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Suite! Claim Splitting Privity Focuses on Party Relationship, Not Claim Relationship

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit revived a hotel group’s federal trade secret suit against two former employees, finding that the district court did not have enough information to conclude that the hotel group improperly split claims between federal and state actions. Armadillo Hotel Group, LLC v. Harris, Case No. 22-50945 (5th Cir. Oct. 20, 2023) (Smith, Southwick, Higginson, JJ.)

Armadillo Hotel Group is a buyer and operator of modular and mobile structures throughout North America. According to Armadillo, it hired Todd Harris and Jason McDaniel to oversee Armadillo’s construction operations and its hotel, food and beverage operations. The relationship deteriorated after a few years, leading to Harris and McDaniel’s resignations.

Harris and McDaniel subsequently sued Armadillo Hotel Group Management (AHG Management) in Texas state court alleging that they entered employment agreements with AHG Management as part of the joint venture, but AHG Management breached these agreements by failing to pay the agreed upon salary, bonuses and profit-sharing interests. The precise relationship between Armadillo and AHG Management is unclear. AHG Management filed counterclaims, agreeing that it hired Harris and McDaniel but arguing that they breached their fiduciary duties by failing to devote their full attention to their responsibilities and diverted business opportunities to their own companies, which allegedly competed with AHG Management.

The parties conducted discovery in state court, after which AHG Management filed an amended counterclaim in state court, removing its claim against Harris and McDaniel for improper expropriation of proprietary and confidential documents. That same day, Armadillo filed a complaint in federal district court against Harris, McDaniel and several new parties, including Southeastern Disaster Relief Services (SDRS), a business affiliated with McDaniel; Battlement Mesa Consulting, LLC (BMC), a business affiliated with Harris; and Grand Majestic Lodge (GML), a competitor of Armadillo. Armadillo’s complaint alleged that Harris and McDaniel misappropriated trade secrets that they shared with SDRS, BMC and GML during and after their employment with Armadillo. The complaint also included claims under the federal Defend Trade Secret Act (DTSA), alleging that the five defendants conspired to misappropriate the trade secrets.

Harris, McDaniel, SDRS and BMC moved to dismiss the federal complaint for impermissible splitting of claims relating to Harris and McDaniel’s employment between the state court proceedings and this new federal lawsuit. The district court granted the motion with prejudice. While acknowledging the “apparent difference between Defendant AHG Management LLC in the state-law action and Plaintiff Armadillo in [the district court] case,” the district court found that the prohibition against claim splitting applied because the same claims were first removed from AHG Management’s counterclaim in the state court proceedings and then asserted by Armadillo in the federal action. The district court also found that the claims arose out of the same nucleus of operative facts—Harris and McDaniel’s employment—and shared a common factual predicate. Armadillo appealed.

The rule against claim splitting prohibits a party or parties in privity from simultaneously prosecuting multiple suits involving the same subject matter against the same defendants. In situations where a [...]

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Head East: Contract Disputes Act Claims Must Be Filed in DC

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that the Contract Disputes Act (CDA) “impliedly forbids” federal contractors from bringing most trade secret misappropriation claims against federal agencies in district court. Instead, the CDA requires contractors to bring such claims before the US Court of Federal Claims or the agency board of contract appeals, both of which are located in Washington, DC. United Aeronautical Corp. v. United States Air Force, Case No. 21-56377 (9th Cir. Sept. 7, 2023) (Smith, Lee, JJ.) (Collins, JJ., dissenting).

United Aeronautical Corporation (Aero) develops firefighting products, including the Mobile Airborne Fire Fighting System for use in aerial firefighting. The US Forest Service contracted with Aero to develop an updated aerial system to assist the agency in fighting fires. The ensuing prototype necessarily incorporated significant amounts of Aero’s intellectual property. To protect that information, Aero and the Forest Service executed a Data Rights Agreement (DRA) providing that “the technical data produced . . . or used or related” to developing the prototype “shall remain the property of [Aero],” but specifying that the Forest Service “shall have unlimited rights to view and use the data required for the continued use and operation of the” prototype. The Forest Service proceeded to share Aero’s data with the Air Force, which developed an upgraded aerial firefighting system it marketed internationally.

