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

shapiroAs we have written about and discussed extensively on this blog over the past year, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) – enacted on May 11, 2016 – provides the first private federal cause of action for trade secret misappropriation, allowing parties to sue in federal court for trade secret misappropriation regardless of the dollar value of the trade secrets at issue.  Given that the law is less than a year old, federal courts seeing DTSA cases for the first time are still parsing through its language and clarifying its scope.  Although it is still a developing issue, two recent decisions reveal a limitation and viable defense to DTSA claims:  a plaintiff asserting a DTSA claim must allege facts showing that acts of misappropriation occurred after DTSA came into effect.

The first case is a September 27, 2016 decision from the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division: Adams Arms, LLC v. Unified Weapons Sys., No. 16-cv-01503, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 132201 (M.D. Fla. Sep. 27, 2016).  Plaintiff Adams Arms, LLC, a manufacturer of military rifles, sued defendant Unified Weapons (and other affiliates and individuals) in federal court – asserting a misappropriation claim under DTSA – for allegedly using Adams Arms’ own trade secrets to enter into an agreement to supply rifles to a foreign country’s military after the companies had agreed to work together to supply the rifles.  The defendants moved to dismiss the DTSA claim relying solely on DTSA’s statute-of-limitations provision, which provides that:

A civil action under [18 U.S.C. § 1836(b)] may not be commenced later than 3 years after the date on which the misappropriation with respect to which the action would relate is discovered or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have been discovered. For purposes of this subsection, a continuing misappropriation constitutes a single claim of misappropriation.

18 U.S.C. § 1836(d) (emphasis added). The defendants argued that because some of the alleged conduct at issue occurred before the effective date of DTSA, there was a single continuing misappropriation and therefore, none of the conduct was actionable.  The Florida court was not persuaded, noting that the sub-section addresses only when a claim accrues for statute of limitations purposes, but does not address the critical question:  whether an owner may recover under DTSA when the misappropriation occurs both before and after the effective date, assuming the entire misappropriation is within the 3-year limitations period.  The court looked to Section 2(e) of DTSA, which applies to “any misappropriation . . . for which any act occurs” after the effective date.  Pub. L. No. 114-153, § 2(e).  According to the court, this language suggests that when an “act” occurs after the effective date, a partial recovery is available on a misappropriation claim.  Based on that reading of Section 2(e) of the DTSA, the court found that a plaintiff may state a plausible claim for relief so long as it sufficiently alleges a prohibited “act” that occurred after May 11, 2016.  Because Adams Arms’ complaint alleged that Unified Weapons disclosed Adams Arms’ trade secrets to the Peruvian military in or about late May or early June of 2016, the court held that Adams Arms articulated a viable misappropriation claim premised on a disclosure theory.  However, the court held that the complaint failed to state a viable claim based on an acquisition theory after the effective date of DTSA because the alleged facts indicated that Unified Weapons acquired all of Adams Arms’ trade secret information well prior to May 2016.  Accordingly, the court denied Unified Weapons’ motion to dismiss the DTSA claim, but limited the DTSA claim to a disclosure theory and held that Adams Arms could not proceed under an acquisition theory.

The second case comes from the Northern District of California and was decided on January 31, 2017: Avago Techs. United States Inc. v. NanoPrecision Products, No. 16-cv-03737, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13484 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 31, 2017). In this decision, the California court considered Avago’s motion to dismiss a DTSA counterclaim asserted by nanoPrecision Products, Inc. (“nPP”) contending that Avago  had misappropriated its trade secrets by acquiring its confidential business information and disclosing it in three U.S. patent applications and subsequent prosecution of those applications.  Avago argued that the counterclaim should be dismissed because all of the actionable conduct occurred before the DTSA came into effect.  The court agreed.

nPP did not dispute that the original wrongful acquisition of its confidential information (i.e., Avago’s receipt of nPP’s confidential information in the course of the parties’ business discussions that ended in 2012) occurred before the DTSA came into effect. But nPP nevertheless argued that Avago’s continued use of its confidential information in the prosecution of the three patent applications allowed it to seek a partial recovery for misappropriation from the date the DTSA came into effect.  nPP specifically did not suggest that any new information was disclosed in the course of the patent prosecutions that had not been disclosed prior to DTSA’s effective date.

Significantly, nPP relied on the Adams Arms decision in support of its position, but to no avail.  Noting that the Adam Arms court had found that DTSA’s statute of limitations provision applies only to determinations of the timeliness of a DTSA claim and does not preclude a DTSA claim based on acts that occurred after the effective date of the statute, the California court distinguished Adams Arms, stating that the situation in Avago was “entirely different.”  Whereas in Adams Arms there were allegations that specific information had been disclosed after DTSA’s effective date,  the confidential information at issue in Avago was disclosed when the three patent applications were published before the DTSA came into effect.  The court therefore held that nPP’s DTSA counterclaim failed on the pleadings because nPP had failed to allege any facts showing acts of misappropriation that occurred after DTSA came into effect.

