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  When Congress or a state legislature passes such a statute, it effectively has withdrawn the court’s discretion to determine whether such relief is appropriate.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.

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.

It is fairly uncommon for a circuit court to opine on the reasonableness of a restrictive covenant. In Ag Spectrum Co. v. Elder, No. 16-3113, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 14128 (8th Cir. Aug. 2, 2017), the Eighth Circuit issued a decision holding that an independent contractor’s non-compete was unreasonable and unenforceable.

Applying Iowa law, the Eighth Circuit explained that reasonableness depends on the circumstances, including consideration of several factors such as: (1) the employee’s closeness to customers; (2) the employee’s peculiar knowledge gained through employment that provides a means to pirate the customer; (3) the amount and sophistication of employer-provided training and the nature of the business; and (4) matters of basic fairness. The Court stated that the fundamental goal is to prevent unjust enrichment.

In this case, Ag Spectrum’s 3-year noncompete provision with independent contractor Vaughn Elder was unreasonable for three reasons:

First, it was not reasonably necessary to protect Ag Spectrum’s business (selling fertilizer, nutrients and crop-management services). Essentially, like any ordinary reseller, Elder purchased Ag Spectrum product and sold it at a markup. Ag Spectrum did not offer any special training and support, and Elder’s knowledge of Ag Spectrum’s product did not give him an advantage after he left his arrangement with the company. Importantly, as an independent contractor, Elder made and developed his own contacts.   In such a situation, the noncompete allowed Ag Spectrum not to protect a proprietary customer base, but instead to capture customers that Elder himself had provided.

Second, the provision burdened Elder out of proportion to the benefit to Ag Spectrum because enforcing the provision would have required him to rebuild his customer base from scratch. Although Elder conceivably could have sold noncompeting products to his same customers or sold competing products to new customers, such a workaround would have been unreasonable given how little protectable benefit Ag Spectrum had in the parties’ independent-contractor relationship.

Finally, there was no evidence that restricting Elder’s business would harm the public.

Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit held that requiring Elder to forsake the customers that he had brought to Ag Spectrum as an independent contractor would be unreasonable under the circumstances, and thus the noncompete was unenforceable.

Nevada employers be advised: on June 3, 2017, Governor Brian Sandoval signed into law Assembly Bill 276, which amends Chapter 613 of the Nevada Revised Statutes and sets forth a new framework in which noncompetes are evaluated. The amended law includes the following four changes:

  1. A noncompete is void and unenforceable unless the noncompete:
    1. Is supported by valuable consideration;
    2. Does not impose any restraint that is greater than is required for the protection of the employer for whose benefit the restraint is imposed;
    3. Does not impose any undue hardship on the employee; and
    4. Imposes restrictions that are appropriate in relation to the valuable consideration supporting the noncompete.
  2. A noncompete may not restrict a former employee of an employer from providing service to a former customer or client if:
    1. The former employee did not solicit the former customer or client;
    2. The customer or client voluntarily chose to leave and seek services from the former employee; and
    3. The former employee is otherwise complying with the limitations in the noncompete as to time, geographical area and scope of activity to be restrained, other than any limitation on providing services to a former customer or client who seeks the services of the former employee without any contact instigated by the former employee.
  3. When an employee is terminated as the result of a reduction of force, reorganization or similar restructure of the employer, a noncompete is only enforceable during the period in which the employer is paying the employee’s salary, benefits or equivalent compensation (including severance pay).
  4. If an employer brings an action to enforce a noncompete and the court finds that it is supported by valuable consideration but (a) contains limitations as to time, geographical area or scope of activity to be restrained that are not reasonable, (b) imposes a greater restraint than is necessary for the protection of the employer and (c) imposes undue hardship on the employee, then the court must revise or “blue pencil” the noncompete to the extent necessary and enforce it as revised. Such revisions must render the limitations reasonable and no greater than is necessary for the protection of the employer.

Key Takeaways

The legislation does not clarify the meaning of the term “valuable consideration.” Such guidance will likely come from the courts as Nevada employees and employers litigate what is meant by the term, although it appears that an at-will employee’s continued employment in and of itself will not be considered sufficiently “valuable” under the law. In the meantime, without the benefit of legislative or judicial guidance, Nevada employers should assess whether an employee subject to a noncompete has received adequate consideration, particularly in relation to the restriction that is being imposed in the noncompete.