Aero sued the Air Force for misappropriating its trade secret information. Procedurally, Aero brought its claims under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), seeking a declaration that the Air Force’s actions violated the Trade Secrets Act and federal procurement law, and an injunction prohibiting any further use of that data to develop competing products. Although the Air Force believed it was permitted to use Aero’s trade secrets pursuant to the DRA, it also argued that Aero’s complaint must be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The district court agreed, concluding that the CDA vests exclusive jurisdiction over federal-contractor disputes with the Court of Federal Claims where, as here, the dispute is related to a procurement contract. Aero appealed.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal. Aero argued that the APA permits any “person suffering legal wrong[s] because of agency action” to seek redress in a federal district court and that the Air Force’s misappropriation of Aero’s trade secret information—in violation of the Trade Secrets Act—was exactly that. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, concluding that the nature of Aero’s claims (misappropriation, not breach of contract) and the relief it sought (an injunction, not damages or specific performance) mattered little. What mattered was the existence of a contract between the contractor and an agency that “related to” the intellectual property at issue.

Under the APA, a private party cannot bring suit when its claims are “impliedly forbidden” by a different statute that vests exclusive jurisdiction with another tribunal. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the CDA “impliedly forb[ade]” Aero’s claims since it was enacted to create a dispute resolution system for claims concerning federal procurement contracts, vesting exclusive jurisdiction of these disputes with [...]

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In Good Hands: Compilation of Publicly Available Information Can Still Be a Trade Secret

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed a district court decision, finding that a compilation of customer-related information, even if publicly available, is a protectable trade secret. Allstate Insurance Co. v. Fougere, Case No. 22-1258 (1st Cir. Aug. 29, 2023) (Gelpi, Lynch, Thompson, JJ.)

Allstate hired two agents—James Fougere and Sarah Brody-Isbill—to sell the company’s auto and casualty insurance products in Massachusetts. In connection with their employment, both agents signed exclusive employment agreements that imposed numerous responsibilities, including an obligation to maintain information identified by Allstate as confidential, an undertaking not to misuse or improperly disclose the information and a promise to return the information to Allstate when their agency relationships terminated. Allstate eventually terminated its agreement with the agents because of noncompliance with Allstate regulations and Massachusetts state law.

After the agreements were terminated, Allstate believed the agents had retained confidential information belonging to Allstate and had been using it to solicit Allstate customers. Allstate ultimately learned that the agents had kept confidential Allstate spreadsheets that contained the names of thousands of Allstate customers, along with their renewal dates, premiums, types of insurance, Allstate policy numbers, driver’s license numbers, home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses.

Allstate filed suit against the former agents, bringing claims under both Massachusetts law and the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA). The agents brought counterclaims under Massachusetts law, alleging that Allstate failed to provide adequate notice before their terminations, misappropriated information that belonged to the agents and wrongfully interfered with the agents’ contractual relations by engaging in bad-faith business practices. On summary judgment, the district court found that the agents misappropriated Allstate’s trade secrets and dismissed the agents’ counterclaims. The agents appealed.

The agents argued that the customer information was available from various publicly available sources and therefore did not constitute a trade secret. The First Circuit disagreed, explaining that the compilation of publicly available information could constitute trade secrets, particularly where attempts to duplicate that information would be “immensely difficult.” The Court also found that the factual record suggested that not all of the customer information was publicly available—and certainly not in the same compilation as it would be from Allstate.

The agents also argued that the customer information had no economic value. In analyzing this argument, the First Circuit looked to the employment agreements between the former agents and Allstate, which specifically stated that the misuse of Allstate’s confidential information would cause “irreparable damages” to Allstate. The employment agreements also provided a mechanism for terminated agents to sell their “economic interest” back to Allstate. The Court also relied on its finding that this sort of information would be valuable to Allstate’s competitors in attempting to market policies to Allstate customers so that the competitor could offer lower pricing. Taken together, the Court found that the customer data had economic value.

The agents next argued that Allstate had not sufficiently protected the customer information. The First Circuit, affirming the district court, found that Allstate had multiple protections in place. [...]

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Noncompulsory Counterclaims Don’t Confer Appellate Jurisdiction

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit determined that it does not have appellate jurisdiction to review noncompulsory patent counterclaims in a case otherwise unrelated to the originally asserted patents. Teradata Corp. v. SAP SE, Case No. 22-1286 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 1, 2023) (nonprecedential) (Lourie, Taranto, Hughes, JJ.)

