Can a Lawsuit Help Mitigate the Risks of Trade Secret Theft?

Trade secret law is constantly evolving as technologies in the workplace change.  Staying up to date is critical.   Recently, I attended an online seminar focused on theft of trade secrets in the workplace. The presenters included private practice attorneys from a national firm and in-house IP counsel from two large companies.

There was a consensus that you cannot prevent an employee from stealing trade secrets in all cases. This is especially so with the advent of cloud computing and bring your own device policies in the workplace. The focus should be on mitigation of risk before the theft, and implementation of an action plan after the theft.  I have commented on these same issues several times on this blog.

With respect to action plans after theft, I was interested in the insights of the in-house IP attorney. The attorney stressed the importance of having a team assembled to address trade secret theft to include security, technology, and legal.  When making a decision on pursuing an injunction in court, the assembled team will need to identify objectives based on a series of factors including the value of the intellectual property at issue and the business issues implicated.

I agree with these points.  Having a team in place, with written documentation of it, not only will help a business act quickly, but will also serve as evidence of the reasonable measures taken to protect the trade secrets.  A dedicated team will also facilitate regular communication between departments to stay on top of changing technologies and workforce demographics.

The pros and cons of litigation were also discussed.  The cons are understandable and include costs of litigation.  One presenter mentioned that litigation should be a last resort.  That might be agreeable as a general policy provided other measures are utilized to consistently address the issue via other means.  However, there are some upsides to pursuing litigation that may not be readily apparent.

Litigation serves as a reminder to others of the personal financial risks of misusing confidential information or trade secrets.  If employees understand that a business will not hesitate to file a lawsuit to protect its valuable information, the employees are less inclined to engage in misconduct.  In addition, a good attorney advising an employee on exit strategy will always ask about a company’s policy on enforcing non-compete or non-disclosure agreements.  Thus, the enforcement policy impacts the strategy of the departing employee.  

To illustrate the point, consider the NFL.   I know of an author who wanted to publish a book that arguably (but unlikely) used intellectual property of the NFL.  The author’s attorney advised against using the material despite the fact that the material was unlikely to infringe as a matter of law.  Why not use it? Simple. The NFL will crush you and they have a track record of doing it.  

There are many instances where the NFL took immediate action to shut down a potential infringer.  A quick Google search turned up a law review article and numerous stories of enforcement.  The word gets out.  The NFL will enforce its intellectual property rights.  The NFL does so in a broad and sweeping manner.   

The NFL’s policy is certainly not going to mesh well with every corporate culture, and I do not intend to advocate for litigation in all circumstances.  However, strategic use of litigation for the right case can go a long way toward protecting a business in the future.  Litigation can address an immediate risk, but also serves as a reminder to others about the risks of misuse of intellectual property.

Trade Secret Theft on the Cloud: Concerns For Both Employers and Employees

Max Taves authored an article posted by Law Technology News  entitled "Trade Secret Spats Center on Cloud."  The article highlights the increasing difficulty employers face when trying to avoid theft of confidential information when employees have access to third party storage providers such as DropBox, Googe Docs, SugarSync, and SkyDrive.  Third party data storage providers enable users to either locally sync or upload documents at work which can be accessed from another computer.  I have posted on tips for employers to reduce the risk of this kind of theft. Essentially, to mitigate risks and have evidence of theft, businesses need a robust and frequently updated fraud management plan.  

What I also found blogworthy in this article was how use of cloud based document storage posses a risk for employees as well.  One attorney in a high profile case pointed out that an employee’s use of DropBox, or similar provider, could generate the appearance that the employee may have stolen data even if they did not intend to do so.  I have seen this happen several times and it can be a big problem.

An employee may use DropBox to store personal information (family photos, resume, etc) but also mix in company documents to work from home.  The employee may leave for another job and forget that he or she still has documents from the former employer.  The employee could end up in a lawsuit because the employer may believe documents were stolen by use of DropBox.  Having already used DropBox at work, it may be even more problematic to show evidence of returning such documents or deleting them.  

The take away here is that use of cloud storage creates a risk for both employers and employees when it comes to confidential information.  While employers should develop a fraud management plan, employees would be well advised to have clear permission to use cloud storage providers. To avoid or reduce the risk of a lawsuit, employees should also seek to address cloud storage as part of an exit strategy.  Even if an employee has no desire to use confidential information after leaving, ignoring the issue is a big risk that may create the wrong impression. 

Non-Compete Agreement Tips for Partners, Executives, and Employees

In this post, I continue the discussion about non-compete agreements in Connecticut.  This time, I focus on the employee side.  Here are 5 things to think about when leaving employment if you have a non-compete agreement.

