his employment. BTS claimed that after Bergmann left his employment, he violated the non-compete provision by contacting and soliciting BTS clients through LinkedIn, and he stole some of the technology and products, such as packaging, the name of the packaging vendor and client lists, in violation of the Connecticut Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Other claims included Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act Violation, tortious interference with business relationships and breach of contract.

The Court found that there was little evidence that BTS made an effort to conceal the claimed product trade secrets, because the products were widely distributed to clients and prospective clients. Also, a third party – a former BTS Australia employee who was not bound by any restrictive covenant agreement that banned sharing of information – had already shown EP photographs of the products at issue. EP had the products in place before Bergmann was hired by EP. Therefore, the product and vendor names were not misappropriated through improper means. Moreover, BTS failed to prove that it lost business to EP, and actual loss or harm is a prerequisite to monetary recovery. Therefore, BTS failed to carry its burden of proof.

In addition, BTS claimed Bergmann breached his employment contract by the way he used the LinkedIn page he had while he was employed at BTS. He did not change his BTS-related LinkedIn connections when he joined EP, and he announced his new job on LinkedIn. In response, Bergmann claimed that BTS had no policy barring what he did.

The Court ruled that absent an explicit provision in an employment contract, which governs, restricts or addresses an employee’s use of social media, the Court would not read such restrictions into an employment agreement since social media “has become embedded in our social fabric.”

BTS USA v. Executive Perspectives is another example that an employer must actively maintain the confidentiality of trade secrets in order to seek trade secret protection. In addition, the case demonstrates that employment contracts, company policies and procedures should include explicit provisions regarding an employee’s use of social media during and after employment with the employer, and the employer should require ex-employees to delete clients or customers from LinkedIn accounts on termination of employment, if that is what the employer expects.

As we have previously noted, Congress this year is actively considering two bills that would create a federal private right of action for trade secret theft: The Trade Secrets Protection Act (H.R. 5233) and the Defend Trade Secrets Act (S. 2267). These bills have been spurred in large part by increased foreign cyber-espionage affecting American companies.

Although the bills have enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and in the business community, including from the National Association of Manufacturers, last month a group of dozens of law professors in the intellectual property and trade secret fields sounded a note of caution by publishing a Letter in opposition to the two bills. While acknowledging that the United States needs to increase protection against cyber-espionage, the professors argue that the bills should be rejected for several reasons, including:

1) existing state law is sufficiently uniform and effective;

2) if enacted, the bills will create parallel, redundant and damaging law; and

3) the bills as drafted could lead to unintended consequences such as anti-competitive results, increased risk of accidental disclosure of trade secrets, and damage to collaboration among businesses and mobility of labor.

The Professors’ Letter and continued engagement in the future on these issues may well affect the passage and/or shape of the two pending bills. We will continue to monitor and report upon these proposed federal trade secrets bills.