Teradata makes and sells data warehouse systems and services. SAP develops and sells software. The two companies began collaborating while SAP was simultaneously developing its own database (HANA) and component software. SAP eventually informed Teradata that it would stop selling certain Teradata products. Teradata sued SAP, alleging misappropriation of trade secrets on the theory that SAP used Teradata’s proprietary information to create HANA. Teradata also alleged various antitrust violations, arguing that SAP “illegally tied” HANA and HANA’s supporting software. In response, SAP filed counterclaims against Teradata for allegedly infringing SAP patents related to database organization and optimization. On Teradata’s motion, the district court agreed to sever one of the four patent infringement claims but allowed the others to proceed. The district court reasoned that Teradata’s claims and SAP’s counterclaims all arose from “the same transaction or occurrence,” namely SAP’s development of HANA.

The district court granted summary judgment to SAP on Teradata’s antitrust and technical trade secret claims and stayed proceedings on Teradata’s business trade secret claim and to Teradata on SAP’s patent counterclaims. Teradata appealed to the Federal Circuit.

SAP moved to transfer the appeal to the Ninth Circuit. The Federal Circuit denied the motion but instructed the parties to address the jurisdictional issue in the merits brief. 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(1) grants the Federal Circuit exclusive appellate jurisdiction over final decisions in which a party claims or asserts a compulsory counterclaim related to patents. As it relates to this case, the issue was whether SAP’s patent infringement counterclaims were “compulsory,” meaning SAP would be unable to later sue on these patent infringement allegations “if it did not press them in this action.”

The Federal Circuit began by looking at Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 13(a), which states that a counterclaim is “compulsory” if it arises from the same transaction or occurrence as a plaintiff’s claim. The Court explained that it uses three tests to determine whether the transaction or occurrence is sufficiently related between the claim and counterclaim:

  1. Whether the legal and factual issues are substantially the same
  2. Whether the evidence will be substantially the same
  3. Whether there is “a logical relationship between the claim and the counterclaim.”

Taken together, these tests essentially ask if there is substantial overlap between what the plaintiff and the defendant must establish to succeed on the claim and counterclaim, respectively.

The Federal Circuit found that the first two tests clearly weighed against SAP’s counterclaim being compulsory. While an understanding of the accused products and alleged trade secrets would be necessary for both the claim and the counterclaim, “same-field overlap” is not enough to make the issues or necessary evidence “substantially the same.”

As to the third test, the Federal Circuit found [...]

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If You Can’t Say a Secret under an NDA, Don’t Say It at All

Considering a trade secret misappropriation claim involving a business pitch that was not subject to a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s summary judgment grant for the accused party, finding that it had not acquired the information through a confidential relationship. Novus Grp., LLC v. Prudential Fin., Inc., Case No. 22-3736 (6th Cir. July 17, 2023) (Sutton, Boggs, Readler, JJ.)

Eric Seyboldt and Mark McCanney founded Novus Group to launch their financial product called the Transitions Beneficiary Income Rider. The pair developed the Rider to address the diminishing availability of retirement income vehicles—such as pension plans or 401k profit-sharing plans—for modern workers. In operation, the Rider guaranteed that, following a policyholder’s death, an insurance company would pay pension-style death-benefit proceeds to non-spouse beneficiaries throughout their lifetimes.

Novus partnered with financial product developers Genesis and Annexus to ensure that the Rider was feasible and to assist with a pitch to Novus’s target customer, Nationwide. These relationships were governed by two contracts with confidentiality provisions: the Genesis-Novus and Annexus-Novus contracts. Before Novus was formed, Genesis and Annexus had also created a joint organization, AnnGen, which had its own confidentiality agreement with Nationwide concerning AnnGen’s New Heights product (AnnGen-Nationwide contract). Prior to Novus’s pitch, Nationwide refused to sign an NDA and warned that Novus should “not disclose any confidential information.” Despite the lack of an NDA, Novus and Annexus pitched the Rider concept to Nationwide, which elected not to pursue the product.

After the unsuccessful pitch, two Nationwide employees who allegedly had access to information concerning Novus’s Rider product left Nationwide for Prudential. Shortly thereafter, Prudential launched Legacy Protection Plus, a death-benefit rider that was similar to Novus’s Rider product. Novus believed Prudential stole its Rider concept and sued Prudential for trade secret misappropriation. Prudential moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion. Novus appealed.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit assumed the existence of a trade secret and its unauthorized use, focusing solely on whether Prudential had acquired Novus’s trade secret as a result of a confidential relationship or through improper means. The Court noted that Novus had not raised a theory of “improper means” in district court and thus had waived that argument.

