Prop 65 Trouble is Brewing for Coffee Sellers

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A brewing case spells trouble for coffee shops in California.  Coffee sellers including Starbucks, Target and Whole Foods are in the midst of an ongoing lawsuit with the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) over the presence of acrylamide in coffee.

Acrylamide is on the Proposition 65 list of chemicals which California has declared are known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.  While acrylamide is not found in raw foods, the chemical can form in starchy and carbohydrate rich foods, such as potatoes, when cooked at high temperatures.  Acrylamide is a natural byproduct of the coffee roasting process, and is formed when the sugars and amino acids of the coffee bean are heated.

CERT (associated with Raphael Metzger of the Metzger Law Group) is a well-known plaintiff in Prop 65 cases of this sort, and this is not the first time CERT has been involved in litigation over acrylamide in food and drink products.  Acrylamide was added to the Proposition 65 list in 1990 based on studies showing it as a potential carcinogen in industrial exposures.  In April 2002, a subsequent study by the Swedish National Food Administration revealed high levels of the chemical in various high carbohydrate foods which are cooked at high temperatures, including french fries, potato chips, crackers, and bread.  CERT filed suit that same year against McDonalds and Burger King over the presence of acrylamide in french fries.  The fast-food retailers eventually settled and agreed to post Prop 65 warnings.

Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has set the No Significant Risk Level (NSRL) for acrylamide at 0.2 µg/day.  NSRL is the level of exposure at which chemicals on the Prop 65 list are deemed to pose no significant risk, and for which a Prop 65 warning is not required.  CERT v. Starbuck Corp., et al was originally filed in 2010 against 90 coffee sellers.  The suit claimed that defendants’ coffee contained 4-100x more acrylamide than the NSRL.  During the first phase of a two-phase bench trial, defendants argued that the level of acrylamide in their coffee products posed no significant risk because a multitude of studies show that coffee consumption does not increase the risk of cancer.  The court rejected this argument because the studies assessed the effects of coffee generally, as opposed to the presence of acrylamide in the coffee.  Defendants’ argument that requiring them to post a Prop 65 warning amounts to unconstitutional forced speech was also rejected.

The second phase of the trial began in September 2017.  During this bench trial, defendants argued that coffee is exempt from the NSRL standard, and rather an “alternative risk level” applies.  Proposition 65 allows for a higher “alternative risk level” to apply to chemicals produced in the process of cooking foods to make them palatable or safe.  Since acrylamide in coffee is naturally produced during the roasting process, Defendants argue that they are subject to this exemption.

A ruling is expected soon, and if CERT succeeds, California coffee sellers will be required to post Proposition 65 warnings.  Several coffee retailers who were initially named in the lawsuit have already posted warnings in their stores.  7-Eleven, who opted to settle the suit, agreed to post warnings and pay a $900,000 fee.  While Starbucks continues to challenge the suit, it has already posted warnings at its stores, presumably to limit damages it may have to pay if CERT succeeds at trial.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys will continue to monitor and report on the outcome of this case.  CK&E has many years of experience advising clients about Proposition 65 and other regulatory compliance issues they face.  Our attorneys help clients stay out of legal hot water by working with them to ensure their products continue to meet all legal requirements, and helping them plan for foreseeable changes in the law.

 

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What’s in Your Packaging? Prop 65 Applies to PVDC

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Can your product wrap subject you to Proposition 65 warning requirements?  You bet.  California has added vinylidene chloride to its long list of chemicals to which Proposition 65 applies, effective on December 29, 2017.  The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has not established a safe harbor level for vinylidene chloride, although that remains under consideration.

Vinylidene chloride is used in the production of polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) copolymers. PVDC was developed by Dow Chemical Company, and was at one point used in the production of the popular food wrap product, Saran Wrap. PVDC has characteristics ideal for food packaging because it has low permeabiltiy to water vapor and gasses. While use of PVDC in Saran Wrap was later phased out due to cost and environmental concerns, other copolymers of vinylidene chloride are still commonly used in food packaging, including box overwrap, vertical form fill seal, horizontal form fill seal, and pre-made bags. Vinylidene chloride is also extensively used in a variety of other packing materials, as flame retardant coating for fiber and carpet backing and in piping, coating for steel pipes, and adhesive applications. Other common consumer products that may contain vinylidene chloride include cleaning cloths, filters, screens, tape, shower curtains, garden furniture, artificial turf, doll hair, stuffed animals, fabrics, fishnet, and shoe insoles.

