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Self-Dealing Lawyer Held Jointly and Severally Liable in Trade Secret Misappropriation

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a judgment holding a lawyer jointly and severally liable for trade secret misappropriation and fraudulent transfer and enjoining any further use of the trade secrets until a money judgment against the lawyer-purchased client business was satisfied. Thomas v. Hughes, Case No. 20-50671 (5th Cir. Mar. 3, 2022) (Wilson, J.)

James Pearcy founded Performance Products, Inc., (PPI) to develop and sell probiotics for livestock. In 2006, Pearcy sold PPI to his lawyer, Lou Ann Hughes. Hughes paid cash for PPI’s stock and agreed that PPI would pay Pearcy a 14% licensing royalty for use of his proprietary formulations, up to $1.35 million over five years, at the end of which PPI would have the option to purchase Pearcy’s formulations for $100,000. When PPI did not fully pay the royalties, Pearcy brought a Texas state court action against Hughes and PPI for breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets and breach of fiduciary duty. The jury found for Pearcy, and the Texas court entered judgment against PPI in the amount of $1 million. Hughes and PPI appealed the Texas judgment and posted a supersedeas bond, but the appeal was unsuccessful. Pearcy received the supersedeas bond, but PPI never paid the balance of the judgment. Pearcy sought post-judgment discovery and set a hearing on a motion to compel. The day before the hearing, PPI filed for bankruptcy.

Earlier, in 2006, Hughes had formed a second entity called Performance Products International, LLC. At the time of the Texas judgment, the LLC had no assets. During pendency of the Texas appeal, Hughes changed the second entity’s name to Performance Probiotics, LLC, and obtained a license to sell and distribute commercial livestock feed. In January 2012, Hughes ceased selling products through PPI and began selling them through the LLC. Hughes also formed a third entity called Advance Probiotics International, LLC (API).

Shortly after PPI declared bankruptcy, Pearcy’s widow (also Pearcy) and PPI’s bankruptcy trustee (Thomas) sued Hughes, Performance Probiotics and API in federal court for misappropriation of trade secrets and fraudulent transfer of PPI’s assets in violation of the Texas Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (TUFTA). The plaintiffs sought to pierce the corporate veil of both Performance Probiotics and API, alleging that Hughes had used them to commit fraud. Thomas further alleged that Hughes had breached her fiduciary duty to PPI. At trial, the jury found for Pearcy and Thomas, awarding about $1.4 million plus interest in actual damages, which was derived from the amount then due under the Texas judgment. The jury further awarded $1.2 million in exemplary damages., The district court entered final judgment, further ordering Hughes to disgorge $860,000 in compensation from Performance Probiotics. The district court enjoined Hughes and Performance Probiotics from using Pearcy’s trade secrets until the judgment was fully satisfied and held Hughes and Performance Probiotics jointly and severally liable for “all relief granted” and “all amounts due” under the Texas judgment. The district court retained jurisdiction over API in case [...]

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What Does it Take to Plead Trade Secret Misappropriation Under the DTSA?

Addressing the pleading standard under the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) and New Jersey Trade Secrets Act (NJTSA), the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated the district court’s dismissal of a third amended complaint for trade secrets misappropriation and remanded for further proceedings. Oakwood Labs. LLC v. Thanoo, Case No. 19-3707 (3d Cir. May 8, 2021) (Jordan, J.)

Thanoo was a key player in Oakwood Laboratories’ Microsphere Project, a 20-year, $130 million project to develop injectable sustained-release drug products using a complex and rare microsphere technology. In 2013, Aurobindo approached Oakwood about a possible collaboration, specifically to involve Aurobindo’s manufacture of an active pharmaceutical ingredient for Oakwood. Subject to a nondisclosure agreement, Oakwood shared with Aurobindo confidential information, including a 27-page memorandum describing the Microsphere Project. Ultimately, Aurobindo declined to proceed, citing financial considerations. Aurobindo subsequently hired Thanoo. Although Thanoo told Oakwood that he was going to Aurobindo to work on standard injectable drugs and not microspheres, he immediately set up a research and development program concerning microspheres for Aurobindo. Aurobindo, which had no previous experience in microspheres, announced that it would have products ready for clinical testing in just one to four years, despite a relatively small investment of only $6 million. Oakwood sued Thanoo and Aurobindo for trade secret misappropriation under the DTSA and NJTSA, and for breach of contract and tortious interference.

