5 Tips for Minimizing Trade Secrets Theft by Clients, Contractors and Vendors

Watching YouThe business world is littered with the carcasses of companies which, after they shared their confidential information and trade secrets with a non-competitor, such as their client, supplier, or vendor, were undercut by that party, who all of a sudden realized that they could profit from the information by cutting out the middle-man.

How can companies prevent this from happening? Here are the five basic tips on avoiding being blindsided by your own business partners:

  1. Never share your entire confidential information or trade secrets with anyone, no matter how sure you are that they won’t compete with you in the future.  This is a no-brainer, but limiting the access to the confidential information on a “need-to-know” basis is the easiest, yet the most underutilized, protection measure.
  2. Only disclose the information once the vendor/supplier/client signed a non-disclosure agreement. Simply put, do not share any sensitive information under you have a signed NDA in hand.  The NDA should state, among other things, that the vendor/supplier/client will make sure its employees are bound/will obey the NDA.
  3. Only share the information through a virtual data room, which allows you to track who accessed the information, when they did so, and what they did with it.  Some virtual data rooms allow you to set alerts for when a large amount of data is downloaded or printed. Such virtual data rooms also allow you to control the various permission settings to prohibit or limit the download or copying of the information and to limit access to certain individuals, rather than the entire companies or departments.
  4. Consider using software that allows you to track the information once it leaves the virtual data room. Some programs on the market allow you to track who has access to your information and what they do with it even after it leaves the virtual data room.  For extremely sensitive information, such measures may be worth the extra cost.
  5. Use data encryption when sharing confidential information outside the virtual data room. The encryption can now be done automatically and it prevents anyone who does not have an encryption key from reading the message – all they will see is a random collection of characters.

BOTTOM LINE:  In Texas, to claim trade secret protection, the owner of trade secrets must show that he/she took “reasonable measures” under the circumstances to keep the information secret. What constitutes “reasonable measures” is often a point of contention in lawsuits involving trade secrets misappropriation.  As the owner of trade secrets, you never want to be in a position where you cannot point to at least some measures you took to protect the confidential information.  Thus, the above steps are not only a great business practice, but they can also help in court if a company ends up suing its vendor/supplier/client for misappropriation of its trade secrets.

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.

 

The Fifth Circuit Rules that Federal Law Preempts Unfair Competition Claim Under Texas Law

Preemption

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered whether the federal copyright and patent laws (rock!) preempt  Texas common law claim of unfair competition by misappropriation (scissors!). The question reared its head amidst a web of lawsuits involving a medical device company, ThermoTek, and its former distributor, in which the company accused the distributor of obtaining its trade secrets involving a medical device he sold for them and proceeding to use the information to manufacture his own line of competing devices.   

The Fifth Circuit explained that the federal Copyright Act preempts a state law claim where (1) the intellectual property rights at issue are within the subject matter of copyright and (2) the state law protects rights in that property that are equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright. Meanwhile, the federal patent statutes preempt a state claim where its aim is to protect “the functional aspects of a product” because such claim would likely obstruct Congress’s goals by offering patent-like protection to intellectual property that its owner chose not to protect with a patent.  

In applying the above tests, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the various aspects of the unfair competition by misappropriation claim in ThermoTek’s case against its former distributor were preempted either by the federal copyright or patent laws. 

The Copyright Act preempted the claim to the extent that ThermoTek alleged that the distributor misappropriated its written materials related to the medical device – here, manuals, reports, billing information, and other written documents – because such materials fell within the subject matter of copyright and the unfair competition by misappropriation claim did not qualitatively differ from a copyright claim.  Meanwhile, the federal patent law preempted the unfair competition claim to the extent it sought to protect the medical devices themselves or their functional aspects because the claim substantially interfered with the public’s enjoyment of unpatented aspects of the devices that ThermoTek publicly disclosed. 

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicBOTTOM LINE:  On a very basic level, the doctrine of preemption allows federal claims to preempt state law claims if they concern the same subject matter. If not analyzed strategically and addressed in the pleadings, this doctrine can wreak havoc on a party’s litigation strategy in a trade secrets lawsuit.  For example, in the ThermoTek lawsuit, the jury found in the company’s favor awarding it $6,000,000.00 in damages on the unfair competition claim. However, after the trial, the court found that the unfair competition claim was preempted by federal law and dismissed it leaving ThermoTek with $0.  In conclusion, trade secrets claims do not exist in a vacuum, but should be analyzed in the context of the existing intellectual property framework along with other types of IP.

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.

 

When Stopping Competition with A Temporary Injunction, It Pays To Be Precise

ArcherEven the best non-disclosure and non-competition agreements are not worth anything if not enforced correctly. A lot of times a company rushes to court asking the judge to stop a former employee or his new employer from using the company’s confidential information or soliciting its customers based on the agreements that the former employee had signed with the company.    

