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The Plot Plot Thickens: Trade Secret, Tortious Interference, Fiduciary Duty Claims Survive Motion to Dismiss

A judge from the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit sitting by designation in the US District Court for the District of Delaware denied a motion to dismiss claims of misappropriation of trade secrets, tortious interference and breach of fiduciary duty, finding that the plaintiff plausibly pled facts supporting each claim. Park Lawn Corp. v. PlotBox Inc., Case No. 20-cv-01484-SB (D. Del. Oct. 29, 2021) (Bibas, J., sitting by designation).

Park Lawn and PlotBox are competitors in the cemetery business. In 2018, Park Lawn began developing software to automate various cemetery management tasks to cut costs. Park Lawn also hoped to generate revenue by licensing the software to competitors. Park Lawn’s CEO, however, had been leaking information to PlotBox about the software, its unique features and Park Lawn’s strategy for licensing. The CEO also helped PlotBox in its efforts to recruit Park Lawn’s chief technology officer, who had been overseeing the software project. The CEO acted despite having signed confidentiality, non-compete and non-solicitation agreements. Park Lawn ultimately discovered the CEO’s involvement with PlotBox and fired him. Soon after, the CEO became PlotBox’s chairman. Park Lawn sued PlotBox for stealing its trade secrets, interfering with the CEO’s employment agreements and helping the CEO breach his fiduciary duty to Park Lawn. PlotBox moved to dismiss.

The district court denied the motion. As to the trade secret claims, PlotBox argued that it did not misappropriate any trade secrets since the CEO never actually gave PlotBox any information. The court found that the complaint alleged otherwise. In particular, the court noted the complaint alleged:

  • The CEO and PlotBox exchanged compromising emails discussing the “status,” “developments in ‘death-tech,’” and the CEO’s interest in becoming PlotBox’s chairman.
  • The CEO invited PlotBox executives to his home to discuss a “Park Lawn Update” and “Technical Presentation.”

The court found that these allegations plausibly alleged that the CEO could have disclosed a trade secret.

PlotBox argued that even if it did learn something from the CEO, it never knew that the CEO obtained that information through improper means. The district court again disagreed, finding that PlotBox should have known something was amiss since the CEO broke a promise to keep quiet. While the court acknowledged that PlotBox may have never read the CEO’s confidentiality agreement, PlotBox should have reasonably inferred that it was improper for the CEO of a competitor to disclose his company’s innovations.

PlotBox also argued for dismissal because any information it received from the CEO did not count as a trade secret under the Defend Trade Secrets Act. Once again, the district court disagreed, explaining that Park Lawn alleged that the information provided was technical in nature (e.g., unique features of software and strategy of selling it to rivals), Park Lawn took adequate measures to protect the information by only allowing a few employees who signed confidentiality agreements to access the software and the information was valuable because it was secret. The court thus permitted the trade secret claim to proceed.

The [...]

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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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Sixth Circuit: It’s a Go on Plaintiff’s Claims Despite Arbitration Clause

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed in part a district court’s grant of a stay pending arbitration, finding that as non-parties to the underlying arbitration agreement, defendants could not stay the plaintiff’s action against them by arguing that they were beneficiaries of the arbitration agreement. AtriCure, Inc. v. Meng, Case No. 19-4067 (6th Cir. Aug. 27, 2021) (Murphy, J.) (Guy, J., dissenting).

AtriCure invested millions into developing medical devices that treat a serious degenerative heart condition known as atrial fibrillation. The company sells these products to hospitals throughout the world. In the mid-2000s, AtriCure sought to enter the Chinese market. In order to do so, it needed a Chinese agent. Dr. Jian Meng approached AtriCure about partnering with one of his companies to serve as AtriCure’s Chinese distributor. AtriCure eventually entered into a relationship with Meng’s company, ZenoMed.

In 2015, AtriCure discovered that another of Meng’s companies, Med-Zenith, was attempting to market a knockoff version of one of AtriCure’s medical devices. AtriCure opted to continue the relationship with ZenoMed, and in 2016, AtriCure and ZenoMed entered into a distribution agreement. However, in 2017, AtriCure learned that Med-Zenith was attempting to develop more counterfeit versions of AtriCure’s devices. As a result, AtriCure allowed the distribution agreement to expire and demanded that ZenoMed return its inventory.