The legislation is also notable in that it reverses a prohibition on judicial blue penciling that was established by the Nevada Supreme Court in a 2016 decision, Golden Road Motor Inn, Inc. d/b/a Atlantis Casino Resort v. Islam and Grand Sierra Resort, 376 P.3d 151 (Nev. 2016). Nevada courts are now required to modify or “blue pencil” overbroad noncompetes to the extent necessary to render them enforceable. Although Nevada employers with an overbroad noncompete can take comfort knowing that the noncompete will not simply be discarded, they should nevertheless revise their noncompetes so that they impose restrictions in terms of time, geographical area and scope of activity that are reasonable.

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.

In 2016, several states enacted laws that were designed, in varying degrees, to limit non-competes, including Illinois, Utah, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Which states are most likely to do the same in 2017?

Idaho:  A bill proposed in January, House Bill 61, would amend an existing Idaho law that has made it easier for employers to enforce non-competes against the highest paid 5% of their employees and independent contractors.  The bill would alleviate the burden placed on such “key” personnel by the existing law by, among other things, eliminating the rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm to the employer that is automatically established if a court finds that the key employee or independent contractor is in breach of his or her non-compete.

Maryland:  On January 27, 2017, Maryland lawmakers proposed House Bill 506, which would render null and void any non-compete provision in an employment contract that restricts the ability of an employee who earns equal to or less than $15.00 per hour or $31,200 annually to enter into employment with a new employer or to become self-employed in the same or similar business. The bill was adopted by Maryland’s House and is now in its Senate.

Massachusetts:  On January 20, 2017, lawmakers proposed Bill SD.1578, which would impose significant limitations on the reach of non-competes in Massachusetts.  If enacted, the proposed law would, among other things:  limit the temporal scope of non-compete agreements to 12 months from the date of termination of employment (or 2 years if the employee has breached his or her fiduciary duty or has unlawfully taken property belonging to the employer); prohibit non-competes against certain categories of workers, including nonexempt employees, students, employees terminated without cause, and employees 18 years or younger; and require non-competes to be supported by consideration independent from the continuation of employment.

Nevada:  A bill proposed in February, A.B. 149, would make a non-compete “void and unenforceable” in Nevada if it prohibits an employee from seeking employment with or becoming employed by a competitor for a period of more than 3 months after the employee’s termination, which is an extremely short duration in the non-compete realm.  Willful violators of the law would be guilty of a gross misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000; in addition, the Nevada Labor Commissioner may impose an administrative penalty of up to $5,000 for each such violation.

New York:  On October 25, 2016, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he planned to introduce legislation in 2017 that would, among other things, prohibit the use of non-competes for low-wage workers and require employers to pay employees additional consideration if they sign non-compete agreements.  While he has not yet introduced this bill, Schneiderman has given no indication that he will backtrack from his 2016 announcement.

Washington:  After a bill that would have, among other things, limited non-competes to one year faced strident opposition from businesses, Washington legislators penned a more watered-down version of a bill designed to make non-compete agreements more transparent.  Specifically, Bill HB 1967, which passed the Washington House on March 8 and is now in the Senate, requires that all the terms of a non-compete contract be disclosed in writing before the employee signs the contract. While this revised bill is far less restrictive than other proposed bills, if enacted, it will nevertheless be beneficial to Washington employees.

Stay Tuned: The Maryland and Washington bills have the most traction, as they have already passed the states’ Houses.  Nevertheless, at this point it is simply too early to predict whether the law proposed in those states or elsewhere will garner enough support to clear the necessary legislative and executive hurdles to be enacted.  In the meantime, employers across all states should stay tuned and continue to draft narrowly tailored and enforceable non-competes.