However, in an attempt to obtain quick relief at the courthouse, companies often end up using formulaic and boiler-plate language that is supposed to cover every possible violation such as: 

  • Plaintiff asks the Court to prohibit Defendant from soliciting or conducting business with Plaintiff’s customers or
  • Plaintiff asks the Court to restrain Defendant from using the company’s confidential information or trade secrets 

Such requests, while appearing very reasonable at first blush, are often rejected by the courts as not being specific enough to let defendants know what they can and cannot do. For example, how is the defendant supposed to know who the company’s customers are, especially, if there are thousands of them? Or, if the order does not define trade secrets, how can the defendant know what is it that he is prohibited from using or disclosing? 

Defining the restrictions on competition in a precise manner while covering all possible violations is key to a successful injunction; however, the required degree of specificity may very from court to court. For example, recently, a court of appeals in Super Starr Int’l, LLC, et al v. Fresh Tex Produce, LLC, et al., dissolved an injunction issued by the trial court and remanded (sent) the case back to the trial court instructing it to reissue the temporary injunction order that defines “soliciting” not to include mass advertising, as well as redraft restrictions by defining “customers,” “accounts,” “trade secrets” and “confidential information.” 

BOTTOM LINE: When seeking a temporary injunction in a case involving unfair competition, non-compete or non-disclosure agreement breaches, shooting for the moon so you can land on the stars is not a good approach.  Rather, the party seeking an injunction should aim as closely as possible at the particular star on which it wants to land.   

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits in a variety of industries in federal and state courts. For a consultation regarding a dispute involving a noncompete agreement or misappropriation of trade secrets, contact Leiza at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.

Is a Client List a Trade Secret in Texas?

0e348adfa4295fa0fabe78ead1d69672--lawyer-humor-job-humorI’ve been contacted by many a business owner saying, “my employee left, he had a confidentiality agreement, and now he is contacting my customers on behalf of his new employer. Can I stop him?”. The answer to that question, of course, depends on several factors. One of them is whether the business owner’s client list qualifies as a “trade secret” in Texas. 

Under the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“TUTSA”), a “list of actual or potential customers or suppliers” of a company qualifies as a trade secret as long as: (1) its owner, i.e. the company, took reasonable measures to keep it secret and (2) the list has an economic value because it is not generally known and cannot be easily determined by another person. 

Thus, a client list is not automatically a trade secret. Instead, a company must establish certain things at the temporary injunction hearing in order to get a court order prohibiting a former employee from contacting its clients on the ground that its client list is a trade secret.  

Recently, a Texas Court of Appeals in Cooper Valves, LLC, et al. v. Valvetechnologies, Inc., dissolved an injunction that prohibited a former employee from “possessing, copying, selling, disclosing, or using” any information about his former employer’s 1800 customers listed on the exhibit attached to the injunction order. The employer in that case, submitted under seal a list of all of its customers and asked the court to order the former employee not to use any information about those customers in his new job. The list, however, included only the names of the companies, and not the names and contact information for the key decision-makers.  It also included many pre-existing customers of the former employee’s new employer.

The Court of Appeals voided the injunction finding that it was overboard and that the company did not prove that company names qualified for trade secret protection. Thus, the owner of the client list failed to prove that his particular client list, consisting of just the company names, was a trade secret. 

BOTTOM LINE: Business owners in Texas should make sure that they take reasonable measures to protect the secrecy of their client lists and, when push comes to shove and they must seek a court order preventing a former employee from using such a list in their new job, must be ready to establish the necessary requirements under the Texas law proving that the information contained in their client lists qualifies for trade secret protection. 

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits in a variety of industries in federal and state courts. For a consultation regarding a dispute involving a noncompete agreement or misappropriation of trade secrets, contact Leiza at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.

Employees’ Unauthorized Copying of Electronic Files is Not Theft in Texas

1sbkpi.jpgWhen 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 litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits in a variety of industries in federal and state courts. For a consultation regarding a dispute involving a noncompete agreement or misappropriation of trade secrets, contact Leiza at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.

Renewing Non-Disclosure Agreements with Employees? Consider this . . .

sale baIn my practice, I see this scenario all the time: an employee leaves to work for a competitor, the employer realizes that its non-disclosure (NDA) or non-compete agreement was inadequate to protect it from what just happened, so the company rolls out a new (and improved) non-disclosure or non-compete agreement and makes all employees sign it.   

The legal department now sighs with relief, the HR department gets a pat on the back, and the new NDAs and non-competes get filed away in employees’ personnel files to be whipped out when the next employee defects for greener pastures. What could possibly go wrong now that the company has a perfect non-compete / non-disclosure in place with all the employees, right?

