The Pennsylvania Superior Court’s recent decision in Metalico Pittsburgh, Inc. v. Douglas Newman, et al., No. 354 WDA 2016, 2017 PA Super. 109 (Apr. 19, 2017), confirms the importance of careful contractual drafting in agreements containing non-compete clauses and other post-employment restrictive covenants. In circumstances where an employee is hired for a term of employment but later becomes an at-will employee, that contractual language may determine the enforceability of the agreement’s non-compete and non-solicitation provisions.
By Shannon Hampton Sutherland and Gregory S. Bombard
Last week, the White House called on states to enact sweeping reforms to their non-compete laws. The White House’s new policy position is that “most workers should not be covered by a non-compete agreement” and that, although “each state faces different circumstances,” many employers have sufficient other targeted remedies to protect their legal interests.
In its policy statement, the White House called on states to enact “non-compete” reforms, including one or more of the following: Continue reading “White House Recommends Non-Compete Reforms”
By Shannon Hampton Sutherland and Julian A. Jackson-Fannin
On September 27, 2016, in Adams Arms, LLC v. Unified Weapon Systems, Inc., et al., the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida issued one of the first substantive opinions concerning claims brought under the new Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”).
The DTSA, which became effective on May, 11, 2016, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts by, among other things, creating a new federal civil cause of action for trade secret misappropriation when “the trade secret is related to a product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.” Although the DTSA has been hailed as the new “national standard for trade secret misappropriation,” with certain exceptions, its provisions are largely consistent with the well-known Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”) currently adopted by 48 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The DTSA prohibits both the improper “acquisition” of a trade secret as well as its “disclosure.” As the DTSA continues to make its first impressions on federal courts around the country, threshold questions have arisen concerning the timing of misappropriations and what theories of recovery apply under the freshly minted law. Continue reading “A Call to Arms: How Timing Matters Under the New Defend Trade Secrets Act”
By Bronwyn L. Roberts
As reported in The Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Senate and House concluded their legislative session on July 31, 2016, without passing noncompete reform legislation. This comes as a bit of a surprise as the House and Senate have in 2016 each passed a noncompete reform bill. Additionally, Governor Charlie Baker has, through a spokesperson, recently indicated support for the House bill that sought to restrict noncompetes by creating “Garden Leave,” consisting of payment during the restricted period of at least 50 percent of the employee’s annualized base salary. However, for those who have followed this process over the years, the fact that neither bill passed is consistent with many other failed attempts over the years to overhaul the Massachusetts noncompete landscape.
Thus, the noncompete reform debate, which has been ongoing in the Massachusetts legislature since at least 2009, continues. We will keep you updated.
By Bronwyn L. Roberts
On June 29, 2016, just four months after Massachusetts House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo promised to put new legislative limits on noncompetition agreements, the House unanimously passed a bill (150-0) doing just that and also passed the Massachusetts Uniform Trade Secrets Act. To become law, the bill (House Bill 4434) still needs to pass the Senate and be signed by Governor Charlie Baker.
While much of the bill would merely codify some of the key issues judges already look at when analyzing whether an agreement is enforceable under Massachusetts law, there are some provisions that represent a sea change in the noncompete landscape.
On June 9, 2016, Duane Morris attorney Gregory S. Bombard moderated a panel at the Boston Bar Association on “Negotiating and Enforcing Protective Orders in Trade Secret Cases.” The panel discussed best practices for protecting a client’s secret information during litigation, from discovery through motion practice and trial. Michael R. Gottfried, the managing partner of Duane Morris’s Boston office, spoke about his experience using trade secret information at trial. Also on the panel were Kenneth Berman of Nutter, McClennen & Fish and Sarah Herlihy of Jackson Lewis.
For more information, please contact Mr. Gottfried or Mr. Bombard of the Boston office or the members of the Non-Compete and Trade Secrets Practice.
Shannon Hampton Sutherland, Co-Chair, Duane Morris Non-Compete and Trade Secrets Practice, http://www.duanemorris.com/attorneys/shannonhamptonsutherland.html, and
Corey M. Weideman, Duane Morris Associate, http://www.duanemorris.com/attorneys/coreymweideman.html
On May 20, 2016, in In re: M-I, LLC, d/b/a M-I Swaco, No. 14-1045, 2016 Tex. LEXIS 389 (Tex. May 20, 2016), the Texas Supreme Court issued its much anticipated first decision involving the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“TUTSA”). TUTSA, which became effective on September 1, 2013, updated Texas law governing trade secret matters by, among other things, providing an unambiguous definition of a “trade secret”, expanding injunctive relief, and authorizing recovery of attorneys’ fees for willful and malicious activity. TUTSA also includes a specific provision requiring trial courts to protect the secrecy of a trade secret through reasonable means. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 134A.006. This section of TUTSA, and the extent to which a trial court must protect the secrecy of an alleged trade secret during an injunction hearing, was the focus of the Court’s attention in In re: M-I, LLC.