Manufacturers, distributors and retailers are required to provide Prop 65 warnings to workers and consumers who are exposed to vinylidene chloride.  Companies have one year from the listing date to comply with Prop 65.  Companies that have not reformulated their products to remove vinylidene chloride, or that fail to provide a Proposition 65 warning on products containing it, by December 29, 2018 are at risk of receiving a “Notice of Violation” from private enforcers seeking to gain thousands of dollars in penalties and attorneys’ fees.  A Notice of Violation typically precedes a lawsuit for violation of Proposition 65.

The listing of vinylidene chloride as a chemical known to cause cancer by OEHHA is a reminder that not only product contents, but also packaging materials, are included within Prop 65 compliance requirements.  As we previously reported, since December 2014, products sold in California that contain diisononyl phthalate (DINP) have required a Proposition 65 warning.  DINP is found is many soft plastic and vinyl products, and purported violations have been found in seemingly innocuous packaging, such as gift bags for cosmetic products.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel has many years of experience advising clients with respect to Proposition 65 and other regulatory compliance issues. CK&E attorneys help clients stay out of legal crosshairs by working with them to ensure their products continue to meet all legal requirements, and helping them plan for foreseeable changes in the law.

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WARNING: Are Your Products and Websites Ready for the New Prop 65 Requirements?

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California’s Office of Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has issued new Proposition 65 Warning Regulations that will go into effect on August 30, 2018. It is important for companies to understand the changed regulations and be proactive in adapting their product labels and even internet marketing to adapt to the new regulations.  The coming changes have introduced a variety of new concepts, imposing additional burdens on businesses selling their products in California, and making it easier for plaintiff Prop 65 attorneys and groups to bring costly private enforcement actions.

The OEHHA has made significant changes to the safe-harbor language requirements that govern the language, text, and format of such warnings. The new regulations introduce the concept of a “warning symbol,” which must be used on consumer products, though not on food products. The “warning symbol” must be printed in a size no smaller than the height of the word “WARNING,” and should be in black and yellow, but can be in black and white if the sign, label, or shelf tag for the product is not printed using the color yellow.

Warnings must now also specifically state at least one listed chemical found in the product and include a link to OEHHA’s new website www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.  These are examples of the new format for more specific warnings:

  • For exposure to carcinogens: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause cancer. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”
  • For exposure to reproductive toxins: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”
  • For exposure to both carcinogens and reproductive toxins: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more listed chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause cancer, and [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”

Certain special categories of products, such as food and alcoholic beverages, have a specialized URL that must be used. For example, warnings on food products must display the URL www.P65Warnings.ca.gov/food.

Recognizing that many consumer products have limited space “on-product” to fit the long-form warnings, the OEHHA has enacted new regulations allowing abbreviated “on-product” warnings. This short warning is permissible only if printed on the immediate container, box or wrapper of the consumer product. An example of the required format for the abbreviated warnings is:

  • WARNING: Cancer and Reproductive Harm – www.P65Warnings.ca.gov

The new regulations also specifically address internet sales for the first time. Warnings must be provided with a clearly marked hyperlink on the product display page, or otherwise prominently displayed to the purchaser before completion of the transaction.  It will not be sufficient if the product sold on the internet bears the required label, but the internet point of purchase listing does not.

The particular requirements for each specific product can vary, so manufacturers and resellers are well-advised to seek qualified counsel to review their situation before committing to potentially costly label and website changes that may not comply with the new requirements.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay up to date on important regulatory developments affecting their clients in the manufacturing and resale industries, and are ready to help clients navigate the changing regulatory landscape in California and elsewhere.

Although the new regulations take effect August 30, 2018, and the new warning labels are required for products manufactured after that date, companies can begin using the changed labels now. It is definitely not advisable to wait until August 2018 to begin making the required changes.

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Relationships Between Producers, Wholesalers, and Retailers: Beer Distribution and Franchise Laws in California (Part 2)

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In a recent blog post, we discussed beer self-distribution rules in California.  While the self-distribution laws in California are generally quite accommodating, and self-distribution works for a start-up craft brewery with limited funds, on a practical level it can only serve a relatively small geographical area.  As a brand increases in local popularity and the beer producer wants to expand its footprint and accelerate its competition with brands and beers outside its home region, usually the producer will choose to enter into a distribution agreement with an established third-party wholesaler.  When a beer producer chooses to contract with a distributor, then it is important to be aware of the applicable beer franchise laws (which also vary from state to state).  Beer franchise laws control the relationship between the brewer and the wholesaler and will generally trump contract terms that do not comport with such laws.