A recent case out of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals demonstrates exactly how a perfectly drafted non-disclosure agreement can still end up being unenforceable when an employer fails to provide new consideration for the agreement. In Eurecat US Inc. v. Marklund, et al.,  Eurecat sued two of its former employees who started a competing business, alleging that they stole trade secrets and proprietary data, breached fiduciary duties and breached their NDAs with plaintiff.

Eurecat’s claims were based on the NDAs that the two employees signed in 2011. The Court of Appeals held that these agreements were not supported by consideration and were unenforceable because, prior to 2011, both employees were already required to maintain confidentiality of Eurecat’s trade secrets under the prior versions of the NDAs.  The only consideration stated in the 2011 NDAs was continued employment at-will.  Eurecat did not promise to provide new confidential information to the employees after they had executed the 2011 NDAs, but only stated that they “may” learn such information.  At trial, Eurecat failed to show that its claims for breach of the 2011 NDAs were based on disclosure of confidential information it provided to the employees after January 21, 2011 that differed from information they previously possessed.  In fact, Eurecat was unable to show that it provided any new confidential information that was different from what the employees had received from Eurecat prior to signing the NDAs.  The Court, therefore, affirmed the jury’s verdict that the employees did not breach their non-disclosure agreements with Eurecat.

BOTTOM LINE FOR EMPLOYERS: Periodic updates of employment agreements, including non-compete and non-disclosure restraints, are necessary to make sure that the agreements comply with the new legal developments.  However, companies should always make sure that the new agreements are supported by new consideration, whether it is new confidential information, a bonus, or some other type of consideration. (check your state laws to make sure that the type of consideration provided to an employee meets the state requirements to support restrictive covenants). 

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits in a variety of industries in federal and state courts. If you are a party to a dispute involving a noncompete agreement or misappropriation of trade secrets, contact Leiza at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108. 

 

Texas Amends Its Trade Secrets Statute Effective September

good-wifeTexas Governor recently signed House Bill 1995, which amends Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“TUTSA”) and aligns is with the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”).

HB 1995 will go into effect on September 1, 2017 and will eliminate the difference between the TUTSA’s and DTSA’s definitions of “trade secrets,” removing an incentive to forum shop. Additionally, the statute will emphasize that the owner must take reasonable “measures,” and not just “efforts,” to protect its trade secrets. HB 1995 also introduces the following new definitions:

• “Owner” means, with respect to a trade secret, the person or entity in whom or in which rightful, legal, or equitable title to, or the right to enforce rights in, the trade secret is reposed.

• “Willful and malicious misappropriation,” means intentional misappropriation resulting from the conscious disregard of the rights of the owner of the trade secret.

• “Clear and convincing evidence” required to establish willful and malicious misappropriation is defined as the “measure or degree of proof that will produce in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established.”

Additionally, come September, Texas courts will have to apply a balancing test first articulated in  In re M-I, L.L.C., 505 S.W.3d 569 (Tex. 2016) when determining whether a party involved in a trade secrets lawsuit can be denied access to documents or testimony about its competitor’s trade secrets.  TUTSA codified this test as follows:

a presumption exists that a party is allowed to participate and assist counsel in the presentation of the party’s case. At any stage of the action, the court may exclude a party and the party’s representative or limit a party’s access to the alleged trade secret of another party if other countervailing interests overcome the presumption. In making this determination, the court must conduct a balancing test that considers:

•  the value of an owner’s alleged trade secret;
• the degree of competitive harm an owner would suffer from the dissemination of the owner’s alleged trade secret to the other party;
• whether the owner is alleging that the other party is already in possession of the alleged trade secret;
• whether a party’s representative acts as a competitive decision maker;
• the degree to which a party’s defense would be impaired by limiting that party’s access to the alleged trade secret;
• whether a party or a party’s representative possesses specialized expertise that would not be available to a party’s outside expert; and
• the stage of the action.

Bottom Line: In light of these new amendments, companies involved in trade secrets disputes in Texas will have to strategize early on – even pre-litigation – not only about proving their claims and defenses but also about protecting their trade secrets during the lawsuit and gathering evidence necessary to obtain attorney’s fees related to the trade secrets misappropriation claim.

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits in a variety of industries in federal and state courts. If you are a party to a dispute involving a noncompete agreement or misappropriation of trade secrets, contact Leiza at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108

 

Enforcing Non-Compete Agreements in Texas – The Issue of Consideration

noncompeteFor an employer to enforce its noncompete agreement in a Texas court, it must show that it gave something to an employee in return for that employee’s promise not to compete. That “something” may differ from state to state. Some states want the employer to pay an employee $$$ for the specific promise not to compete. Other states find that just a simple promise of a employment, even the kind that can be terminated at any time, is an even exchange for an employee’s promise not to compete.  

