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  When Congress or a state legislature passes such a statute, it effectively has withdrawn the court’s discretion to determine whether such relief is appropriate.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

It is rare that a trade secret / restrictive covenant lawsuit makes it all the way to trial, much less a jury verdict. The passage of time, accumulating legal expenses, bad facts, and/or the risk of losing at trial all can conspire to sap litigants of the desire to take their cases to the finish line.  Settlements and withdrawals of claims abound.  Sometimes, however, the parties dig in and roll the dice in court, as recently occurred in a case in the Southern District of New York.

On November 29, 2016, after more than 10 days of trial, a jury delivered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff Tesla Wall Systems LLC (“Tesla Wall,” an architecture and construction company) against its former president Michael Budd, and awarded $14.5 million in damages.  Budd had been president of Tesla Wall for less than two years when he resigned in 2014.  He was subject to contractual provisions prohibiting him post-employment from interfering with any of Tesla Wall’s actual or potential business relationships for six months and from soliciting any Tesla Wall employee for nine months.

Tesla Wall alleged that while president of Tesla Wall and thereafter, Budd secretly organized a competing curtain wall company (based on Tesla Wall’s business plan for future operations); negotiated the purchase of land in Pennsylvania, various investments and tax credits for the new company’s manufacturing facility; and hired all of Tesla Wall’s employees to work for the new venture. Pursuing claims of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and violation of the Delaware Uniform Trade Secrets Act, among others, Tesla Wall was awarded $14.5 million in damages against Budd.

Although the publicly available record does not reveal the calculations which underlie this award, the jury’s verdict is a reminder of what can be achieved by an aggrieved employer in the trade secrets/restrictive covenants arena, when the facts are favorable and the employer sees the lawsuit to its conclusion.

In a decision, dated January 26, 2009, in the matter Epiq Systems, Inc. v. Hartie, Index No. 111950/08, the Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York County, by Judicial Hearing Officer (and retired Justice) Ira Gammerman, denied a preliminary injunction in aid of arbitration sought by plaintiffs Epiq Systems, Inc. and related companies (collectively, “Epiq”). Epiq claimed that it faced inevitable disclosure of its trade secrets by three individual defendants formerly employed at Epiq and their new employer Kurtzman Carson Consultants LLC (“KCC”) with respect to three computer programs, including one web-based system, developed and used by Epiq to solicit ballots and tabulate ballot results in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, and in analogous foreign proceedings, involving widely-held public securities.

Epiq sought to enforce restrictive covenants in its employment agreements, which barred the individual defendants from disclosing Epiq’s confidential, proprietary or trade secret information, competing against Epiq or soliciting Epiq’s customers for one year after termination, and soliciting Epiq’s employees during employment and for one year after termination. After a two-day hearing in September 2008, the Court entered a temporary restraining order specifically limiting, although not prohibiting, the individuals’ employment with KCC.

Although the Court held that any arbitration award to which Epiq might ultimately be entitled apparently would be rendered ineffectual absent preliminary relief, it declined to issue a preliminary injunction against defendants, finding that Epiq had not satisfied any of the elements of the traditional tripartite test for injunctive relief: likelihood of success on the merits, showing of irreparable harm, and balance of equities favoring the movant.

Key findings for the Court were that the individual defendants did not know any part of the source code or the underlying algorithms of Epiq’s programs, even though they had worked at length with Epiq’s programmers, and so they could not disclose such information to KCC. In addition, KCC already had its own software program that allowed KCC to perform bankruptcy-related solicitation and tabulating projects in-house. Moreover, the Court held that even if the defendants would seek to improve KCC’s software, their knowledge brought to bear on such a project would not constitute a trade secret under the definition of trade secret under section 757, comment b, of the Restatement of Torts, which applies under New York law. In finding a lack of irreparable harm, the Court also noted that it had been presented with no real evidence that defendants had committed or were about to commit commercial piracy.

Epiq filed a notice of appeal on February 11, 2009.