In In re: M-I, LLC, the Texas Supreme Court held that the due-process right of a party to have a designated representative present at an injunction hearing involving alleged trade secrets is not absolute, and the trial court abused its discretion when it summarily concluded – without first balancing the competing interests at stake – that excluding the defendant’s corporate witness from portions of the injunction hearing involving trade secrets would violate due process.
The basic facts of the trade secret case underlying the mandamus proceeding in In re: M-I, LLC are typical: an employee with a signed non-compete and confidentiality agreement left his job to work for one of his former employer’s competitors, and a dispute ensued shortly thereafter. The former employer, M-I, filed suit for trade secret misappropriation and sought injunctive relief against its former employee and his new employer, National Oilwell Varco, L.P. (“NOV”). Relying on Section 134A.006 of TUTSA, M-I requested that NOV’s corporate representative be excluded from the courtroom during a portion of the hearing on M-I’s application for temporary injunction. The trial court summarily denied M-I’s request, however, concluding that the exclusion of NOV’s designated representative would be a “total violation of due process.” Instead, the trial court admonished NOV’s representative not to disclose or use anything he heard in the courtroom. Concerned about disclosing testimony regarding its trade secrets to NOV and placing the secrecy of the alleged trade secrets at risk by doing so, M-I postponed the injunction hearing to file a mandamus request with an intermediate appellate court. The intermediate appellate court denied the mandamus request and M-I filed a new mandamus request to the Texas Supreme Court.
Mandamus relief is available, the Court noted, when the trial court abuses its discretion and no adequate appellate remedy exists. The Court first explained that there is no adequate appellate remedy for an erroneous order to disclose a trade secret before examining whether the trial court abused its discretion.
In conditionally granting M-I’s request for mandamus relief, the Texas Supreme Court held that the trial court abused its discretion by summarily refusing M-I’s request to conduct portions of the temporary injunction hearing outside the presence of the NOV’s designated representative. The Court explained that courts have discretion to exclude parties and their representatives in limited circumstances when “countervailing interests overcome [the] presumption” in favor of participation. Rather than summarily denying M-I’s request, the Court explained, the trial court was required, at a minimum, to balance the parties’ competing interests.
- First, the trial court was required to determine the degree of competitive harm M-I would have suffered from the dissemination of its alleged trade secrets to NOV’s corporate representative, including by considering the relative value of the alleged trade secrets and whether the NOV corporate representative was a competitive decision-maker.
- Second, the court was required to determine the degree to which NOV’s defense of M-I’s claims would be impaired by the representative’s exclusion at such a preliminary stage of the proceeding.
Importantly, the Court noted that, “[i]f the trial court conducted the required balancing, it may have been within its discretion to decide that due process required NOV’s designated representative to be present.” The trial court’s error was failing to conduct the balancing at all.
In short, TUTSA plaintiffs should not assume that the court will exclude the other side’s representative when alleged trade secrets are disclosed, and TUTSA defendants should not assume that the court will permit their representatives to participate in all phases of a TUTSA case. The trial court must develop a factual record to balance the parties’ countervailing interests before deciding whether to exclude a witness.
The panel was titled “Restrictive Covenants Enforcement Realities Around the Country: The In-House Perspective on Chasing the Departed,” and the panelists were Kelly Grace Huller, Globus Medical Inc.; Jennifer A. McGlinn, Ricoh Americas Corp.; and Stacey N. Schmidt, Fidelity Investments.
By Lawrence H. Pockers, Co-Chair, Duane Morris Non-Compete and Trade Secrets practice
Following passage by the House of Representatives on April 27, 2016, President Obama is expected to sign the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 into law any day. Once signed into law, the Defend Trade Secrets Act will amend Chapter 90, Title 18 of the United State Code (The Economic Espionage Act of 1996) to create a federal, private cause of action for trade secret misappropriation where “the trade secret is related to a product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.” The Defend Trade Secrets Act will apply with respect to any misappropriation of a trade secret “for which any act [of misappropriation] occurs on or after the date of the enactment of the Act.” Much of the early commentary surrounding the Defend Trade Secrets Act has focused on the fact that employers will now be able to rely on federal law instead of navigating the sometimes subtle differences in state laws concerning claims for trade secret misappropriation, and the provisions of the Defend Trade Secrets Act which permit the civil seizure “of property necessary to prevent the propagation or dissemination of the trade secret that is the subject of the action.”
One aspect of the Defend Trade Secrets Act that has received little attention, but that should be top of mind for employers, is a provision buried at the end of the Act that will necessitate a change in the form of employment agreements many employers use in order to maintain maximum leverage over employees and ex-employees who misappropriate trade secrets. More specifically, Section 7 – the very last section – of the Act, amends the Economic Espionage Act to create immunity from liability where an individual (for example, an employee or ex-employee) confidentially discloses a trade secret to a government official, an attorney or in a court filing. This Section of the Act requires that “[a]n employer shall provide notice of the immunity set forth in this subsection in any contract or agreement with an employee that governs the use of a trade secret or other confidential information.” An employer that fails to comply may not be awarded exemplary damages or attorneys’ fees in an action under the Act unless the employee was provided with this form of notice.
