Noncompete agreements are an effective tool to protect intellectual property in the life sciences industry, but even a well-drafted noncompete agreement may run into challenges when an employer tries to enforce it. Under Massachusetts common law — and the law of many other states — a noncompete agreement is generally enforceable if its restrictions are reasonable and designed to protect legitimate business interests like trade secrets or goodwill. A recent decision from the Massachusetts Business Litigation Session demonstrates how those limitations can play out when a life sciences company seeks to enforce a noncompete agreement. Continue reading Life Sciences Companies Can Face Challenges Enforcing Noncompete Agreements
On August 1, 2018, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill adopting the Uniform Trade Secrets Act in Massachusetts. The bill is headed to the Governor’s desk for approval within ten days. Massachusetts adopting the UTSA will leave New York the sole jurisdiction in the United States that relies only on common law protections for trade secrets.
In large part, the UTSA is consistent with and codifies existing Massachusetts law. In some important respects, however, the new UTSA protections are different from what previously existed. As a result, some immediate questions arise with respect to trade secret litigation under the new UTSA. Until Massachusetts courts decide these issues, the answers will not be certain.
What is a Trade Secret?
Massachusetts previously followed the six-factor test in the Restatement of Torts to determine if information is a trade secret. By contrast, the UTSA defines a trade secret as “information . . . that (i) . . . provided economic advantage, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by, others who might obtain economic advantage from its acquisition, disclosure or use and (ii) . . . was the subject of efforts that were reasonable under the circumstances, which may include reasonable notice, to protect against it being acquired, disclosed or used without the consent of the person properly asserting rights therein or such person’s predecessor in interest.”
While the new UTSA definition is similar to the former rule, one new development under the UTSA is that trade secrets are protectable if they have “actual or potential” economic value. Under the former definition, the trade secret had to have actual value, and had to be “used in one’s business.” The new UTSA definition will cover secret information with “potential” economic value, even if it had not being actively used by the victim of the misappropriation.
Are c. 93A Damages Still Available for Trade Secret Misappropriation?
Before enactment of the UTSA, trade secret misappropriation claims in Massachusetts would include a Chapter 93A claim as a matter of course because trade secret misappropriation can be an unfair trade practice under Chapter 93A. See Peggy Lawton Kitchens, Inc. v. Hogan, 18 Mass. App. Ct. 937, 939 (1984).
The UTSA, however, expressly “supersede[s] any conflicting laws of the commonwealth providing civil remedies for the misappropriation of a trade secret.” An open issue is whether Massachusetts courts will find that treble damages under Chapter 93A are “conflicting” with the UTSA’s damages provision that limits exemplary damages to double actual damages in the event of “willful and malicious” misappropriation.
Are Other Business Torts Superseded by the UTSA?
Massachusetts common law includes a tort for misappropriation of confidential business information, even if that information does not meet the technical definition of a trade secret. USM Corp. v. Marson Fastener Corp., 379 Mass. 90, 104 (1979).
It is not clear if the new UTSA will supersede this tort in Massachusetts going forward. Other jurisdictions are split on this issue. Some hold that UTSA preempts all causes of action related to the misappropriation of trade secrets, but others allow such claims to proceed because they are expressly based on claims other than trade secret misappropriation. See Orca Communications Unlimited, LLC v. Noder, 337 P.3d 545 (Az. 2014).
When Will Attorney’s Fees Be Recoverable?
The UTSA includes a new attorney’s fee shifting provision. As mentioned above, most trade secret plaintiffs in Massachusetts already included claims under Chapter 93A, with an accompanying attorney’s fees claim. Under the UTSA, attorney’s fees are recoverable for the plaintiff in cases of “willful and malicious misappropriation.” This may be a more restrictive standard than existed under Chapter 93A for the recovery of attorney’s fees.
The UTSA expressly allows the defendant in a trade secret misappropriation claim to recover fees if the court finds “a claim of misappropriation is made . . . in bad faith.” This fee-shifting provision liberalizes existing Massachusetts law, which would only allow a trade secret defendant to recover attorney’s fees in limited circumstances. This provision may act as a deterrent to trade secret misappropriation claims brought in “bad faith.”
Will Massachusetts Adopt the “Inevitable Disclosure” Doctrine?
The majority of existing UTSA jurisdictions have adopted “some form of the inevitable disclosure doctrine.” Whyte v. Schlage Lock Co., 125 Cal. Rptr. 2d 277, 291 (Ct. App. 2002). The “inevitable disclosure” doctrine arises out of UTSA language that empowers courts to enjoin “[a]ctual or threatened misappropriation” of trade secrets (emphasis added). In the seminal case of PepsiCo, Inc. v. Redomnd, 54 F.3d 1262 (7th Cir. 1995), a high-ranking Pepsi executive quit to work for Pepsi’s “fierce” then-competitor Quaker. Pepsi obtained an injunction against the employee’s continued employment with Quaker because the district court found that the employee’s disclosure of confidential marketing and development strategies was inevitable. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, expressly overruling common law, on the basis of the “threatened misappropriation” language of the Illinois UTSA. The “inevitable disclosure” doctrine has been applied by some courts to impose a de-facto non-competition agreement on employees who have not signed such an agreement in instances where their work for an employer would result in the “inevitable disclosure” of a prior employer’s trade secrets.
Massachusetts courts have previously resisted the application of the “inevitable disclosure” doctrine. One reason is a concern that it could jeopardize employees’ rights to future employment. With the new language of the UTSA, the question may be ripe to be re-visited by Massachusetts courts.
By Gregory S. Bombard
On June 9, 2017, the Business Litigation Session (BLS) of the Massachusetts Superior Court issued a decision about the extraterritorial application of California’s public policy against non-competition agreements (Full text of the decision: Oxford Global Resources, LLC v. Jeremy Hernandez). The plaintiff, Oxford, is a recruiting and staffing company headquartered in Massachusetts. It hired the defendant to work as an entry-level “account manager” in an office in California. As a condition of his employment, the employee signed a “protective covenants agreement” that included non-solicitation, non-competition, and confidentiality provisions. This agreement contained a Massachusetts choice-of-law provision and a Massachusetts choice-of-venue provision. Continue reading Massachusetts Court Rules California Law Supersedes Massachusetts Choice-of-Law Provision and Non-Compete Clause in Employment Contract
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.
By Bronwyn L. Roberts and Gregory S. Bombard
On March 2, 2016, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo promised to put new legislative limits on noncompetition agreements, reigniting the debate over non-compete reform legislation that has continued since at least 2009. In a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s annual Government Affairs Forum, DeLeo said that he would push legislative reform with the following restrictions for enforceability of noncompetition agreements:
- noncompetition agreements would be limited to one year;
- noncompetition agreements would not apply to lower-wage workers; and
- workers must be clearly informed that a noncompetition agreement is required before taking a job, including a “stated right to counsel.”
Massachusetts made headlines in the area of non-compete law in 2009 when a bill was introduced in the state legislature that would have (had it been signed into law) prohibited employee non-competition agreements. Now, four years later, the same state senator who introduced the 2009 bill has partnered with another legislator to introduce a new bill that, if signed into law, would make non-compete agreements longer than six months presumptively unreasonable in Massachusetts.