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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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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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Defend Trade Secrets Act Supports Sealing Information on Appeal

Addressing whether purported trade secret information ought to remain under seal on appeal, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in a one-judge order that the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) provided a statutory basis that overcame the presumption of public access. Magnesium Machine, LLC v. Terves, LLC, Case No. 20-3779 (6th Cir. Dec. 10, 2020) (McKeague, J.)

This case presented the issue of what part of a record may be sealed on appeal—normally a routine question—in litigation that was anything but routine. According to the verified complaint, Magnesium Machine discovered a particular salt-based treatment for use on oil and gas tools. According to Magnesium, in the course of litigating a patent infringement suit against one of Magnesium’s suppliers, Terves and its counsel, McDonald Hopkins, obtained information reflective of Magnesium’s alleged trade secret from a third party pursuant to subpoena. Specifically, Magnesium claimed that particular language in a settlement agreement disclosed Magnesium’s trade secrets. The settlement agreement had been produced by the third party without any confidentiality designation. The complaint alleged violations of the federal DTSA and Oklahoma and Ohio state trade secrets acts.

Invoking the seizure provisions of the DTSA, Magnesium sought and obtained an ex parte order directing the US Marshals to seize Terves’s electronic equipment, including devices at Terves’ president’s home. That order did not last long. Following an evidentiary hearing (in which Terves participated) the day after the order was issued, the district court vacated the seizure order because Magnesium had not demonstrated misappropriation of a trade secret.

To appeal, Magnesium requested express findings of fact and conclusions of law. The district court explained that Terves and its lawyers subpoenaed materials in good faith, that the settlement agreement was produced without restriction (such as a confidentiality marking), that Terves’s lawyers did not impermissibly share the settlement agreement with Terves employees and that upon objection by Magnesium, Terves deleted its copies of the settlement agreement. Thereafter, on motions to dismiss, the district court concluded that Magnesium failed to allege misappropriation and that the litigation privilege protected Terves’ counsel.

Terves sought and obtained attorneys’ fees against Magnesium and its counsel for proceeding in bad faith. The district court found that Magnesium had every reason to know that its claims were baseless, because it was “well aware at the time the suit was filed that Defendants had received the allegedly secret information through legitimate discovery means and that it was provided to them without description.” Moreover, claiming that a three-word phrase in the settlement agreement purportedly disclosed trade secret information was “an intentional exaggeration/misrepresentation.” Indeed, other public statements had provided far more detail than the purportedly secret phrase, according to the district court.

On appeal, although Terves contended that the purported trade secret did not qualify as a secret, in the exercise of caution and on Magnesium’s request, Terves nonetheless sought to file a brief under seal. Judge David McKeague, acting on behalf of the Sixth Circuit, agreed that it was appropriate to seal the information, [...]

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Trade Secret Misappropriators Fail to Launch in Rocket Facility

Addressing a variety of challenges to a judgment against defendants in a trade secret misappropriation action, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that the plaintiff had standing on the basis of lawful possession (as opposed to ownership) of the trade secret materials and that the damages awarded, including punitives, was supported by sufficient evidence. Advanced Fluid Systems, Inc. v. Huber, Case Nos. 19-1722; -1752 (3d Cir. Apr. 30, 2020) (Jordan, J.).

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No Service, No Notice

Addressing the notice requirements of Fed. R. of Civ. Pro. 65(a)(1), the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated a preliminary injunction, finding that the aggrieved party did not have sufficient notice of the possibility of a preliminary injunction. Document Operations, L.L.C., v. AOS Legal Tech., Inc., Case No. 20-20388 (5th Cir. Aug. 23, 2021) (Per Curiam) (unpublished).

In 2017, Doc. Ops. entered into a licensing agreement by which AOS Japan would serve as the company’s exclusive representative and marketing provider in Japan for its virtual data room technology. Later, Doc. Ops. learned that a competing product known as AOS VDR had been developed by AOS Korea and would soon be marketed in the two Asian countries. Despite protests from AOS Japan that AOS Korea developed AOS VDR independently, Doc. Ops. filed suit alleging violation of the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act and for common law breach of contract, fraudulent inducement, conversion, civil conspiracy and breach of fiduciary duty.

The licensing agreement mandated that AOS Japan protect Doc. Ops.’ confidential information and also prohibited AOS Japan from acting to “represent, promote, develop, or otherwise try to sell within [Japan] any lines of product that. . . compete with [the technology].” Doc. Ops. sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) as well as preliminary injunction and filed and emailed copies of the complaint and TRO motion to AOS representatives. Once a Zoom hearing was scheduled, Doc. Ops. again contacted AOS to inform it of the hearing date. When AOS failed to appear at the hearing, the district court chose to reschedule the hearing three weeks later in order to ensure that AOS was aware of the hearing.

During this three-week interval, Doc. Ops. continued to communicate relevant dates and filings with AOS, which had appointed Texas-based counsel. One of these communications included a letter from Doc. Ops. to the district court stating that if the district court granted its TRO motion, Doc. Ops. would seek to conduct limited expedited discovery to prepare for a subsequent preliminary injunction. AOS failed to appear at the second hearing, stating that it would not appear until served with process. Subsequently, the district court not only granted the TRO motion and the related request for expedited discovery but also issued a preliminary injunction against AOS. AOS appealed both the preliminary injunction and the order granting expedited discovery.

The Fifth Circuit first explained that Rule 65 requires sufficient notice for a preliminary injunction, which the Supreme Court of the United States has interpreted as implying a hearing where the defendant is given a fair opportunity to oppose the preliminary injunction. The Court contrasted the notice requirement for preliminary injunctions from the more informal notice requirement for TROs. While TRO hearings are sometimes converted into preliminary injunction hearings, this conversion has two requirements: Sufficient notice and an opportunity to meaningfully prepare and respond.