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As the law’s first anniversary approaches, federal courts continue to adjudicate claims arising under the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”).  Enacted on May 11, 2016, DTSA provides the first private federal cause of action for trade secret misappropriation, allowing parties to sue in federal court for trade secret misappropriation.  Although the law is in its infancy, employers and legal practitioners filing complaints that assert DTSA claims must nevertheless adhere to longstanding rules of pleading set forth by the Supreme Court and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”).  Two recent decisions address this fundamental concept and serve as reminders that all complaints must follow basic pleading precepts.

Rules of Pleading Under DTSA

Rule 8(a)(2) of the FRCP requires a pleading to contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing facts that the pleader is entitled to relief.” A complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, “to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).  A claim becomes plausible if its “factual content . . . allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”  Should the well-pleaded facts support no “more than the mere possibility of misconduct,” then dismissal pursuant to FRCP 12(b)(6) is warranted.  Applying these standards to claims brought under the DTSA, a plaintiff must allege facts demonstrating that it is the owner of a trade secret that was misappropriated.  18 U.S.C. § 1836(b)(1).  Generally speaking, a “trade secret” is information that the owner “has taken reasonable measures to keep . . . secret” and that “derives independent economic value . . . from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable through proper means by, another person who can obtain economic value from the disclosure or use of the information.” Id. § 1839(3).  Thus, a plaintiff asserting a DTSA claim bears the burden of alleging sufficient facts to demonstrate that it took reasonable steps to maintain the secrecy of the protected information.

Two Recent DTSA Decisions Reach Opposite Results

In Raben Tire Co. v. Dennis McFarland, Case No. 16-CV-00141, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26051 (W.D. Ky. Feb. 24, 2017), a Kentucky federal court dismissed with prejudice a claim for misappropriation of trade secrets under DTSA for failure to state a claim. The plaintiff Raben Tire (a seller and installer of tires for commercial vehicles and construction equipment) sued two of its former employees and their new employer because, prior to resigning, the former employees allegedly transferred “confidential and proprietary information” to their new employer, including sales commission reports and the names of the individuals responsible for tire purchases.  Other than labeling that information as “confidential” in its complaint, Raben Tire did not allege any facts showing that it took any steps to protect the information from disclosure.  This omission was fatal to Raben Tire’s claim for misappropriation of trade secrets under the DTSA.

By contrast, a North Dakota federal court denied a motion to dismiss such a DTSA claim in Aggreko, LLC v. Guillermo Barreto & Elite Power, LLC, Case No. 16-cv-00353, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35573 (D.N.D. Mar. 13, 2017), finding that the complaint satisfied the pleading standards. Just like in Raben Tire, the plaintiff Aggreko (a company that rents generators to customers) sued a former employee and his new employer because, prior to resigning, the employee allegedly downloaded Aggreko’s trade secrets and confidential information relating to Aggreko’s operations, customers, business proposals, and pricing strategies onto his personal hard drive for the benefit of his new employer. Aggreko’s complaint included one critical allegation missing from the complaint in Raben Tire:  the former employee was bound by confidentiality and employment agreements intended to protect Aggreko’s confidential information and to ensure that the information was not removed from the workplace or used by former employees and competitors.  In light of these allegations, the court denied the former employee’s motion seeking dismissal of Aggreko’s trade secret claim because it was “certainly plausible.”

Raben Tire and Aggreko confirm that claims brought under DTSA must be pleaded with the longstanding federal pleading principles in mind.  Employers and practitioners must take care to allege facts asserting plausible claims that not only describe the trade secrets at issue but also detail what measures the employer took to protect them.  Otherwise, like the plaintiff in Raben Tire, the complaint may be subject to dismissal on a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).

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.

Two recent decisions by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals clarify the intersection between federal copyright law and state trade secret shapiro law. In GlobeRanger Corp. v. Software AG United States of America, Inc., 836 F.3d 477 (5th Cir. Sep. 7, 2016), the Fifth Circuit rejected an appeal in which the defendant argued that a plaintiff’s trade secret misappropriation claim was preempted by federal copyright law. Just four months later, in Ultraflo Corp. v. Pelican Tank Parts, Inc., No. 15-20084, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 509 (5th Cir. Jan. 11, 2017), the Fifth Circuit upheld a district court’s dismissal of a plaintiff’s state law claim of unfair competition by misappropriation, holding that the state law claim was preempted by federal copyright law.   What accounts for these seemingly inconsistent conclusions over two strikingly similar state law claims? The difference lies in the elements needed to establish each state law claim.