The Sixth Circuit also found that the two Nationwide employees did not have a duty to Novus to maintain its information in the utmost secrecy. Novus argued on appeal that such a duty arose from the web of agreements among Annexus, Genesis, Novus, AnnGen and Nationwide. However, Nationwide was not a party to the Annexus-Novus and Genesis-Novus contracts and was not bound by them. Further, Novus was not a signatory to or third-party beneficiary of the AnnGen-Nationwide contract, which narrowly covered the New Heights product developed by AnnGen, rather than Novus’s Rider. Instead of creating a duty of confidentiality, these contracts demonstrated that Novus knew how to create a confidential relationship, yet declined to form one with Nationwide, which had explicitly refused to sign an NDA. The [...]

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Double Jeopardy Doesn’t Attach to Venue and Vicinage Clause Violations

The Supreme Court of the United States concluded that the Constitution’s Double Jeopardy Clause does not preclude retrial of a criminal defendant who was prosecuted in an improper venue and before a jury drawn from the wrong district. Smith v. United States, Case No. 21-1576 (Sup. Ct. June 15, 2023) (Alito, Justice.)

Timothy Smith was indicted in the Northern District of Florida for stealing trade secrets from StrikeLines, a company that uses sonar equipment to identify private artificial reefs that individuals construct to attract fish. In particular, Smith was accused of “surreptitiously” obtaining portions of coordinates and data from StrikeLines’ website.

At trial, the district court denied Smith’s motions to dismiss the indictment and for judgment of acquittal due to improper venue. Smith unsuccessfully argued that “he had accessed the data from Mobile, Alabama (in the Southern District of Alabama) and [that] the servers storing StrikeLines’ coordinates were located in Orlando, Florida (Middle District of Florida).” On appeal, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed but concluded that “the ‘remedy for improper venue is vacatur of the conviction, not acquittal or dismissal with prejudice,’ and that the ‘Double Jeopardy Clause is not implicated by a retrial in a proper venue.’” Smith appealed to the Supreme Court.

On writ of certiorari, the issue before the Supreme Court was “whether the Constitution permits the retrial of a defendant following a trial in an improper venue and before a jury drawn from the wrong district,” or if retrial is barred by the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Citing precedent and the text of the Venue and Vicinage Clauses, Smith advanced the theory that the purpose of the Clauses bars retrial and requires acquittal. However, as the Supreme Court explained, neither purpose nor precedent demanded that the Venue or Vicinage Clauses be excepted from the general rule that, unless prohibited by the Double Jeopardy Clause, “a defendant [who] obtains a reversal of a prior, unsatisfied conviction . . . may be retried in the normal course of events.” The Court rejected Smith’s argument that the Venue Clause is meant to prevent the hardship of undergoing trial in a distant forum because the clause is “keyed to the location of the alleged ‘Crimes’” and not the district in which the defendant resides. The Court similarly rejected Smith’s arguments related to the purpose of the Vicinage Clause, noting that the Court has “repeatedly acknowledged that retrials are the appropriate remedy for violations of other [Sixth Amendment] jury-trial rights.”

Next, Smith appealed to the historical background of the Venue and Vicinage Clauses. The Supreme Court examined the relevant historical background and explained that the remedy at common law for a trial in an improper venue and before a jury drawn from the wrong vicinage did not preclude retrial. Moreover, the Court noted that it previously “embraced the retrial rule for a venue error” and that other federal and state courts have similarly ordered retrials for venue violations.

Finally, Smith argued that the Venue and Vicinage Clauses [...]

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Mootness Requires Covenant Not to Sue to Be Unconditional and Irrevocable

Addressing a district court decision finding no trade secret misappropriation, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed that the alleged trade secret holder had failed to moot the case because its covenant not to sue was both conditional and revocable. Synopsys, Inc. v. Risk Based Security, Inc., Case No. 22-1812 (4th Cir. June 15, 2023) (Agee, Rushing, Dawson, JJ.)