 

  1. Do not believe water cooler experts.  Many employees come to believe what they hear at the water cooler about non-compete agreements.  The typical comments include: “Those things are thrown out of court,”  “John Smith had one of those, and he beat it in court.”  The reality is, some non-competes will be upheld in court in Connecticut, and others will not.  There is no bright line test.  Every case is unique and there are too many factors to cover in one blog post. 
  2. Get help sooner rather than later.  The biggest mistake employees make is failing to get an experienced attorney’s review of an employment contact BEFORE planning to leave.  Examples of these agreements include non-competition agreement, non-solicitation agreement, or confidentiality agreement.  I emphasize “experienced” because the law surrounding non-compete agreements and unfair competition is constantly changing.
  3. Develop an exit strategy.  Leaving without a plan is not a good idea. Employees need a plan that includes understanding the parameters of the agreement and mitigating the risks of breaching it.  I have seen clients lose sleep, jobs, and thousands of dollars because there was no plan in place.  I will offer more on exit strategies in a later post, but some ideas include negotiation with your existing employer, finding holes in the contract, modifying employment decisions to mitigate risks, and taking a wait and see approach.   

4. Be mindful of confidential information.   The idea here is to minimize your exposure to a lawsuit for theft of confidential information or misappropriation of trade secrets.  Determining whether information is protected as confidential or a trade secret might be a complex analysis.  The same can be said for improper use of such information.  Further, there could be valuable information that an employee is entitled to use but it depends on many factors. 

 

5. A written contract is not the only issue.  In the context of leaving an employment position or partnership, Connecticut recognizes causes of action that do not require a contract.  These include breach of the duty of loyalty, breach of fiduciary duty, misappropriation of trade secrets, computer crime, civil theft, and unfair trade practices.  Your exit strategy needs to consider all of these factors, and not only the contractual agreement.  

Tips On How To Reduce The Risk Of Intellectual Property Theft

 In my last post, I wrote about the risks facing businesses when there is a departing employee.  It can be fairly argued that in the next 3 years your average business will have to deal with a disgruntled, departing employee.  The employee will have had access to confidential information in digital form.  Studies have shown that greater than 50% of disgruntled employees and 90% of IT employees will take something.  So what can a business do to protect itself from theft of clients, confidential information, and trade secrets?  Here are a few tips:

1.Strong Contracts.  I often say that Legal Zoom = courtroom doom.  Many folks go to online websites to get cheap, low cost non-compete or confidentiality agreements.  There are circumstances where you can get a decent contract that will help your business from these online sites.  However, too many times I have reviewed the low cost, canned contract of a client and found significant problems with the contract.  If you want to have a contract that will have a better chance of standing up in court, you are best served by hiring an attorney well versed in these areas.  Relying on a form contract from a website is not recommended.

2.Strong Policies.  Any workplace policy should include strong electronic monitoring policies prominently posted in break rooms and in the employee handbook.  Ideally, the policy will spell out that the company can and will monitor the company owned computers and all communications and information stored on them.  You also want to have strong password policies, auditing of file access, and guards against deletion. You also should seek to have visibility by your IT department for all activities on work networks.

3. Intake Checklists.  Upon employee intake, your business will want to have a checklist that documents all the necessary items covering confidential information.  You will want to document all the devices issued to the employee, review the details of the contract (non-compete or non disclosure), and review all policies of electronic monitoring.

 4. Internal Procedures.  Essentially, what a business needs to have is an enterprise fraud management plan.  This would include security related technologies for the electronic information and data stored by the company.  You will want to include mobile device management.  Your plan will want to classify data and restrict access based on the classifications.  Your plan will want to include auditing and tracking of data.  

 

5. IT Security Checklist.  This is a checklist designed for the IT department when an employee departs.  This will include shutting down access to the former employee immediately.  The list should also include an inventory of the employee devices, evidence preservation, and possible involvement of a forensics expert.  There should always be a concern about possible spoliation of evidence when attempting to preserve, inspect, or copy electronic data.  Early involvement of an expert in computer forensics is recommended.

6. Strong Exit Interview.  A good exit interview can go a long way towards understanding if the departing employee is a risk for theft or use of confidential information.

7. Severance.  To give or not to give?  A fair severance agreement can be used to create ongoing and continuing obligations for the departing employee with respect to confidential information or intellectual property.  Also, if you failed to have a good contract in place during employment, a severance agreement is a good way to correct previous mistakes in the employment contract.  Further, in some circumstances, a fair severance agreement can reduce the level of hostilities and thereby reduce post employment risks.