By: Shannon Hampton Sutherland
Experts predicted that strong M&A activity would continue from 2015 into 2016. So far, that prediction appears to hold true, particularly in the biotech sector. If you want to position your company for potential acquisition under attractive terms, either in 2016 or down the road, are you ready? Locking down the company’s “non-compete” and confidentiality agreements and practices early is mission-critical.
These agreements (including confidentiality and invention agreements, non-compete agreements, and non-solicit agreements) help the company protect legitimate business interests, like the benefit of its investment in its technology, confidential information, and trade secrets, goodwill with its customers, and training of its employees. If your company doesn’t have strong programs and agreements in place with its employees, independent contractors, and consultants to protect these important assets, it might lose value in the eyes of a potential acquirer.
This lesson holds especially true in industries that are heavily-reliant on sensitive technological innovation or field-based sales organizations. One of your highest priorities should be making sure that the company has strong and enforceable confidentiality and non-compete agreements (if permissible in your jurisdiction) with these individuals and programs in place to protect the company’s interests.
- Identify and Address Gaps in the Protection of Confidential Information. The company should work with legal counsel to identify potential gaps in its programs and procedures designed to protect its confidential information. For instance, how strong is the company’s network security? Does the company have strong policies and procedures in place concerning access to data that resides outside of the network? Are the company’s written policies being followed in practice? Does the company only grant access to such information on a need-to-know basis, or is information too readily available or left unprotected? Are sensitive materials identified as such? Does the company take reasonable steps to ensure that departing employees return, and do not retain access to, confidential information? A potential acquirer will want to see strong and consistent policies and procedures in place – and followed – to protect the assets it is acquiring.
- Address Agreements With New Employees on the Front-End. Although not required in all jurisdictions, it’s good practice to let a new candidate know that he or she will need to sign a confidentiality or non-compete agreement as a condition of employment (if appropriate for the position and permissible in your jurisdiction). Indeed, some jurisdictions have special rules about whether the employee must receive a copy of the agreement in advance, and when the new employee must sign the agreement. The company can work with HR and legal counsel with expertise in this area to ensure that the company is complying with any necessary requirements for new employees.
- Identify and Address Individuals Without Existing Agreements. HR and legal counsel should identify employees (and independent contractors and consultants) who have not signed confidentiality, invention, non-compete, and non-solicit agreements. For individuals who don’t have an agreement, but who have access to the company’s confidential information or goodwill, the company can work closely with legal counsel well-versed in this area to consider whether an agreement is appropriate and craft an agreement that will stand muster for position at issue and in the jurisdictions that might be implicated. For instance, in some jurisdictions, for an agreement signed after the commencement of employment to be enforceable, the company must provide additional consideration to the employee (such as a promotion, payment, or increased compensation).
- Consider Assignment and Successor Clauses. The company should consider with legal counsel whether to include provisions providing that the employee expressly consents to the assignment of the restrictive covenants by the company at any time, and that the restrictive covenants are enforceable by the company’s successors and assigns. That type of language isn’t required in all jurisdictions, but, in some jurisdictions, it may bolster a successor company’s or assignee’s ability to enforce the agreements – something a potential acquirer will look for when considering your company for potential acquisition.
- Identify and Remediate Potential Holes in Existing Agreements. Experienced legal counsel should also review existing agreements to determine any potential holes in those documents and whether adjustments can or should be made to both meet the company’s business needs and comply with any applicable law. For example, sometimes agreements in the employee’s file pre-date important clarifications in the law that must be addressed. Or, perhaps the existing agreement is written too narrowly so that it doesn’t protect the full extent of the company’s interests or current or planned business model. On the flip side, the agreement may be too heavy-handed or written so broadly that it won’t be enforceable at all under the law of a state that won’t reasonably modify an overly broad agreement. Counsel well-versed in non-competes can help the company identify and suggest ways to remediate these (and other) potential deficiencies before it’s too late.
Bottom line: Early and regular review of the company’s non-compete and confidentiality agreements and practices is an important piece of positioning the company for favorable acquisition. Counsel well-versed in this area can help the company navigate the complex issues that come into play.
Nothing contained in this blog is intended to or does create an attorney-client relationship or provide legal advice.
 Shannon Hampton Sutherland is the Co-Chair of the Duane Morris Non-Compete and Trade Secrets practice and a nationally-known non-compete, trade secrets, and litigation attorney. See http://www.duanemorris.com/attorneys/shannonhamptonsutherland.html.
 See, e.g., http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffgolman/2016/01/11/four-reasons-2016-will-be-a-strong-year-for-ma/#27221a634d49 (last accessed Apr. 8, 2016); http://info.kpmg.us/ma-survey/index.html (last accessed Apr. 8, 2016).