Beer franchise laws stem from a decades-old period when relatively few national-level breweries (like Budweiser and Miller) were able to exert significant power over the beer distribution industry, which at the time was chiefly comprised of numerous small mom-and-pop outlets.  As an example, the macrobreweries would impose stringent requirements for their distributors that necessitated significant investment (such as construction and maintenance of a sophisticated refrigerated warehouse), but there was nothing to protect the distributor when the macrobreweries decided to switch to a competitor, leaving the distributors with little recourse to recoup their investment.  To protect the distributors from this predicament, strong state franchise laws were enacted that made it difficult for the breweries to terminate contracts with distributors.

At their most draconian, beer franchise laws can marry a brewer to a distributor even if the brewer only sends a small initial amount of beer to the distributor for resale without any written agreement whatsoever.  In some cases distributors can even have the power to transfer the distribution rights to successors-in-interest without the brewer’s consent.  In many states, a brewer can only cancel a distribution contract for “good cause,” which may not include failure to reach sales quotas.  Further, many states require a brewer, in order to break a distribution contract, to pay the wholesaler Fair Market Value (“FMV”) for the lost business.  Of course, these rules have shifted a significant share of power to the distributors.

As the franchise laws weren’t enacted with the microbrewing phenomenon in mind, they can make distribution difficult for craft brewers that don’t have the clout of a national macrobrew and who don’t impose stringent requirements on their distributors.  In certain situations, a small brand may feel that a distributor is paying attention to other more established brands and that it is not getting the benefit of its bargain with the distributor.  However, many beer franchise laws have been softened over the past several years, allowing for more competition in the wholesale market and giving fledgling breweries more choice and control over the terms of their third-party distribution.  For example, some states exempt breweries that produce less than certain annual volumes from the franchise laws.  Of course, exemptions like this mean that brewers need to be conscious of their plans to grow and potentially exceed those volume limitations, and consider how it will affect their distribution agreements.

California’s beer franchise laws are some of the most accommodating in the country, because California allows the distribution agreement itself to control most of the important terms and dealings between the brewer and the wholesaler.  In California, a brewer must enter into exclusive written territorial agreements with distributors that are filed with the ABC (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25000.5).  California’s franchise laws do not restrict brewers to only “good cause” terminations (though the distributors themselves may very well fight for some type of good-cause requirement in contract negotiations).  Further, a brewer can terminate a distribution agreement if the wholesaler fails to meet a “commercially reasonable” sales goal or quota (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25000.7), and many beer distribution agreements call for the distributor itself to come up with an annual business plan that establishes sales goals based on certain data.  Except in certain situations, a brewer does not need to pay FMV to terminate the relationship (though again, a distributor may insist on a termination payment as a contract term).  While a brewer is not automatically bound by contract to a purchaser or transferee of its distributor, the brewer cannot unreasonably withhold consent or deny approval of such a transfer without incurring certain charges (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25000.9).

In California, the parties must be attuned to several important issues in creating the agreement, such as territory, term, change in ownership and transfer rights, termination rights, terms of sale, commercially reasonable sales goals, post-termination provisions, intellectual property licensing and advertising issues, dispute resolution, and other rights and duties of the parties.  Such contract terms are just as important for a brewer as finding a distribution team that is the right “fit” for a growing brand.

Overall, it is no surprise that the states with the most friendly self-distribution and franchise laws are the states with the most active and diverse beer business communities.  For example, California now has around 900 active breweries, far more than any other state, adding over 500 breweries in the last two years alone.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel has experience representing both breweries and distributors.  If you are launching a brewery in California, looking to expand your brand’s sales through self-distribution or with a third-party distributor, or have found yourself in a distribution-related dispute, contact Conkle, Kremer & Engel for assistance with those and other beer industry-related issues.

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California Employers’ Risks of PAGA Exposure

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If you’re a California employer, you may have heard people refer to “PAGA” and wondered what it’s all about.  PAGA is a legal device that employees can use to address Labor Code violations in a novel way, in which employee representatives are allowed to act as if they are government enforcement agents.