Deciding to Enforce A Non-Compete Agreement in Connecticut – 5 Tips

Many Connecticut business owners have agreements (so called "non-compete agreements") in place with their employees concerning competition or solicitation. When an employee leaves a company, business owners have to decide if they should try to enforce the non-compete agreement by filing a lawsuit or engaging an attorney. Here are 5 factors to consider:

 

1. Is the contract reasonable? I have reviewed hundreds of these agreements, and they are all different (even the agreements I draft). There are various legal and factual requirements that you will need to satisfy for enforcement of non-compete or non-solicitation contracts. However, in general, the first question you have to ask is whether the contract is reasonable in light of the business you are in and purpose behind the specific contractual terms.

For this reason, it is always a good idea to have an attorney draft your agreement specifically tailored for your legitimate business concerns. Getting a form template online and applying it to your business may seem like a cost effective approach, but what happens when you really need to enforce your agreement?

2. What are you trying to protect? Generally speaking, it is easier to convince a court to stop a departing employee from taking your customers or manufacturing process than it is to stop the employee from working for a competitor. For example, the chances of successful enforcement increases if your contract was drafted to protect customers the employee was working with as opposed to trying to stop the employee from working in any type of role for a competitor. Additionally, courts are much more likely to entertain an injunction for protection of legitimate confidential information.

3. Are you worried about creating a standard for other employees? Employees that leave always talk to the employees that stay behind. It is a fact of life. In addition, word gets around about the details of any settlement involving non-competes. Why? Well, for one, everyone wants to know whether a business will actually seek to enforce their contracts. If a company continually declines to enforce their non-compete agreements, other employees may get the idea that the same rule will apply. 

4. What are the risks involved?  It may be difficult to know the full extent of the risk posed by a departing employee. However, it is important not to underestimate the risks. I have seen circumstances where a business loses only one small client at first, but suffering major loses many months down the road. Some questions to consider: (1) have you lost clients or are you in danger of losing clients; (2) is there a danger of the employee disclosing or using legitimate confidential information; (3) what did the employee have access to while at work (i.e. client lists, trade secrets, and financial information); and (4) was there an exit interview conducted and return of confidential information verified.

 

5. Litigation costs v benefits. I ask clients to make a business decision by weighing the risks (see # 4) versus the costs involved. Litigation costs are dependent on a number of factors. Some examples of factors that impact litigation costs include (1) the nature of the dispute; (2) the strength of the contract; (3) the ability of the departing employee to defend the case; (4) the lawyer defending the case; and (5) the type of action you decide to bring.

These are only some of the many factors a business should consider when confronting a decision on enforcement of a non-compete.

Damages for Breach of Non-Compete Agreement In Connecticut

When deciding whether to hire an attorney to seek enforcement of a non-compete agreement in Connecticut, a business should consider the available remedies or damages.  The following are the basic remedies or damages for breach of a typical non-compete agreement in Connecticut.

1. Injunctive relief.  Injunctive relief basically means a court ordered act or prohibition against an act.  For example, when seeking to enforce a non-compete or non-solicitation agreement, your attorney will request that the court issue an order preventing the employee from working for a competitor.  If there is a non-solicitation clause in the contract, the attorney will ask the court to issue an order to prevent the departing employee from soliciting or "stealing" clients.  The court will only issue such an order if the agreement meets a series of factual requirements.   Essentially, the restrictions in the agreement must be reasonable in relation to protecting legitimate business interests.  

2. Actual losses.  In some situations, a business will have no measurable losses and will need to resort to injunctive relief only.  However, in other instances, a business will have provable loss of business from breach of an agreement.  The traditional rule for breach of contract is to measure the damages or losses to the business and not the gains of the departing employee or competing business.  A typical example would be the loss of incremental profits from losing a customer arising from the improper conduct of the departing employee.  In Connecticut, a business must prove these damages with reasonable certainty and not guesswork.  

3. Disgorgement of profits.  In certain circumstances, a business could win an award that disgorges (or takes away) the ill gotten gains or profits of the departing employee.  For this type of damages, the focus is on the profits of the departing employee.  

4. Attorney’s fees.  The traditional rule requires each party to pay their own attorney’s fees. However, if the employment contract has a provision that covers an award of attorney’s fees, a court may award attorney’s fees incurred in enforcement of the non-compete.

5. Punitive or multiple damages.  In a standard breach of contract case, punitive, exemplary, or multiple damages are not available.  However, if the conduct involved provides the basis for a violation of some other statutory or common law, a business may recover some type of extra contractual damages.  An example would be if the breaching conduct also provided the basis to prove a willful violation of Connecticut’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act.