On Thanoo’s motion, the district court dismissed Oakwood’s complaint, finding that it failed to provide specific allegations of what trade secrets were allegedly misappropriated and how Aurobindo allegedly used the trade secrets. Oakwood filed first, second and third amended complaints, each alleging with greater specificity the trade secrets associated with the Microsphere Project and expanding on the allegation that Aurobindo could not have proceeded so quickly from no experience to announcing near-complete development of microsphere products without using Oakwood’s trade secrets. Nonetheless, the district court dismissed each complaint as being insufficiently specific as to which particular trade secrets were allegedly misappropriated and the particular way in which Aurobindo allegedly used the trade secrets. The district court also held that, absent any product launch from Aurobindo, any harm from the alleged misappropriation was too speculative to support a claim. After dismissal of the third amended complaint, Oakwood appealed.

The Third Circuit reversed, concluding that Oakwood’s complaint sufficiently pled a claim for trade secret misappropriation under either the DTSA or the NJTSA. The Court explained that Oakwood had sufficiently identified its trade secrets by its allegation that information laying out its design, research and development (including identification of variables that affect the development), test methods and results, manufacturing processes, quality assurance, marketing strategies and regulatory compliance related to its development of a microsphere system were trade secrets. Oakwood had also identified a specific memorandum disclosed to Aurobindo under a confidentiality agreement as containing trade secrets, and attached other documents specifying in detail secrets related to the Microsphere Project.

The Court further found that Oakwood had sufficiently alleged misappropriation. Although there are several ways to [...]

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How Not to Build a Case of Trade Secret Misappropriation

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a dismissal of trade secret claims, finding that although misappropriation of a trade secret prior to the enactment of the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) does not preclude a claim arising from post-enactment or continued use of the same trade secret, the publication of a trade secret in a patent application extinguishes trade secret status. Eli Attia; Eli Attia Architect PC v. Google LLC, et al., Case No. 19-15771 (9th Cir. Dec. 16, 2020) (Wallace, J.)

Eli Attia is an architect who developed a system and method for automated design, fabrication and construction, called Engineered Architecture (EA). In 2010, Attia entered into a partnership with Google. Attia disclosed his trade secrets related to the technology to Google so that they could work together to develop a program that would implement EA. Attia executed patent assignments with Google, and a year later Google filed patent applications related to the EA trade secrets. The patents were published in 2012. Google then allegedly excluded Attia from the project and used EA to create Flux, a platform used by architects, engineers and construction workers, focused on making buildings more efficient and using artificial intelligence to streamline the design process.

In 2014, Attia sued Google under state law for trade secret misappropriation and breach of contract. In 2016, Congress enacted the DTSA. Since its inception, DTSA has been an enumerated predicate for the civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which means that plaintiffs can bring lawsuits claiming a conspiracy when theft of trade secrets is an underlying claim. Attia amended his complaint to add RICO claims based on Google’s alleged trade secret misappropriation. Google removed the action to federal court and moved to dismiss. Attia filed another amended complaint, this time asserting a new DTSA claim and two RICO claims.

The district court dismissed Attia’s federal claims with prejudice and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims. The district court found that the alleged trade secrets were already disclosed in Google’s 2012 published patent applications, and those publications extinguished the relevant trade secrets. The court held that Attia lacked standing to assert DTSA or RICO claims, and neither estoppel nor continued use could convert the 2012 publications into a DTSA violation. Attia appealed.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit noted that the issue was one of first impression before the Court, and set out to determine whether, as a matter of law, the pre-enactment disclosure of a trade secret forecloses the possibility of a DTSA claim arising from the continued use of the trade secret after enactment. The Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), the established model statute for trade secret misappropriation that has been adopted by the majority of the states, contains an anti-continued use provision, the Court noted. The UTSA states that “ a continuing misappropriation that began prior to the effective date,”… “does not apply to the continuing misappropriation that occurs after the effective date.” The DTSA does not [...]

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Attorney’s Fees Properly Awarded in Unsuccessful Trade Secret Misappropriation and Civil Theft Suit

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a take-nothing judgment and an attorney’s fees award against plaintiffs in a trade secret misappropriation and civil theft suit under Texas law, finding that the fee award did not need to be segregated to various claims. ATOM Instrument Corp. v. Petroleum Analyzer Co., L.P., Case Nos. 19-29151, -20371 (5th Cir. Aug. 7, 2020) (Southwick, J.). The Court also remanded for an additional award of appellate attorney’s fees.

Olstowski was a consultant for Petroleum Analyzer Co., L.P. (PAC), during which time he developed a krypton-chloride-based excimer lamp to detect sulfur with ultraviolet fluorescence. Although he developed the lamp independently, he used PAC resources to test the technology.  Olstowski and PAC negotiated but failed to agree on licensing. Olstowski founded ATOM Instrument to assist him in the licensing discussions. Subsequently, PAC filed a declaratory judgment action in Texas court alleging that it owned the lamp technology. The state court ordered the claim to arbitration. The arbitration panel declared Olstowski the owner of the technology and enjoined PAC from using it. The state court confirmed the arbitral award, and a Texas appellate court upheld the confirmation order.