The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (CLWDA) has authority to collect civil penalties against employers for Labor Code violations.  Seems simple enough.  But in an effort to relieve an agency with limited resources of the nearly impossible task of pursuing every possible Labor Code violation committed by employers, the California legislature passed the Private Attorney General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”).  PAGA grants aggrieved employees the right to bring a civil action and pursue civil penalties against their employers for Labor Code violations, acting on behalf of the State of California as if they were the CLWDA.  If the aggrieved employees prevail against the employer, the employees can collect 25% of the fines that the state of California would have collected if it had brought the action.

Penalties available for Labor Code violations can be steep – for some violations, the state of California can recover fines of $100 for an initial violation to $200 for subsequent violations, per aggrieved employee, per pay period.  These penalties can add up to serious money, especially if the aggrieved employee was with the company for some time.  But what makes PAGA particularly dangerous for employers is the ability of employees to bring a representative action (similar to a class action), in which they can pursue these penalties for violations of the Labor Code on behalf of not only themselves, but also all others similarly situated.  Under this scheme, an aggrieved employee can bring an action to pursue penalties on behalf of an entire class of current and former employees, thereby multiplying the penalties for which an employer can be on the hook and ballooning the risk of exposure.  That risk is further amplified because PAGA also permits plaintiff employment attorneys to recover their fees if their claim is successful.

There is an upward trend in use of PAGA against California employers.  A July 2017 California Supreme Court decision, Williams v. Superior Court, exacerbated the problem for employers:  The California Supreme Court decided that plaintiff employment attorneys can obtain from employer defendants the names and contact information of potentially affected current and former employees throughout the entire state of California.  This means the PAGA plaintiffs can initiate an action and then pursue discovery of all possible affected employees and former employees throughout California, which can greatly expand the pool of potential claimants and ratchet up the exposure risk for employers.

Employers in California need to be attuned to Labor Code requirements and careful in their manner of dealing with employees, so that they avoid exposure to PAGA liability to the extent possible.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are familiar with the latest developments in employment liability and able to assist employers avoid trouble before it starts, or respond and defend themselves if problems have arisen.

 

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Producer, Wholesaler and Retailer Relationships: Beer Distribution and Franchise Laws in California (Part 1)

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For breweries and beer suppliers of any size, distribution is a significant issue, from the initial determination of whether to self-distribute or obtain third-party distribution to the decision to terminate a wholesaler.  As the beer industry is one of the most highly regulated in the United States and the laws on distribution procedures vary from state to state, there are many details and pitfalls that all parties engaged in beer distribution should be aware of when contemplating and doing business.  Two such sets of laws relate to self-distribution and what are called beer franchise laws (somewhat similar to but generally distinct from laws for franchises like McDonald’s restaurants or 7-Eleven convenience stores).  This blog entry will address the basics of brewery self-distribution in California, while a following entry will address California beer franchise laws.  (Future entries will discuss such issues in other jurisdictions and inter-jurisdictional issues.)

First, any discussion of beer distribution in the United States must begin with the repeal of prohibition and the states’ implementation of the “three-tier” system, which was discussed in a previous post.  The three-tier system generally requires beer producers to sell to wholesalers who in turn sell to retailers (comprised of both on-sale establishments like pubs and off-sale establishments like bottle shops).  The chief purpose of this layered approach is to limit beer producers’ control over and promotion of the retail sale of their products.  While this structure has its roots in the temperance movement, the three-tier system has had the effect in recent decades of allowing smaller craft breweries to flourish due to its inherent checks on monopolization.  However, as the number of beer brands proliferates, wholesalers and retailers cannot realistically be expected to carry all such brands, and self-distribution for many brands is the only effective way to bring product to market.

Fortunately, within the three-tier system, the states are permitted their own sets of rules.  While many states require the manufacturer, the wholesale, and the retailer to be completely independent of one another with no common ownership (and therefore permit no self-distribution), other states blur the three-tier system by allowing for retailers to buy beer directly from manufacturers, and some states allow for a beer manufacturer to own its own legally-distinct distribution company.  About half of states currently set an upper threshold on self-distribution (i.e. up to a certain annual barrel production level), with a smaller number allowing self-distribution regardless of capacity.