AtriCure then sued Meng and Med-Zenith in the Southern District of Ohio, alleging improper manufacturing and selling of dangerous counterfeit productions, as well as various state law claims. AtriCure also brought an arbitration demand under the distribution agreement against ZenoMed. Meng and Med-Zenith sought to stay the federal lawsuit, arguing that they were beneficiaries of the arbitration clause in the distribution agreement under equitable estoppel and agency theories. After the district court denied the motion, Meng appealed.

The Sixth Circuit explained that after the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2009 ruling in Arthur Andersen LLP v. Carlisle, circuit courts are obligated to look to relevant state common law to decide when nonparties may enforce or be bound by an arbitration agreement. As a result, the blanket federal presumption favoring arbitration even against nonparties was no longer applicable. Now, courts must examine state law to determine whether nonparties may enforce or be bound by an arbitration agreement. The Court examined Ohio contract law to determine that a nonparty cannot enforce an arbitration clause unless it is an intended third-party beneficiary. The Court rejected Meng and Med-Zenith’s equitable estoppel arguments, finding that under Ohio law, AtriCure’s state law claims did not seek to enforce the distribution agreement against Meng and Med-Zenith, or rely on any theory that they owed contractual duties to AtriCure notwithstanding their nonparty status. Finally, the Court remanded the question of whether Meng’s agency argument could prevail by determining if he was acting as an agent of ZenoMed when he engaged in the conduct AtriCure complained about in the separate arbitration.

In dissent, Judge Ralph B. Guy Jr. argued that Meng “unambiguously sought a ‘stay under Section 3 of the [...]

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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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Patents and Trade Secrets Aren’t Mutually Exclusive: The Nuanced Nature of Trade Secret Protection

Addressing the nuanced nature of trade secret protection of patented products, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s trade secret protection determination, finding that the asserted trade secrets were not publicly disclosed and had been adequately protected. Life Spine, Inc. v. Aegis Spine, Inc., Case No. 21-1649 (7th Cir. Aug. 9, 2021) (St. Eve, J.)

The underlying conflict in this case has its roots in a short-lived business relationship between two companies specializing in selling spinal implant devices. Life Spine makes and sells a device called the ProLift Expandable Spacer System. Aegis Spine contracted with Life to distribute Life’s ProLift system to hospitals and surgeons for scheduled surgeries. Under the distribution agreement, Aegis was obligated to protect Life’s confidential information, act as a fiduciary for Life’s property and refrain from reverse engineering the ProLift system. Aegis did not abide by its contractual promises. It gave information about Life’s ProLift system to L&K Biomed, Aegis’s parent company and Life’s direct competitor. L&K used Life’s confidential information to develop a competing spinal implant device. Shortly after L&K’s device appeared on the market, Life sued Aegis for trade secret misappropriation and breach of the distribution agreement. The district court ruled in favor of Life, granting its motion for preliminary injunction against Aegis and its business partners, all of whom could no longer market the competing product. Aegis appealed.

Aegis argued that the injunction rested on the flawed legal conclusion that a company can have trade secret protection on a device that it publicly discloses through patents, displays and sales. The Seventh Circuit disagreed.

While the Court reaffirmed that there can be no trade secret protection in information available in the public domain, it found that such was not the nature of the information sought to be protected in this matter. Rather, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court that Life did not publicly disclose the specific information it sought to protect via patenting, displaying and selling its ProLift system.

The ProLift expandable spinal implant consists of the implant (or cage) component and an installer. The cage comprises an upper and lower endplate, a nose and base ramp and an expansion screw. The installer is used to insert the cage into a patient’s spine and expand the affected spinal disc height. Life considers “the precise dimension and measurements of the ProLift components and subcomponents and their interconnectivity” to be confidential trade secrets. The district court found that third parties are unable to access that precise dimensional information without first signing confidentiality agreements, and the information is not available in any of Life’s marketing materials (which include only dimensional approximations) or patents. Life’s ProLift system cannot be purchased by the general public or even handled at industry convention displays without Life’s close supervision. Instead, Life’s distributors sell ProLift directly to hospitals and surgeons for scheduled surgeries only.

The Seventh Circuit noted that “a limited disclosure” does not destroy all trade secret protection on a product, allowing a company [...]

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Absent Proof of Government Ownership on an EEA Sovereign Immunity Defense is All Black and White

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss an indictment, charging four Chinese companies with violations of the criminal provisions of the Economic Espionage Act (EEA) and finding no sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) in view of the defendant’s commercial activities and failure of proof. United States of America v. Pangang Group Company Ltd. et al., Case No. 19-10306 (9th Cir. July 26, 2021) (Collins, J.)