The Fifth Circuit found that while AOS certainly had notice that a preliminary injunction was looming, it lacked sufficient notice that this relief would [...]

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Epic Punitive Damages Award Violates Due Process

Addressing the appropriateness of three separate damages awards totaling $520 million, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s award of $140 million in compensatory damages, but found that $280 million in punitive damages does not meet the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Epic Systems Corp. v. Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., Case Nos. 19-1528, 19-1613 (Aug. 20, 2020) (Kanne, J.).

Epic Systems is a leading developer of electronic health record software, which it licenses to top hospitals in the United States. Each customer-licensed module is specific to the customer’s needs and can be customized to ensure proper integration with the customer’s systems. In order to facilitate customization and updates to the software, Epic provides a web portal called “UserWeb,” which provides access to various resources including administrative guides, training materials, software updates and forums. UserWeb also contains confidential information about the health-record software itself, and as such, Epic restricts access to the UserWeb portal via credentialed logins. Those with access are also required to keep all UserWeb information confidential.

In 2003, Kaiser Permanente—the largest managed healthcare organization in the United States—obtained a license to use Epic’s software. Due to the size and complexity of integrating and maintaining the software, Kaiser hired Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) to help with updates and integration. TCS has its own electronic health record software, Med Mantra, which was known to Epic. Accordingly, Kaiser imposed numerous rules for TCS to follow in order to maintain the confidentiality of Epic’s software. TCS employees claimed that they could perform their required tasks faster if they had full access to UserWeb, which Kaiser repeatedly asked Epic to grant to TCS. Epic repeatedly declined this request.

Undeterred, TCS was able to find another way into Epic’s UserWeb. TCS hired an employee who had full access to UserWeb, which he gained from working for a different organization that also helped manage Kaiser’s integration of Epic’s software. While in his previous position, the employee had falsely claimed to be a Kaiser employee, thus allowing him full access to UserWeb. The employee shared these credentials with numerous TCS employees, who then had unfettered access to UserWeb, which contained confidential information relating to Epic’s healthcare software.

TCS used this information to generate a “comparative analysis” document, an 11-page spreadsheet that compares TCS’s software, Med Mantra, to Epic’s software. TCS wanted to sell Med Mantra directly to Kaiser, and the first step was to be sure that “key gaps” in the Med Mantra software were addressed before the attempted sale. After viewing a presentation that included the comparative analysis document, one TCS employee alerted Kaiser and Epic to the existence of the document and the fact that TCS had gained access to UserWeb.

A few months later, Epic filed suit against TCS, alleging that TCS used fraudulent means to access and steal Epic’s trade secrets and other confidential information. After a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Epic on all claims. During the damages trial, [...]

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Without Personal Jurisdiction or Causal Relationship, Wheels Come Off Misappropriation Claim

Without addressing the merits of the claim, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a trade secret misappropriation action based on lack of personal jurisdiction, finding no causal relationship between the competitors’ dealings in Illinois and the asserted claims. J.S.T. Corporation v. Foxconn Interconnect Technology Ltd., et al., Case No.19-2465 (7th Cir. July 13, 2020) (Barrett, J.).

In 2005, General Motors (GM) retained Robert Bosch LLC to build a part for some of GM’s cars. To build the part, Bosch required a connector. Bosch turned to JST to design and build the part, which it did for years, becoming the sole supplier of the product to Bosch. After buying 15 million connectors, Bosch allegedly tricked JST into handing over its proprietary technical schematics and designs under the guise that GM required the materials and Bosch would keep them confidential. Instead, Bosch allegedly gave the materials to JST’s competitors, Foxconn and TEC. According to JST, Foxconn and TEC accepted the designs, used them to produce a knockoff connector and displaced JST.

JST filed a lawsuit against TEC and Foxconn affiliates in Illinois for trade secret misappropriation under the Illinois Trade Secrets Act and for unjust enrichment. TEC and Foxconn moved to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction because none of the defendants were headquartered in Illinois or had a primary place of business there. Further, none of the defendants manufactured or sold the connector in Illinois. JST alleged that TEC and Foxconn sold the connectors to Bosch in Texas and in China, where Bosch installed them into the parts it sold to GM. The only connection to Illinois was the fact that GM sells cars with those parts to dealers in Illinois. Foxconn and TEC argued that this connection was too attenuated to support personal jurisdiction. The district court agreed and dismissed the action. JST appealed.

On appeal, JST asserted that Foxconn and TEC were subject to personal jurisdiction in Illinois because the cars containing the knockoff parts were sold in the state. Relying on the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in World-Wide Volkswagen, JST argued that personal jurisdiction may be appropriate over “a corporation that delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers in the forum State.” The Seventh Circuit observed that its circuit is among those that apply the stream of commerce theory in products liability cases. The Court explained that in the context of a product liability case, the defendant takes steps to reach consumers in a forum state, and the underlying litigation alleges the development of a product that harms consumers.

The Seventh Circuit noted the differences between products liability claims and those involving trade secret misappropriation. The latter is not intrinsically linked to interactions with a consumer and can occur long before an offending product ever reaches a consumer in the forum. Based on the complaint, the Court found that even if Foxconn and [...]

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Texas Appeals Court Rules Private Communications with Customers Not Protected Free Speech

In a case addressing the applicability of free speech as a defense to trade secret misappropriation, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas retracted its previous ruling, holding that communications with customers and suppliers did not involve a matter of public concern and were therefore not an exercise of free speech. Goldberg, et al. v. EMR (USA Holdings) Inc., et al., Case No. 05-18-00261-CV (Tex. App. Jan. 23, 2020) (Myers, J).

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