PAC thereafter developed a new sulfur-detecting excimer lamp called MultiTek that also used krypton-chloride with UV fluorescence. Olstowski and ATOM filed in state court for contempt of the injunction, but the state court denied the contempt motion as moot because PAC had ceased selling MultiTek.

ATOM filed for bankruptcy the following year. Olstowski and ATOM initiated a district court proceeding against PAC alleging misappropriation of trade secrets, unfair competition and civil theft. After holding a bench trial, the court found that MultiTek did not practice Olstowski’s technology and therefore entered a take-nothing judgment in favor of PAC. The district court also awarded attorney’s fees to PAC under a provision of the Texas Theft Liability Act (TTLA) that awards fees to prevailing parties. Olstowski and ATOM appealed both issues, and PAC sought an award of its appellate attorney’s fees.

As to liability, ATOM argued that the district court erred in finding that the MultiTek lamp did not practice Olstowski’s technology. ATOM characterized the error as a legal one regarding interpretation of the arbitral award, but the Fifth Circuit held that “whether one company used another’s protected technology” is a factual question for which Olstowski and ATOM had failed to carry the burden of proof at trial. ATOM further argued that the district court had ignored the alleged law of the case in deviating from the scope of technology defined in the arbitral award, but the Court again rejected ATOM’s argument because the district court had explicitly stated that the description of Olstowski’s technology in the arbitral award remained in effect.

As to the award of attorney’s fees, ATOM argued that the district court had not appropriately segregated fees related to the TTLA claim from those related to other claims. Applying Texas law, the Fifth Circuit affirmed that the TTLA claim was sufficiently related to the other claims [...]

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NDA Sunset Provision Means Trade Secret Use May Not Be Misappropriation

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court ruling in a trade secret misappropriation case based on a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that resulted in an award of more than $60 million, ruling that any disclosures that occurred after the termination date of the NDA were not subject to misappropriation claims. BladeRoom Group Ltd. v. Emerson Electric Co., Case No. 19-16583 (9th Cir. Aug. 30, 2021) (Murphy, J.) (Rawlinson, J., concurring).

BladeRoom and Emerson compete for contracts to design and build data centers. In August 2011, the companies explored a potential sale of BladeRoom to Emerson. BladeRoom drafted an NDA governed by English law, and the parties signed it. Critically, the 12th paragraph of the NDA provided that “this agreement shall terminate on the date 2 years from the date hereof.” The potential acquisition ultimately fell through.

Not long after, Facebook began plans to build a data center in northern Sweden. BladeRoom pitched a design in July 2012, and Emerson pitched a design several months later. In October 2012, Facebook verbally approved Emerson’s design although it was only 10% complete. Almost a year later, Facebook contacted BladeRoom asking about updates to its proposal. In November 2013, Facebook selected Emerson’s proposal. Facebook and Emerson signed a design-build contract in March 2014, at which point BladeRoom learned about the design Emerson had pitched. BladeRoom sued Facebook and Emerson, alleging that Emerson had breached the NDA and misappropriated BladeRoom’s trade secrets.

The case was tried to a jury. During trial, BladeRoom settled with Facebook but not Emerson. Before closing arguments, Emerson proposed a jury instruction excluding information disclosed or used after August 2013 (i.e., after the NDA allegedly expired). The district court denied the instruction. BladeRoom then moved in limine to prohibit Emerson from arguing that the NDA permitted it to use BladeRoom’s information after August 2013. The district court granted the motion. The jury found Emerson liable and awarded $10 million in lost profits and $20 million in unjust enrichment damages but did not distinguish between the breach and misappropriation claims in making its award. The district court awarded $30 million in punitive damages and further awarded pre-judgment interest beginning on October 30, 2012, and $18 million in attorney’s and expert witness’ fees. Emerson appealed.

The Ninth Circuit first considered whether the NDA expired after two years. Applying English law, the Court held that it did based on a primarily textual analysis. However, the Court could not determine from the record the date on which the alleged breach/misappropriation had occurred. Accordingly, it vacated the judgment and remanded for a new trial.

The Ninth Circuit also discussed several issues in the appeal that would be relevant if Emerson was found liable on remand. The Court stated that the punitive damages award was not supported by the record where the jury did not distinguish between the breach and misappropriation claims because punitive damages are not available for breach of contract under California law. The Court also discussed prejudgment interest, observing [...]