 

No Contract, No Problem – Charter Oak Gets A Chance To Prove Its Case

 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.

Business Litigation Roundup

As we head to the new year, here is a round up from some fellow bloggers on contracts, cobra, wage disputes, patents, and oral agreements for limited liability companies. 

The California Business Lawyer Blog offers a very detailed post about contractual relationships  between manufacturers and suppliers.  The focus is on well drafted agreements eliminating the fears and concerns of both sides.

A lot of talk about the AT&T suits in different states for $1 billion dollars for unpaid overtime.  The suits picked up a lot of steam with a recent employee favorable ruling from the federal court in Connecticut allowing the claim to proceed as a class action. Rush on Business covers some tips for businesses to avoid these suits.

Just in time for Christmas, President Obama has extended the COBRA subsidy.  Dan Schwartz’s Connecticut Employment Law Blog covers this topic in detail for employers.

Twin Cities Business Litigation Blog has an interesting post on concerns you might have as a shareholder of corporation that fails to follow corporate formalities.  Gavin Craig gives examples of how a shareholder could be exposed to liability.

Anyone who frequently litigates matters involving limited liability companies will tell you that there is not much case law out there in Connecticut.  It is still a developing area of the common law.  Delaware law is often a good option for law in this area because these issues are more frequently litigated by volume in Delaware.  A good resource is the Delaware Corporate and Commercial Litigation Blog.   Two recent posts concerning oral partnerships and LLC agreements are just an example.

PatentlyO hits on some themes for 2010, including an expected increase in patent prosecution and litigation.    They also have a cool picture of heat miser, a childhood classic.

Jeff Mehalic, author of the West Virginia Business Litigation Blog, writes a detailed follow up post to his coverage of the Connecticut dispute between Charter Oak Lending and CTX Mortgage.  Jeff also comments about a post I wrote on the same case.  The case remains significant as it is an example of what can go wrong when a business grows too fast and no written agreements are in place with employees.

Do You Need A Contract To Stop A Former Employee From Competing?

The short answer is yes, a business does need a contract, also known as a "non-compete agreement," to prevent a former employee from fairly competing in business once the employee resigns.  Even with a written agreement, there are limitations on non-compete agreements because they are viewed as a restraint of trade.  To be enforceable, the restrictions in the agreement must be reasonable in time, scope, and geography. The restrictions also must be reasonable in relation to legitimate business interests you are seeking to protect.   

A poorly drafted agreement, or no agreement at all, can leave a business with little legal recourse to stop a former employee from fair competition once the employee resigns.  Simply put, the law in Connecticut permits fair competition upon resignation.  However, the lack of a written agreement does not give free license to employees to unfairly compete in all circumstances. 

For example, what about an employee that starts competing against your business without your knowledge while continuing to work for you?  Is this fair competition that should be freely permitted?  Depending on the circumstances, this type of conduct can be actionable in a civil case for damages.  The actionable conduct is breach of the employee’s common law duty of loyalty, which exists without a written agreement in certain circumstances.  There are also statutes in Connecticut that can protect businesses in certain situations that do not require contracts such as unauthorized computer access or misappropriation of trade secrets.   

I just read a story about a recent case that demonstrated some of the legal issues involved when there are no contracts in place with former employees.  According to the small business report by Carlye Adler of CNN, Charter Oak Lending, located in in Danbury Connecticut, lost a trial against several former employees who allegedly left to work for a larger company, CTX Mortgage.  Charter Oak alleged it lost more than a third of its business and a million dollars in fees after a sudden departure of 10 employees to CTX. The litigation lasted four years and ended with a defense verdict for the former employees. Charter Oak is appealing the decision. 

It appears that the decision against Charter Oak was based in part on the lack of contracts and the categorization of the defendants as independent contractors rather than employees.   The Trade Secrets Blog by Womble Carlyle picked up the story and had an interesting take focused on pure versus unfair competition.  The blog post supports the legal concept that a line can be crossed turning pure competition into unfair business. 

Charter Oak’s appeal of this case will be interesting to follow.  The outcome will likely depend on what evidence existed at trial to demonstrate unfair competition prior to the employees’ departure along with consideration of the duty of loyalty.  The takeaway is that it is always better to have written agreements to protect your business’ customers, client lists, and confidential information.  However, the lack of such an agreement will not always give free license to former employees to unfairly compete in all circumstances.   A close examination of the facts of each case must be undertaken to consider common law and statutory remedies that do not necessarily require agreements.