Unlike many other states, Texas requires employers to give something more besides a job offer or money to an employee in order to extract a legally binding promise not to compete.  In this state, the consideration must have a “reasonable relationship” to the employer’s interest in restraining the employee from competing.  Simply restricting an employee from lawful competition for the sake of preventing competition will almost certainly fail. 

BOTTOM LINE: Texas employers should make sure that their non-compete agreements are supported by proper consideration under Texas law in order to enforce such agreements in court.  

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits in a variety of industries. If you are a party to a dispute involving a noncompete agreement in Texas, contact Leiza at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108. 

Protect Your Trade Secrets or Lose Them

TradeSecretsThe first rule of the fight club is you don’t talk about the fight club.  The same rule applies to trade secrets.  If you talk about your trade secrets – pricing, customer names, vendor relationships, or other aspects of your business, with people who do not have non-disclosure agreements, you are going to lose the “trade secret” status that such information may carry, which means your employees will be able to take that information to your competitor or their new business.

Under the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (TUTSA), an owner of a trade secret must use “reasonable efforts under circumstances” to protects its trade secrets.  Depending on how large or sophisticated the business is, those methods may include anything from keeping key files in a locked cabinet to passwords for logging into a customer database, to issuing company computers that have no outside ports, to fingerprint and iris-scan access devices.  

Obviously, a mom-and-pop shop is not going to install fingerprint access devices or buy an expensive software that will alert it when an employee downloads an unusually large amount of information, but it can implement simple measures like asking all of its employees to execute a non-disclosure agreement as part of their employment file, make sure that the financial and other sensitive information is accessible only to the owners, and make sure that any confidential information, such as customer lists, is clearly marked as “confidential.” 

Larger businesses – those that wield a workforce comprised of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of employees – need to have more advanced trade secrets protection measures, as well as the periodic audits of the effectiveness of such measures.

At a bare minimum, all businesses should have a standard confidentiality (non-disclosure) agreement for its employees, vendors, investors, and anyone else who has access to the business’s trade secrets.  They should also look at what protection methods are used by their competitors or are common in their industry and implement those that make sense most for the company. 

A little time and expense invested in the trade secret protection on the front end can save thousands of dollars down the road.  If you think that providing company computers to your employees is too expensive, imagine how much it will cost in legal fees to retrieve your company’s confidential information from the departed employees’ personal devices.

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits 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. 

Proving Lost Profits in a Trade Secrets Case – An Expensive Lesson from a Texas Court of Appeals

think memeWhat the jury giveth, the judge may taketh away. Memes aside, any company that is thinking of filing a trade secrets misappropriation case, must be ready to prove both: that its trade secrets were taken and the amount of damages that the taking caused.

A recent ruling from the Dallas Court of Appeals demonstrates how a company’s verdict can be taken away by the court due to the party not having sufficient evidence of damages. 

In Radiant Financial v. Bagby, the company, which structures and sells fractional interests in life insurance policies referred to as life settlements, sued its former sales agent for breaching her non-disclosure agreement and trade secrets misappropriation.  Radiant alleged that Bagby persuaded 19 investors who had previously placed money into escrow with Radiant, to take their money out and invest it with a Radiant’s competitor.  In the process, she allegedly provided some of Radiant’s proprietary forms and the information filled out by the investors to Radian’t competitor.

The jury awarded Radiant $152,916 in damages, $150,000 in punitive damages, and $600,000 in attorneys fees in response to the question to “[c]onsider the profit that Radiant Financial lost” as a result of Bagby’s failure to comply with her non-disclosure agreement and misappropriation of Radiant’s trade secrets.  

The trial court, however, refused to award these damages after concluding that Radiant did not prove that the 19 investors that left would have invested with it but for Bagby’s actions. 

During  the trial, Bagby introduced evidence that: (1) the 19 investors had specific investment requirements; and (2) at the time when they left Radiant, it offered no policies that met these investors’ requirements. Radiant argued that its track record showed that it “had always been able” to find appropriate policies for its investors.  Thus, it would have been able to find appropriate policies had Bagby not taken the investors to a competitor.  The trial court rejected Radiant’s lost profits damages model finding that it would require the court to “stack assumption upon assumption,” and took away the jury damages award.  The Dallas Court of Appeals upheld the court’s decision.

Bottom Line:  Before filing a trade secrets case, the company bringing the lawsuit should always consider the following questions: (1) what damages did it suffer? (2) how does it calculate such damages? (3) how can it prove such damages in court?  While the answer might not be obvious in the beginning of the lawsuit, waiting to ask such questions until the lawsuit is well underway can result in the company spending thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees on a lawsuit where the monetary damages are speculative or non-existent.

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits 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.