In a decision that will be officially release tomorrow (download) the Connecticut appellate court ordered a new trial in favor of Charter Oak Lending for the claims it brought against employees who defected to a competitor. Unless there is a successful appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court, this means Charter Oak will get a second chance to prove its claims against the key employees despite the lack of a written contract in place covering non-competition. I originally posted about this case in November of 1999 when Charter Oak lost at the trial level. The case result had generated media interest surrounding the claims because the damages and the lack of a contract governing the employment relationship.
As I noted at the time, it is always better to have a written contract in place with employees to govern post termination conduct involving competition, solicitation, confidential information, and trade secrets. However, the lack of contract does not by itself leave a business without a remedy especially if the situation involves use of trade secrets or confidential information or the employees actively competing before departure.
In Charter Oak, the trial court dismissed the claims finding that Charter Oak failed to make out a threshold case during the trial. In other words, the case never reached the level of a final decision on the merits because the judge found that the basic elements of the claims were not met. The basic claims were breach of fiduciary duty, misappropriation of trade secrets and unfair trade practices.
The appellate court reversed the decision and found that facts existed to make out threshold claims for these causes of action. Therefore, the trial court judge should have permitted the case to proceed to a final decision on the merits. Significantly, the appellate court deemed as sufficient Charter Oak's claim that its client list was a trade secret entitled to protection under General Statutes 35-51 known as the Connecticut Uniform Trade Secrets Act (CUTSA). The court stated:
to make out a prima facie case for a violation of CUTSA, the plaintiff was required to present sufficient evidence that, if believed, would prove that the information in its customer list had independent economic value and that the plaintiff made reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy.
Here were some of the facts that the court found sufficient to afford trade secret protection to the client list:
- access was limited
- the computers were encrypted
- the building was secured where the computers were stored
- employees were not permitted to share the list
- employees understood the list was private
- the lists were not sold or disclosed to third parties
- the list could not be obtained from any other single source
- the list gave Charter a competitive advantage
In addition to the ruling on CUTSA, the appellate court reaffirmed some aspects of the law with respect to fiduciary obligations of agents or employees. The court affirmed the duty of loyalty owed by an agent to his or her principal. This duty applies regardless of a whether a contract exists. In the business context, this duty forbids an employee from actively competing against an employer concerning the subject matter of the agency or from using confidential information against the employer in competition.
Whether Charter Oak prevails in the new trial remains unclear. However, the lack of a contract or written agreement should not prevent Charter Oak from getting a final decision on the merits.