When a company learns that an employee took or copied confidential materials, it’s not unusual for the company to sue the employee for misappropriation of trade secrets and theft of trade secrets under the Texas’s civil theft statute. A recent federal court decision out of the Southern District, however, serves as a reminder that employers should carefully analyze what exactly the employee took and/or copied before tacking on a claim under the Texas Theft Liability Act (TTLA) to their lawsuit.
In BHL Boresight, Inc. v. Geo-Steering Sols. Inc., BHL accused the defendants of stealing: (1) software; (2) bitlocks; (3) data; and (4) user guides for BHL’s software program. It claimed that these items constituted “property” under Texas Penal Code §33.03 and that defendants committed civil theft of this property by unlawfully appropriating it without BHL’s effective consent.
Defendants argued that the civil theft claim must be dismissed because “general theft applies to unique documents and not copies of documents,” and the district court agreed finding that “consensus appears to be that if the plaintiff continues to possess and control originals of the subject property, he cannot show that the defendant possessed the requisite intent to deprive” the owner of its property. And without intent, there is no claim for theft.
The district court ruled that because BHL retained the originals of its user guides and the software program, its theft claim related to these two items failed. However, bitlocks and the data generated by the software were a different matter. Because bitlocks were physical USB devices that allowed users to access BHL’s software, they were neither “documents” nor “originals” and, therefore, when the defendants took them, they had the intent to deprive BHL of these devices. Similarly, the data generated by BHL’s software was unique because the software generated different data depending on which oil & gas well it was applied to. Therefore, the court did not dismiss BHL’s claim with respect to the theft of bitlocks and the software data.
BOTTOM LINE FOR COMPANIES: Before pleading a Texas Theft Liability Act claim against an employee for stealing the company’s data, information, documents, or other property, the company should make sure that there is at least some evidence of the employee’s intent to deprive the company of its property. While unauthorized copying of information or files may not be sufficient to bring a theft claim, the company may have other claims under Texas and federal law that it may use to remedy the harm from the employee’s actions.
Leiza Dolghih is the founder of Dolghih Law Group PLLC. She is board certified in labor and employment law and has 16+ years of experience in commercial and employment litigation, including trade secrets and non-compete disputes. You can contact her directly at email@example.com or (214) 531-2403.