I advise all my business clients in Texas to have non-compete and non-solicitation agreements with their key employees. Why? Well, first of all, because Texas courts enforce such agreements, so it only makes sense to take advantage of them. Second, because clear, specific, and reasonable non-compete and non-solicitation restrictions are usually a fair trade for providing key employees with access to customer lists, confidential information or expensive specialized training.
However, what happens if an employee does not have a non-compete? Does that mean that he or she can set up a competing shop across the street with no repercussions from the former employer? Well, not exactly. One only has to take a look at a few recent high-profile cases out of California courts to see that employers have many other ways to prevent employees from taking their confidential information and opening a competing business. Since California does not allow non-competes, its employers have spent years perfecting other remedies to prevent unscrupulous employees from misappropriating their trade secrets. So, while Texas hates to look to California for, pretty much, anything, and while Texas and California law often diverge significantly, on this specific issue it pays to take note of what California companies have been cooking in their own courts.
Most recent example of an employer v. former employee battle waged in California-land that did not involve a non-compete agreement is a lawsuit by Total Recall Technologies (TRT) against Oculus Rift – a company that manufactures virtual 3D-reality headsets for gaming – and its founder, Palmer Luckey. TRT filed a complaint in a federal court in California alleging a breach of non-disclosure agreement and “wrongful exploitation and conversion of plaintiff’s intellectual and personal property in connection with TRT’s development of affordable, immersive, virtual reality technology” by Luckey and Oculus Rift. TRT alleged that Luckey was hired in 2011 to help develop a prototype head-mounted display, and as part of his job, he received information and feedback to modify the design. According to TRT, Luckey used this confidential information to create Oculus Rift, his own version of the head-mounted display, which he launched via Kickstarter. The lawsuit demands both punitive and compensatory damages in an unspecified amount. Given that Oculus Rift has recently been acquired by Facebook for $2 billion, the timing of this lawsuit could not be better for the plaintiff.
This is not the first time that Oculus Rift and its founder are being sued for alleged misappropriation of trade secrets. In 2014, ZeniMaxIP sued the same defendants in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas alleging that Occulus Rift breached its non-disclosure agreement with ZeniMax and, among other things, hired ZeniMax’s employees knowing that they would inevitably disclose ZeniMax’s trade secrets. Other claims included copyright infringement, unfair competition, trademark infringement, unjust enrichment, and false designation under the Lanham Act.
Notably absent from the suits were statutory claims for misappropriation of trade secrets. The claim was not included in the ZeniMax v. Oculus lawsuit because Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (TUTSA), which governs such claims now, did not apply to misappropriations that occurred prior to September 1, 2013 – its effective date. Why TRT did not plead a claim under the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act (CUTSA) is less clear, but just like TUTSA such claim is often plead in many employer v. former employee lawsuits in California.
Takeaway: Just because a former employee never signed a non-compete or a non-solicitation agreement, does not mean that he or she can set up a competing business by using the trade secrets of its former employer. In Texas, TUTSA allows employers to go after employees who misappropriated their trade secrets (even in absence of non-compete or non-solicitation restraints) or where there is a threat of misappropriation. Moreover, a lot of times, a good non-disclosure agreement will give grounds to other claims. So, although having a non-compete or a non-solicitation clause in an employment agreement makes it easier for an employer to stop a departing employee from using its confidential information, all is not lost if no such restraints have been put in place.
Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits on behalf of EMPLOYERS and EMPLOYEES in a variety of industries, and knows how such disputes typically play out for both parties. If you need advice regarding your non-compete agreement, contact Ms. Dolghih for a confidential consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@GodwinLewis.com or (214) 939-4458.