No company in China had been able to develop a clean and efficient technology to produce titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in products such as paints, sunscreen, lotions, paper and plastics. A group of related Chinese steel companies (collectively, the Pangang companies) wanted to obtain such technology.

In the United States, after many years of research and development, DuPont had managed to develop a process to produce titanium dioxide and was unwilling to sell or license the technology to Chinese companies. Chinese government officials approached US businessman and former DuPont research engineer Walter Liew to obtain DuPont’s trade secrets. Liew agreed to become a corporate spy and managed to gain access to DuPont’s technology. Liew unlawfully transferred the trade secrets to the Pangang companies. The Pangang companies also conspired with unknown computer hackers to access DuPont’s computers to further steal DuPont’s trade secrets.

The Pangang companies were indicted on one count of conspiring to commit economic espionage for the benefit of a foreign government or instrumentality to steal DuPont’s trade secrets and one count of attempting to commit such economic espionage in violation of the EEA. The Pangang companies pleaded not guilty and moved to dismiss a criminal indictment for violations of the EEA, arguing that they were “instrumentalities” of the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and were entitled to sovereign immunity under the FSIA. The district court denied the motion, holding that the Pangang companies were not immune in light of the FSIA’s commercial activity and waiver exceptions. The Pangang companies appealed.

The Ninth Circuit found that the Pangang companies failed to show that they were instrumentalities of a foreign sovereign within the meaning of the FSIA. For a company to be considered a foreign instrumentality under FSIA, a government must own the majority shares in the company. The indictment included several allegations about the ownership structure of the Pangang companies. The indictment alleged that the Pangang Group Company was a “state-owned enterprise controlled by the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council” (SASAC), a “special government agency” of the PRC. The other Pangang companies were alleged to be direct or indirect “subsidiaries” of the Pangang Group Company. The Ninth Circuit found that the allegations, taken as true, affirmatively negated the premise that the other Pangang companies could be considered agencies or instrumentalities of the PRC because the indictment described all three of these entities as being “subsidiaries” of the fourth defendant (i.e., the Pangang Group Company). Because the corporate law [...]

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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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Texas Citizens Participation Act Does Not Protect Communications About Private Transactions

The Texas Court of Appeals in the 14th Circuit denied an interlocutory appeal from the trial court’s denial of a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), holding that TCPA does not protect communications concerning a private transaction between private parties. Post Acute Medical, LLC v. Meridian Hospital Systems Corporation, No. 14-19-00546-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [14th Distr.], May 18, 2021) (Wise, J.)

Meridian Hospital Systems developed and licensed web-based medical software to Post Acute Medical, PAM Physician Enterprise and Clear Lake Institute for Rehabilitation (collectively, PAM). Under the license, Meridian retained ownership of the software and reverse-engineering, as well as providing login information to third parties, were both prohibited. Meridian filed a complaint against PAM, alleging that PAM misappropriated Meridian’s trade secrets by entering into a contract with a third party to develop new software, and more specifically, by providing log-in information to the third party and “documenting” Meridian’s software to replicate its features. PAM moved to dismiss under the TCPA, but the trial court denied the motion. PAM filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Court of Appeals cited several cases to the effect that TCPA does not apply if the defendants’ communications concern a private transaction between private parties. The Court characterized PAM’s communications (among PAM entities and with the third party) as misappropriating Meridian’s software and breaching its contract with Meridian. Thus, it reasoned that the communications related to PAM’s entities reflected only a “common business interest,” not to “common interests” under TCPA, which are limited to public interests that relate to the community at large. Because Meridian could not meet its burden to show by a preponderance of the evidence that TCPA applied to Meridian’s claims, the court affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss.

Practice Note: In this case, PAM advanced the same legal theory (i.e., that “common business interests” qualify as “common interests” under TCPA) that the same Texas appeals court had embraced in prior cases. It’s also a legal theory that a panel of the Texas Court of Appeals [1st Dist.] had embraced in the Gaskamp opinion that was subsequently vacated en banc (the Court here agreed with the en banc opinion in Gaskamp). The issue may still be appealed (whether in this case or another) to the Texas Supreme Court.




Inventions Not Made Under Employment Agreement

Applying a “middle ground” standard of review, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision denying a company’s request for a declaratory judgment asking a former employee to assign patent rights to the company under the employment and separation agreements, because there were inconsistencies in the jury verdict. Covidien LP; Covidien Holding Inc. v. Brady Esch, Case No. 20-1515 (1st Cir. Apr. 8, 2021) (Gelpi, CDJ.)