California is currently one of the more generous self-distribution states, allowing licensed California retailers to purchase alcoholic beverages for resale from licensed California beer wholesalers or manufacturers regardless of the production level.  (See, e.g., Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 23357, 23402, 23388.)  The California rules also permit the brewer (with the appropriate licenses and permits) to sell packaged beer from the brewery premises (including growler fills), to operate taprooms and brewpubs (with certain production requirements), and/or to sell at farmers markets (again, with several restrictions).  While these rules have their nuances, they allow breweries in California to establish their brand(s) and get their business off the ground without having to rely on third-party involvement.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have experience representing both breweries and distributors.  If you are launching a brewery in California, looking to expand your brand’s sales through self-distribution or with a third-party distributor, or in a distribution-related dispute, contact Conkle, Kremer & Engel for assistance with those and other beer industry-related issues.

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What are “Natural” Products Anyway?

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Personal care products that claim to be “natural”, “all natural” or “100% natural” continue to draw scrutiny from consumer advocates and regulatory agencies such as the FTC. Perhaps surprisingly, there still is no clear definition of the word “natural” for personal care products.  It’s no small concern, as consumers and manufacturers can have different expectations of what “natural” means, which can lead to confusion and accusations of false or misleading advertising.

Despite the uncertainty, “natural” product claims matter to consumers. According to a 2015 Nielsen report, 53% of consumers surveyed said that an “all-natural” description was moderately or very important to their purchasing decision. The worldwide natural products industry is estimated at $33 billion – and it’s growing.  “Naturally,” companies want to capitalize on this trend.

But what exactly is a “natural” product? Is it plant-derived? Is it made from ingredients found in nature?  Is it free of preservatives? Is it made without synthetic ingredients?  There are no FDA regulations regarding use of the word natural. However, the FDA has issued non-binding guidance that states it will not contest food products labeled as “natural” if the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Though this provides a limited understanding of the term “natural”, the guidance is as to food, pertains only to FDA enforcement and is not a legal requirement.

In a recent complaint filed with FTC, California Naturel’s sunscreen was alleged to be not “all natural”, as it claimed, because 8% of it was Dimethicone, a synthetic ingredient. Following the FTC complaint, California Naturel put a disclaimer on its website, which was later ruled as ineffective in a 2016 FTC decision.

Starting in 2015, the Honest Company also found itself in court for false advertising in regard to their “natural” products.  Though the Honest Company markets its products as “natural”, the products contain a number of synthetic ingredients. Consumers argued that their understanding of “natural” was a product free of synthetic or artificial ingredients, and the court held that the Honest Company’s  “natural” claims for its products is misleading.

The current trend is that the surest way to avoid complaints when products are advertised as “natural” or “100% natural” is to make certain they are free of synthetic ingredients.  Next to that, disclosure of what you mean by “natural” as used on your product can be an important measure to avoid consumer confusion.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys help their clients navigate these tricky currents by staying up to date on developments affecting the personal care products industry.

 

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The Conkle Firm Attends INTA Annual Meeting in Orlando

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys Mark Kremer and Zachary Page attended the Annual Meeting of the International Trademark Association (INTA) in Orlando, Florida this week. The Annual Meeting is INTA’s largest event of the year in which intellectual property attorneys, brand owners and administrative officials gather to discuss developments and trends in trademark law in the United States and across the globe. This year’s Annual Meeting included discussions about rule changes for proceedings in the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, the impact of TTAB decisions on later litigation, anti-counterfeiting strategies, enforcement strategies in online marketplaces and social media, and changes to international trademark prosecution systems.

CK&E regularly works with clients to identify and protect their intellectual property both in the United States and abroad, and participates in industry conferences like INTA’s Annual Meeting and others to stay abreast of the developing issues affecting the firm’s clients.

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Making a Federal Case of Trade Secret Misappropriation

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On April 27, 2016, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) passed the House of Representatives and went to President Obama’s desk, where it is expected to be signed.  With that, trade secret misappropriation claims will exist under federal law and can be pursued in federal courts.

The DTSA will provide businesses with more effective new tools to protect their sensitive information from misappropriation.  In the context of trade secrets, misappropriation is generally considered the acquisition of hidden information through some improper means .  The broadly structured language of the DTSA extends its protection to “all forms and types of financial, business, scientific, technical, economic, or engineering information” so long as (1) the owner has taken reasonable steps to keep the information secret and (2) the information derives its value from that secrecy.  The DTSA largely tracks the concepts of trade secrets that have long existed in most states.  But under the DTSA, plaintiffs will be able to bring claims for misappropriation of trade secrets in federal court.