In its September 2016 GlobeRanger decision, the Fifth Circuit heard an appeal after a jury awarded plaintiff GlobeRanger a $15 million jury verdict following a trial in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas on its state trade secret misappropriation claim. The central allegation in that case was that competitor Software AG misappropriated GlobeRanger’s radio frequency identification (RFID) technology – most commonly used in electronic readers in tollbooths, like EZ-Pass – after it had taken over Software AG’s subcontract with the U.S. Navy to implement the technology.  Following the verdict, Software AG appealed, contending that federal copyright law preempted GlobeRanger’s state trade secret claim.

The Fifth Circuit explained in GlobeRanger that the different spheres of intellectual property can sometimes overlap and, as the software code at issue illustrates, the same intellectual property can be protectable under copyright laws or subject to trade secret protection.  If the creator of the IP seeks copyright protection, it obtains the exclusive right to make copies of the work for decades but must publicly register the work before enforcing that right through a lawsuit.  The supremacy of federal copyright law means, however, that state protection of copyrightable subject matter must sometimes defer to its federal counterpart.  As the Fifth Circuit explained, two conditions must be met in order for the Copyright Act to preempt a state law claim. First, “the work in which the right is asserted must come within the subject matter of copyright.” Second, “the right that the author seeks to protect . . . [is] equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright.”  This inquiry asks whether the state law is protecting the same rights that the Copyright Act seeks to vindicate or against other types of interference. “If state law offers the same protection, then the state law claim is preempted and must be dismissed.”

Applying this articulated two-part test to the facts in GlobeRanger, the Fifth Circuit found that the first condition was satisfied (because Software AG conceded its software code was copyrightable) but the second condition was not.  This is because while federal copyright law and Texas trade secret misappropriation both involve copying, trade secret misappropriation involves an extra element:  the state law prevents any improper acquisition through a breach of a confidential relationship or improper means.  Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit ruled that GlobeRanger’s trade secret claim was not preempted because it was required to establish an “extra element” in order to establish a copyright violation:  that its “protected information was taken via improper means or breach of a confidential relationship.”  Significantly, the Fifth Circuit noted, ten other circuit courts that have considered this issue agreed that trade secret misappropriation claims are not preempted by the Copyright Act for this same reason.

Revisiting the issue of preemption just four months later in Ultraflo, the Fifth Circuit reached the opposite result when faced with a different state law cause of action.  In this case, Ultraflo asserted an unfair competition by misappropriation claim under Texas law alleging that competitor Pelican stole its drawings showing how to design butterfly valves used in the transportation industry and then used them to make duplicate valves.  The United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed Ultraflo’s Texas state law claim, finding that the general scope of federal copyright law preempts the claim.  Ultraflo appealed, challenging the ruling.  As it did in GlobeRanger, the Fifth Circuit utilized the two-part test to determine whether the Copyright Act preempted the state law cause of action. First, it found that Ultraflo’s design drawings were “undoubtedly” within the scope of federal copyright, as were the valve designs themselves even though they were not actually protectable under the Copyright Act. Second, unlike in GlobeRanger, the Fifth Circuit found that the second condition was met because Texas’s unfair competition by misappropriation cause of action does not afford protection materially different from federal copyright law.  The elements of Texas’s unfair competition by misappropriation claim are: (1) the creation by a plaintiff of a product through extensive time, labor, skill, and money; (2) the use of that product by defendant in competition with plaintiff; and (3) commercial damage to the plaintiff. In other words, unlike the traditional trade secret misappropriation claim asserted in GlobeRanger, the unfair competition by misappropriation claim asserted in Ultraflo lacks the “extra element” necessary to bring it out of the general scope of copyright.  Therefore, the claim was preempted.

These two Fifth Circuit decisions demonstrate that parties should pay attention to the possible application of copyright preemption to claims involving alleged theft of information or unfair competition. While most such claims will not be preempted, Ultraflo illustrates that some will be.