During his employment with Covidien, Esch signed employment and separation agreements, which required a duty of confidentiality, an obligation to disclose any invention created during his employment with Covidien or within one year after leaving Covidien, and assignment of such inventions to Covidien. After his termination, Esch founded his own company (Venclose) and filed patent applications that were assigned to Venclose. Covidien sued Esch for breach of confidentiality and breach of obligation to disclose inventions.

At trial, the jury found that Esch breached his duty of confidentiality by publication of the patent applications, but did not breach his obligation to disclose inventions to Covidien under the agreements (question 3 on verdict form). The verdict form also included questions 6-8 concerning whether inventions were made under the agreements, but the jury was not required to answer these questions if the answer to question 3 was negative. After trial, Covidien moved for a declaratory judgment requesting that Esch assign patent rights to Covidien pursuant to the assignment provision of the agreements. The district court denied the motion, finding that the jury verdict questions were “internally inconsistent” and that “the jury’s ‘decisive’ negative answer to Question 3 could only be read as a factual finding that no ‘Inventions’ were made that are encompassed under the Employment Agreement.” Covidien appealed.

The First Circuit agreed with the district court, applying a “middle ground” standard, which is more rigorous than abuse of discretion but less open-ended than de novo review. This standard of review “requires attentively digest[ing] the facts and the district court’s stated reasons.” The Court found that the district court sufficiently addressed the agreements under applicable Massachusetts law and specifically explained the definition of “inventions” and the assignment requirement to the jury. The Court found that Covidien’s request that the jury should answer questions 6-8 regardless of the answer to question 3 was neither “substantively correct” nor “essential to an important issue,” and was an instruction “substantially covered in the charge.” Further, the Court found that the “internally inconsistent” jury verdict, namely that Esch met his disclosure obligation by violating his confidentiality duty via publication of the patent applications, could only be read as a factual finding that there were no inventions encompassed by the agreement. Accordingly, the First Circuit concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Covidien’s post-trial declaratory judgment request.




For Certain Not Secret Now: Court Declines to Seal Alleged Trade Secret in Amended Complaint

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a decision declining to seal information in an amended complaint where the defendant failed to prove that the information was a trade secret. DePuy Synthes Products, Inc. v. Veterinary Orthopedic Implants, Inc., Case No. 20-1514 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 12, 2021) (Dyk, J.)

After DePuy sued Veterinary Orthopedic Implants (VOI) for patent infringement, the district court issued a protective order providing that “supplier . . . names and identifying information” would be treated as “Highly Confidential Material—Attorney Eyes Only.” DePuy later filed an amended complaint containing such information when it joined VOI’s manufacturer as a defendant. The amended complaint disclosed the manufacturer as such and alleged additional facts about the defendants’ relationship. VOI argued that the manufacturer’s identity and additional facts about the VOI-manufacturer relationship should be sealed as trade secrets. DePuy argued that the manufacturer’s identity was already public, but took no position regarding the additional facts. After the district court declined to seal the amended complaint, VOI appealed.

The Federal Circuit first considered whether it had jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine and whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the motion to seal.

The Federal Circuit found that it had jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine because:

  • The district court’s order conclusively determined the sealing issue.
  • The sealing issue was important although unrelated to the merits of the infringement claim.
  • Meaningful review after final judgment would be impossible because disclosed information can never be secret again.

On the merits, the Federal Circuit found no abuse of discretion, reasoning that there was no clear error in the district court’s finding that the manufacturer’s identity was not a trade secret where (1) the manufacturer openly advertised itself as an orthopedic manufacturer, (2) the manufacturer and VOI did not have a confidentiality agreement or a confidential relationship giving rise to an implied obligation of confidentiality, and (3) a third-party email suggested that VOI’s relationship with the manufacturer was “known within the relevant community.” The Court further found no abuse of discretion in the district court’s declining to seal the additional allegations despite DePuy’s non-opposition because the district court was required to independently weigh the parties’ interest in confidentiality against the public right of access.

Practice Note: Parties routinely seek sealing of information that may not qualify as formal trade secrets. The district court’s duty to independently evaluate sealing means that parties must be prepared to articulate the particularized harm they will suffer absent sealing or risk the public disclosure of the information, even where the parties agree to treat information confidentially.




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