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A Clear Need: To Allege Misappropriation, Identify Trade Secret

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff had sufficiently pled trade secret misappropriation by identifying its trade secrets and how they were protected with sufficient particularity. InteliClear, LLC v. ETC Global Holdings, Inc., Case No. 19-55862 (9th Cir. Oct. 15, 2020) (Gould, J.).

In 2004, InteliClear began development on a comprehensive electronic system for managing stock brokerage firm accounting, securities clearance and securities settlement services using a Structured Query Language relational database designed to handle millions of trades each business day. It named the program the “InteliClear System.”

In 2008, ETC’s predecessor signed a software license agreement with InteliClear and obtained a license for the InteliClear System. The license agreement acknowledged that all information InteliClear provided was confidential, proprietary and copyrighted, and ETC agreed to maintain that information in confidence “during and after” the terms of the agreement.

In 2017, InteliClear sent ETC a notice terminating the license agreement. ETC committed to remove the InteliClear database from its systems by February 26, 2018. On March 5, 2018, ETC certified that the InteliClear System had been removed from all ETC servers and that all copies had been destroyed. But, before the license agreement ended, ETC had already begun building its own securities clearance software. Around the same time that InteliClear terminated the license agreement, ETC launched its own electronic trading system. InteliClear immediately contacted ETC about its suspicion that ETC had improperly used the InteliClear System to build its own system, and, after months of negotiations, ETC agreed to allow a computer forensics company to compare the two systems and investigate. The forensics company found an abundance of evidence that the elements of each system were identical.

InteliClear sued ETC for trade secret misappropriation under federal and state law and for unfair competition. The district court dismissed the claim for unfair competition, reasoning that it was preempted by the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act. One day into discovery, and before any discovery had been requested or provided, ETC moved for summary judgment, asserting that InteliClear failed to identify its trade secrets with sufficient particularity and that InteliClear did not show that the InteliClear System was a trade secret or that ETC had access to InteliClear’s source code. The district court granted ETC’s motion and denied InteliClear’s motion to defer ruling until after completion of discovery under Rule 56(d). InteliClear appealed.

The Ninth Circuit analyzed the federal and state trade secret misappropriation claims together because the elements were substantially similar. The Court noted that to succeed on a claim for misappropriation, a plaintiff must prove (1) that the plaintiff possessed trade secrets, (2) that the defendant misappropriated the trade secrets, and (3) that the misappropriation caused or threatened damage to the plaintiff. To prove the first element, “a plaintiff must identify the trade secrets and carry the burden of showing they exist.” The Court pointed out that it is important to identify trade secrets with sufficient particularity because [...]

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Improper Use of Voluntarily Communicated Trade Secrets Sufficient to Maintain Action for Misappropriation in Texas

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that, under Texas law, a plaintiff can sustain an action for trade secret misappropriation even if the plaintiff voluntarily communicated the alleged trade secrets to the defendant. Hoover Panel Systems, Inc. v. HAT Contract, Inc., Case No. 19-10650 (5th Cir. June 17, 2020) (per curiam). (more…)




There Should Be No Secret about Scope of Trade Secret Injunction

In the context of an interlocutory appeal, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a portion of a preliminary injunction in a case involving alleged misappropriation of trade secrets for failing to provide sufficient specificity as to what it prohibits. Carl Zeiss Meditec, Inc. v. Topcon Medical Systems, Inc. et al., Case No. 2021-1839 (Fed. Cir. May 16, 2022) (Hughes, Linn and Stoll, JJ.)

Topcon Medical filed an interlocutory appeal, seeking vacatur of a preliminary injunction granted by a district court in the Northern District of California. Topcon asserted that the injunction failed to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65(d) because it did not provide an adequate description of what specific acts are prohibited. Topcon argued that the injunction is ambiguous as to whether it applies to all of its platform or only to a certain module. Topcon further argued that the ambiguities are exacerbated by the district court’s misunderstanding of evidence presented from a declaration and deposition in the case and the court’s use of that evidence to draw conclusions about the misappropriation of trade secrets.

The Federal Circuit agreed with Topcon that the preliminary injunction failed to provide any notice required under Rule 65(d) as to whether—and to what extent—Topcon’s continued use of the platform and modules is outlawed. As to the basis for the injunction, the Court noted that “the district court did not address whether all [the] information [asserted in the complaint] was confidential, or whether it was acquired, used, or disclosed improperly. Second, as Topcon convincingly argues, the scope of the asserted trade secrets captured under CZMI’s argument is staggering, including unspecified software architecture, unnamed user interfaces, generically noted research, and other information simply identified as trade secrets.” The Court explained that Rule 65(d) expressly requires that the injunction order must “describe in reasonable detail—and not by referring to the complaint or other document—the act or acts restrained or required.” The Court further agreed with Topcon that the district court’s reference to declaration evidence related to data that was not the data on which the misappropriation claim was based, which “exacerbate[d] the ambiguity of the injunction and in no way support[ed] extending the injunction to cover [other parts of the accused] platform or …decoder.”