From these two decisions emerges a temporal limitation on the reach of the DTSA. While this issue is still open for further judicial interpretation, Adams Arms and Avago Techs. indicate that 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.  Defendants facing such DTSA claims should carefully analyze the alleged facts and consider raising this as a defense.

If you are an employer with employees in New York (or elsewhere) who have signed an agreement containing a Florida choice of law clause and non-compete and/or non-solicit restrictive covenants, it may be time to revise your agreement.

We blogged last year regarding a decision of the New York Appellate Division, Fourth Department in Brown & Brown, Inc. v. Johnson, holding that a Florida choice of law provision in an employment agreement among a Florida corporation, its New York subsidiary, and a New York based and resident employee containing restrictive covenants is unenforceable because certain elements of the Florida restrictive covenant statute are contrary to New York public policy.

Last month, upon the appeal of that decision, the New York Court of Appeals agreed and held that “applying Florida law on restrictive covenants related to the non-solicitation of customers by a former employee would violate the public policy of [New York].”  New York courts are generally favorable to enforcing choice of law clauses, unless the chosen law violates a fundamental public policy of the state.  Here, the relevant public policy of New York is that restrictive covenants will only be enforced if they are (1) no greater than required for the protection of the legitimate interest of the employer, (2) not unduly hard on the employee, and (3) not injurious to the public.  In contrast, the Florida restrictive covenant statute explicitly prohibits courts from considering the harm or hardship to the former employee, after the employer has demonstrated the covenant protects its business interests.  The Florida statute also — unlike New York — requires courts to construe restrictive covenants in favor of protecting the employer’s interests and bars narrow interpretations of such covenants.

The Court of Appeals thus held that the employment agreement’s choice of law provision was unenforceable in relation to the non-solicit provision, and proceeded to apply New York law in its examination of that provision and the relevant facts.

With New York’s highest court having now spoken, New York employers with employees who have Florida choice of law provisions in their employment agreements should undertake a review of such agreements to confirm that any restrictive covenants comply with New York law.  Employers in other states which like New York disfavor restrictive covenants and look to protect or at least balance the interests of the employee should also re-examine their covenants if they have chosen Florida law to govern.  Revisions may be necessary to improve the chances of enforcing the restrictive covenants going forward.

The New York Appellate Division, Fourth Department, recently held in Brown & Brown v. Johnson, 1109 CA 13-00340 (February 6, 2014) that a Florida choice-of-law provision in an employment agreement among a Florida corporation, its New York subsidiary and a New York based and resident employee containing restrictive covenants is unenforceable because it is “truly obnoxious” to New York public policy.

Defendant Theresa A. Johnson was hired by plaintiffs, insurance intermediaries, in December 2006 to provide actuarial analysis for plaintiffs. On her first day of work, Johnson was presented with a number of documents to sign, including an Employment Agreement, which contained the three covenants at issue: a non-solicitation covenant, prohibiting solicitation or servicing any client of plaintiffs’ New York offices for two years after termination of Johnson’s employment; a confidentiality covenant, prohibiting disclosure or use of plaintiffs’ confidential information; and a non-inducement covenant, prohibiting Johnson from inducing plaintiffs’ New York employees to leave plaintiffs’ employment for two years after termination of Johnson’s employment. The Agreement also stated that it would be governed by and construed and enforced according to Florida law.

Florida has perhaps the most comprehensive and detailed state statutes concerning restrictive covenants and enforceability. In conducting its analysis in order to vitiate Johnson’s non-solicit of customers restriction, the Court honed in on two specific areas that differ markedly from New York common-law, despite the fact that there are many more harmonious provisions and seemingly similar policy considerations. Since the Florida statute expressly forbids courts from considering the hardship imposed upon an employee in evaluating the reasonableness of the restrictive covenant (Fla. Stat. § 542.335(1)(g)(1)) and also provides that any such covenant must be construed in favor of providing protection to all legitimate business interests of the party seeking enforcement, it was found to be “truly obnoxious” to the policies articulated in BDO Seidman and its progeny under New York law.

If you are an employer and use Florida law as the controlling law in your agreement for employees located outside of Florida (and particularly for those in New York) you may want to reconsider choice of Florida law in light of the holding in Brown & Brown. The two provisions of the Florida law found “truly obnoxious” pervade almost any restrictive covenant analysis. While the Court could have rested its reasoning on the explicit language in Florida that provides you need not consider any undue hardship on the employee in conducting the enforceability analysis, it went further to provide that since Florida law requires courts to construe restrictive covenants in favor of the party seeking to protect its legitimate business interests (Florida Statutes § 542.335(1)(h)), it was especially obnoxious on that basis as well. The latter conclusion affects any restrictive covenant analysis in New York, not only non-competes but also non-solicits, non-service, non-poach or other more specific and narrow restrictions. While one may not agree with the Court’s analysis or conclusion, anyone trying to enforce in New York (and perhaps any state other than Florida) any restrictive covenant controlled by Florida law will have to reckon with the Brown & Brown holding.