Trade Secrets: Part 2 of CKE Article on Restraints of Trade

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As described in earlier posts, Conkle, Kremer & Engel represents commissioned sales representatives (“reps”) and manufacturers or distributors (often termed “principals”) who contract with them.  Contracts drafted by manufacturers or distributors often include post-termination non-competition clauses, which can be tricky for both parties.  California generally disallows non-competition clauses as unlawful restraints of trade, but it is nonetheless possible to have effective trade secret agreements that can substantially restrict a former rep from working with competitors.  In addition, reps and principals often work across state lines and many states allow post-termination non-competition terms that are “reasonable” in scope.  Principals and reps must be conscious of which state’s law controls their agreement, and the state venue in which any dispute would be determined by a court or arbitrator.

CK&E attorney Eric S. Engel earlier contributed an article to the October 2016 edition of Agency Sales Magazine, published by the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA) to help reps and principals understand and grapple with the non-competition/restraint of trade issues that they face.  In November 2016, the second installment of this article, Trade Secret Protection in Rep Agreements, was published in Agency Sales Magazine to further explain the related issues of trade secret protection in the principal-rep relationship, and how trade secret concerns can limit the ability of a rep to compete with his or her principal during or after termination of the representation.

CK&E is proud to be able to assist reps and principals to negotiate the sometimes difficult legal issues that can help or hinder their effective partnership in serving their customers.

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CKE Publishes on Restraints of Trade Affecting Manufacturers’ Sales Reps

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel represents commissioned sales representatives (“reps”) and manufacturers or distributors (often termed “principals”) who contract with them.  Often, contracts drafted by manufacturers or distributors include post-termination non-competition clauses that can be problematic in several respects.  California generally disallows non-competition clauses as unlawful restraints of trade, but it is often possible to have effective trade secret agreements that can substantially restrict a former representatives from working with competitors.  Further, reps and principals often work across state lines, and many states allow post-termination non-competition terms that are “reasonable” in scope.  Principals and reps must be conscious of which state’s law controls their agreement, and the state venue in which any dispute would be determined by a court or arbitrator.  To help reps and principals understand issues that they face, CK&E attorney Eric S. Engel contributed an article to the October 2016 edition of Agency Sales Magazine, published by the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA).  The October 2016 article, Limiting the Risks of Restraint of Trade, is the first of two parts addressing the enforceability of restraints of trade in various states, and methods to assure that a favorable venue is available if a dispute arises. Next month’s article will focus on the intersection of restraints of trade and trade secret protection.

 

 

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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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Protecting Your Company When a Top Executive Leaves to Join a Competitor

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What do you do when a key member of your team goes to work for a rival firm? Or, perhaps worse, how do you react when you receive a competitor’s demand that your latest hire, a new sales manager, stop working for you?

John Conkle recently participated in a discussion of experienced practitioners which looked at these and related topics at the 2014 American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Litigation, Corporate Counsel Committee’s Continuing Legal Education Seminar held in Rancho Mirage, California. The topic of the presentation was what actions inside and outside counsel need to take when a top executive of the company leaves to joins a competitor, when the company’s reputation, confidential information, and business could all be at risk. The panel addressed practical and legal strategies to help navigate the pitfalls presented by this high-stakes dilemma.

Protecting Your Company - ABA 2014

John was joined on the panel by the Hon. Gail Andler, Judge of the Orange County California Superior Court; Elizabeth K. Deardorff, Associate General Counsel of Hewlett-Packard Company; and Steven A. Weiss, of Schopf & Weiss LLP, a Chicago litigation boutique firm. More than 300 attorneys from law firms and law departments throughout the United States and from several foreign countries attended this year’s seminar.

Written materials distributed at the seminar included an article written by John and Bill Garcia, Director of Legal Project Management at Thompson Hine LLP:    First Response to Surprise Departure of Top Executive to Marketplace Rival.  The article outlines first response actions to be taken by counsel in response to an executive’s departure. Bill Garcia had been scheduled to moderate the panel, which he helped conceive and orchestrate, but he was unfortunately snowed in and unable to leave Washington, D.C.

Losing a key executive to a competitor can be a serious and sensitive matter. CK&E is well versed in the options available to a company whose top executive leaves. CK&E has also represented the interests of the company acquiring the executive and employs various strategies and defenses to help resolve disputes over such hirings. CK&E lawyers have represented both sides of these issues, from recruitment of an entire sales team to competition by a former owner of an acquired business or product line.  CK&E’s vast experience in the area of employment law, non-competition and protection of trade secrets allows the firm to efficiently assist in-house counsel to reach a desired objective with a minimum of business disruption.

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Turning an Agreement for Use of Public Information into a Trade Secret Misappropriation Case

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A recent New Jersey case is an example of how claims of misappropriation of trade secrets can arise in unexpected ways, and of the importance of the terms used in agreements for use of information.  The case shows that trade secret misappropriation can occur even when the information is “public” and the recipient was authorized to have the information.

In Events Media Network, Inc. v. The Weather Channel, Events Media had collected and compiled information about public events into a database.  Events Media then licensed the compilation to The Weather Channel to list events on The Weather Channel’s website.  Events Media claimed that The Weather Channel used the database for purposes other than listing events on its website.  Events Media sued The Weather Channel, but not just for a breach of the licensing agreement – Events Media also sued for trade secret misappropriation.

Although trade secrets are generally thought of as valuable information that no one else knows (of course, that is why it is secret), compilations of information that is available to the public, such as the Events Media database, can receive trade secret protection.

Events Media serves as a demonstration of how important the license agreement terms can be to whether a misappropriation of trade secrets claim can be pursued.  In finding that the Events Media database could be a protectable trade secret, the New Jersey court relied in part on the licensing agreement itself.  The court concluded that Events Media’s database was valuable – why else would The Weather Channel agree to pay for it?  The court also found the compilation was “secret,” because it was provided under a license agreement that affirmed its confidentiality and limited its use and disclosure, and because the data compilation was not known to others even though individual items of data were public.

Events Media further shows that trade secret misappropriation can occur even where a party has rightfully acquired the information under an agreement.  All that is required is unauthorized “use or disclosure” of the secret information, which can be shown by demonstrating that the use or disclosure was not permitted under the terms of a limited licensing agreement.

Finally, the case demonstrates that trade secrets need not be revealed to a third person in order to have misappropriation.  Trade secrets cases frequently involve a person who has impermissibly disclosed trade secrets to another, such as an employee who takes trade secrets from a former employer to a new employer.  But Events Media claimed only that The Weather Channel misappropriated trade secrets just by using the information for purposes not authorized by its licensing agreement.

In short, the ability to assert trade secret misappropriation can be based in large part on the terms of agreement between the parties.  As this case demonstrates, trade secrets laws protect a broad array of information, from customer lists to product formulas, and misappropriation can occur in circumstances that few would imagine.  CK&E’s lawyers have decades of experience in drafting agreements to protect and use trade secrets, as well as litigating trade secrets cases for both plaintiffs and defendants.  We always stand ready to provide clients with forward-thinking legal representation on these matters.

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