Because the grant of injunction did not identify the specific acts prohibited, the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded the injunction to the district court to clarify the scope of the injunction.




Half-Baked Case: No Misappropriation or False Advertising Given Over-Broad Allegations

The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a defendant baker on a trade dress infringement claim and reversed the district court’s denial of the defendant baker’s motions for judgment as a matter of law on trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims. Bimbo Bakeries USA, Inc. v. Sycamore, Case Nos. 18-4062; -4031; -4040 (10th Cir. Mar. 18, 2022) (Hartz, Phillips, Eid, JJ.)

Bimbo Bakeries (and its predecessor, EarthGrains Baking Companies) owns, bakes and sells Grandma Sycamore’s Home-Maid Bread, a popular bread in Utah. U.S. Bakery is a competitor, and Leland Sycamore is the baker who developed the Grandma Sycamore’s recipe. Sycamore parted with his interest in Grandma Sycamore’s and opened his own bakery, Wild Grains Bakery. U.S. Bakery hired Wild Grains Bakery to produce another homemade bread product, Grandma Emilie’s. The relationship soured, and U.S. Bakery moved its Grandma Emilie’s operations in-house. U.S. Bakery developed a new formula for Grandma Emilie’s and enlisted a former Wild Grain employee to help. U.S. Bakery also created packaging for the bread based on Grandma Sycamore’s packaging. U.S. Bakery used several taglines to help sell its products, including “Fresh. Local. Quality.”

Bimbo Bakeries (then EarthGrains) sued Leland Sycamore, Tyler Sycamore (Leland’s son and co-baker), Wild Grains Bakery and U.S. Bakery, alleging multiple claims related to the Grandma Emilie’s operations, including trade secret misappropriation under the Utah Uniform Trade Secrets Act and trade dress infringement, trade dress dilution, false designation of origin, false advertising and unfair competition under the Lanham Act. Bimbo Bakeries alleged that U.S. Bakery’s use of the word “local” in the tagline “Fresh. Local. Quality.” constituted false or misleading advertising because U.S. Bakery did not actually bake all its bread products within the state of sale. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of U.S. Bakery on the trade dress infringement claim. The parties went to trial on the trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims. The jury ruled in Bimbo Bakeries’ favor on both and awarded more than $2 million in damages. The district court increased the damages owed by U.S. Bakery by almost $800,000 because U.S. Bakery was found to have willfully and maliciously misappropriated Bimbo Bakeries’ trade secret. The district court remitted the jury’s damages for the false advertising claim to around $83,000. The district court also permanently enjoined U.S. Bakery and Sycamore from using Bimbo Bakeries’ trade secret and denied renewed motions by U.S. Bakery and Sycamore for judgment as a matter of law for the trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims.

Bimbo Bakeries, U.S. Bakery and Sycamore appealed. Bimbo Bakeries argued that the district court should not have granted U.S. Bakery summary judgment on its trade dress infringement claim and should not have remitted damages for the false advertising claim. U.S. Bakery and Sycamore argued that the district court should have granted their renewed motions for judgment as a matter of law for the trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims.

On [...]

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Sixth Circuit Endorses Sealing of Filings to Protect Confidentiality of Alleged Trade Secrets

On appeal from a dismissal based on a failure to state a claim for misappropriation of trade secrets, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted the litigants’ motion to seal their briefs and file publicly available redacted versions in order to protect the confidentiality of the appellant’s alleged trade secrets. Magnesium Machine, LLC v. Terves, LLC, Case No. 20-3998 (6th Cir. Jan. 14, 2022) (Donald, J.)

The Sixth Circuit reasoned that the case had been brought under the Defend Trade Secrets Act, which requires courts to take “action as may be necessary and appropriate to preserve the confidentiality of trade secrets.” The Court also relied on precedent to the effect that trade secrets generally provide a justification (i.e., a “compelling reason”) for sealing. The Court left open the possibility of reconsidering its ruling if it later determines that any of the redacted information should be made available to the public.

Practice Note: Public disclosure—even in a court document—can destroy a trade secret. Litigants should be careful when disclosing information that is even alleged to be a trade secret, even if they are not certain whether the information qualifies as a trade secret since, if and when litigated, the information may later be held to qualify.




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