A Former VP of Operations Ordered to Pay $1.9 Million for Taking Company’s Trade Secrets in Violation of a Separation Agreement

Toshiba_HDTD105XK3D1_BLACK_LAPTOPAccording to some studies, more than 60% of employees copy their employers’ documents or files before leaving their employment. They are even more likely to do so if they had been laid off, fired, or passed over for promotion. With senior executives who have access to top level confidential information, such actions can cause irreparable damage to their former companies.

In 2015, Cheasapeake Energy Corp. sued its former CEO and co-founder for emailing himself highly sensitive information and instructing his assistant to print confidential maps after he resigned due to a public falling out with the company.  The year before that, Lyft sued its former COO for transferring to himself thousands of Lyft’s files before joining its arch-rival Uber.  The former COO apparently left Lyft after unsuccessfully pursuing the CEO position. 

A similar drama played out last year in Texas and it involved a VP of Operations of a publicly traded Houston company.  According to Ginn v. NCI Building Systems, Inc., Ginn had been working for NCI for 20 years when he was told that his position of Executive VP of Operations was being eliminated.  The company offered him a separation agreement, which stated that he was resigning on his own accord and imposed a 5-year non-compete, non-solicitation and non-disclosure covenants. In return, NCI immediately vested all of his unvested stock that he had earned over the years – about $1.5 million – and retained him as a consultant for 1-year with a $300+K salary. 

According to the Court of Appeals, while consulting for NCI, the VP began to plan a competing company. Once his consulting gig with NCI expired, he began competing with it. NCI filed a lawsuit alleging violation of a non-compete and non-disclosure covenants, fraud, breach of fiduciary duties, and a few other claims. Two years into the suit, NCI discovered that the night before the VP signed the separation agreement representing that he had returned all of NCI confidential information, he had actually downloaded more than 18,000 files on his private hard drive. The jury found, and the Court of Appeals upheld, that the VP made knowing representations to NCI on which NCI relied in giving him $1.5 worth of stock, thus, committing fraud.

In its lawsuit, NCI asked for a legal remedy called “rescission,” which is meant to put the parties into a position they were in prior to entering into an agreement. Here, NCI asked that the VP return the consideration that the company paid to him in return for his promises, i.e. his salary and the vested stock.  Since he no longer owned the stock, NCI asked that he pay the value of such stock of $1.5+M.  The First Texas Court of Appeals found such compensation legally appropriate and upheld the trial court’s order requiring the VP to pay NCI the compensation he had received. 

Takeaways: There a certain behavioral triggers that cause high-level employees or employees with access to large swaths of confidential information to take or share that information with a competitor.  A company should have a red-flag alert system that notifies them of the increased risk and allows them to take preventative measures before a disgruntled employee downloads or shares the company’s trade secrets with the outside world.  Demotions, denial of a promotion, increased complaints to a supervisor, inadequate bonus, etc., may all serve as triggers for trade secret theft.  Having a system, a checklist, and a designated person who monitors the situation around the company can go a long way in protecting the company secrets. 

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits on behalf of COMPANIES and EMPLOYEES in a variety of industries, and knows how such disputes typically play out for both parties. If you need assistance with a non-compete or a trade secret misappropriation situation, contact Leiza for a confidential consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

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