Previously, trade secrets have been an outlier in the world of intellectual property.  Unlike copyright, patent and trademark claims, which receive the wider benefit and protection of federal court jurisdiction, trade secret claims have mostly been litigated in state court.  The problem with this has been that, given the diffuse and global nature of business and commerce, state courts are often not the best venue for intellectual property claims.   If a misappropriation occurs across state or national borders, a federal court is better suited to address such jurisdictional conflicts.

To gain access to the DTSA, and federal court jurisdiction, all that is required is that the “trade secret is related to a product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.”  This is generally a very low threshold, as most products and services these days are used or intended for use in at least interstate commerce – only the most localized of businesses would not be able to meet this minimal requirement.

The DTSA will confer on trade secret holders a greater ability to pursue misappropriation beyond the borders of the United States, and can even pursue remedies before the International Trade Commission.  In addition, a secondary benefit gained from access to the federal court system is a potential for more uniform decisions and precedent than the more disparate and varied state courts decisions.

Another interesting development that the DTSA will usher in relates to injunction and damages.  Injunctions are often sought in trade secret cases to prevent the information at issue from being disclosed.  Previously,  under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), which almost all states have adopted in some form or another, the injunction would end when the trade secret ceased to exist or after an amount of time necessary to stop any potential commercial advantage being gained from a misappropriation.  The DTSA however contains no such limitation, which presumably will give courts more discretion in applying an extended injunction.  Also, where the UTSA allows for double damages in cases of “willful and malicious misappropriation”, the language of the DTSA has upped this to treble damages.

Perhaps the biggest tool in the DTSA tool belt is the ability to seek ex parte civil seizures.  What this means is that a plaintiff can, without giving a defendant notice, seek the seizure of property if the plaintiff can demonstrate that the defendant, or someone working in concert with the defendant, is likely to “destroy, move, hide, or otherwise make such matter inaccessible to the court”.  This type of ex parte seizure is a powerful new tool that will likely allow trade secret holders to better combat harm associated with a misappropriation.  And being a powerful tool, it may be subject to misuse among competitors.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay current on developments that may be important to their clients concerned about commercial and intellectual property issues.  If you have questions about the DTSA or other aspects of trade secret or intellectual property protection, we would be glad to hear from you.

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No Fooling! On April 1, Almost All Employers are Subject to New Employment Regulations in California

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Effective April 1, 2016, new regulations of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) impose stringent new anti-discrimination and anti-harassment requirements on almost all employers having any employees in California.  Unlike in the past, the new amendments to regulations under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) apply to any employer having five or more “employees,” any of whom are located in California.  The word “employees” is important, because the new FEHA regulations count toward the minimum of five “employees” unpaid interns, volunteers and persons out on leave from active employment.  Further, it appears that this new FEHA regulation is intended to apply even to employers with headquarters outside of California if any of their employees are located in California.

The FEHA regulatory amendments require all affected employers to have written policies prohibiting workplace discrimination and harassment.  The policies must apply to prohibit discrimination and harassment by co-workers, who are made individually liable for their own violations, and by third parties such as vendors in the workplace.  The regulations demand that the written policy list all currently-protected categories protected under FEHA:  Race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, and military or veteran status.  Prohibited “sex discrimination” includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and related medical conditions.  Interestingly, the regulations also prohibit discrimination against employment applicants holding a special California driver’s license issued to persons without proof of legal presence in the United States.  It is not yet clear how this will work in conjunction with the employer’s existing Federal obligation to confirm eligibility for employment.

The employer’s written policy must specify a confidential complaint process that satisfies a number of criteria.  Workplace retaliation for making good faith complaints of perceived discrimination or harassment is prohibited.  The written policy must be publicized to all employees, with tracking of its receipt by employees.  If 10% of the employer’s work force speaks a language other than English, the written policy must be translated to that language.

Further, the new regulations attempt to resolve a number of uncertainties about who is protected, specifying that both males and females are protected from gender discrimination, and requiring that transgender persons be treated and provided facilities consistent with their gender identity.  There are many other changes, such as a new entitlement to four months for pregnancy leave that is not required to be taken continuously.  If an employer has more than 50 employees, there are additional requirements, such as periodic sexual harassment prevention training for supervisors.

Employers operating in California are well advised to review their policies and practices, and to consult with qualified counsel regarding changes that may be required.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys help clients remain compliant with laws, regulations and case developments affecting employers in California.

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