In early 2021, Risk Based Security (RBS) sent a cease-and-desist letter to Synopsys, its competitor in the software security industry, alleging intellectual property misappropriation, including use of RBS’s private database of source code vulnerabilities. Synopsys responded by filing a declaratory judgment action asserting that it had not engaged in trade secret misappropriation. RBS later issued a covenant not to sue in express reliance on certain pretrial representations made by Synopsys, including that Synopsys was not planning to use RBS’s database. RBS moved to dismiss the case as moot based on its covenant, but the district court denied the motion. The district court then ruled on summary judgment that RBS had failed to establish that its alleged trade secrets satisfied the requirements that they have an independent economic value derived from their secrecy and were subject to reasonable efforts to maintain their secrecy. RBS appealed.

The Fourth Circuit first affirmed the rejection of RBS’s covenant not to sue. The Court noted that the covenant was not unconditional and irrevocable because it was expressly premised on Synopsys’s planned future performance, which RBS could later claim was not being met. The Court also relied on the fact that the covenant was limited to the use of RBS’s private database and was thus narrower than the original cease-and-desist letter, which was explicitly not limited to that use. Finally, the Court concluded that there was a continuing live controversy, demonstrated by the fact that, after issuing the covenant, RBS added Synopsys to a pending trade secret case it had filed against Synopsys’s subsidiary. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of RBS’s motion to dismiss.

On the merits, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that RBS had failed to show that its alleged trade secrets met the independent value or reasonable secrecy elements required by statute. In particular, the Court agreed that RBS’s evidence regarding its value as a company and the revenue it derived from licensing its database could not show independent value for the specific alleged trade secrets contained in the database.




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No Lost Value Damages Despite Trade Secret Misappropriation

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a damages award, finding that although there was liability for appropriating trade secrets, the trade secret proprietor was only entitled to compensatory damages under federal trade secret law, not avoided cost damages based on alleged estimated research and development or loss of value. Syntel Sterling Best Shores Mauritius, Ltd., et al. v. The TriZetto Grp., Inc., et al., Case No. 21-1370 (2d Cir. May 25, 2023) (Wesley, Raggi, Lohier, JJ.)

This case involved trade secrets concerning healthcare insurance software called Facets® that was developed by TriZetto and alleged misappropriation by a TriZetto subcontractor, Syntel Sterling. In 2010, TriZetto and Syntel entered a Master Service Agreement (MSA) under which Syntel agreed to support TriZetto’s Facets customers. In exchange, TriZetto granted Syntel access to its trade secrets related to Facets. In 2012, the parties amended the MSA to allow Syntel to compete directly with TriZetto for consulting services. A dispute arose in 2014 when Syntel’s competitor Cognizant acquired TriZetto. Syntel terminated the amended MSA and requested payment of rebates owed. TriZetto refused, raising concerns about Syntel’s continued use of confidential trade secrets post-termination.

Syntel filed suit for breach of contract in the Southern District of New York, and TriZetto counterclaimed. During trial, TriZetto proceeded on trade secret misappropriation counterclaims related to the Facets software under the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) and New York law. Syntel argued that the amended MSA authorized Syntel to compete for Facets services business while using TriZetto’s trade secrets.

During discovery, the district court issued a preclusion order that sanctioned Syntel for discovery misconduct, finding that “Syntel was actively creating a repository of [TriZetto’s] trade secrets on its own . . . to be used in future work.” Citing the preclusion order, the district court instructed the jury that Syntel had misappropriated two of 104 asserted trade secrets.

With respect to damages, TriZetto presented expert testimony that established that Syntel avoided spending about $285 million in research and development costs because of the misappropriation covering the period between 2004 and 2014, an amount that covered only a portion of TriZetto’s overall $500 million research and development costs. Syntel’s expert did not counter that amount. Instead, Syntel argued that these avoided costs did not apply here for several reasons: because the alleged misappropriation did not destroy the value of Facets since Syntel could have used Facets for free by entering a third-party access agreement with TriZetto because TriZetto continued to make millions using its Facets software, and because Syntel was not a software company but a competing service provider. The jury instructions included Syntel’s avoided development costs as one form of unjust enrichment that applied to the federal claims but not the state claims.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of TriZetto on all counts. The jury awarded TriZetto $285 million in avoided development costs under the DTSA as compensatory damages and double that amount in punitive damages. Following trial, Syntel renewed its motion for judgment as [...]

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Preliminary Injunction, Meet Irreparable Harm

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in a case where an ex-employer sought preliminary injunctive relief based on an alleged breach of non-disclosure and non-compete agreements and alleged misappropriation of confidential business information, ruled that the Texas presumption of irreparable harm for breach of non-compete clauses does not always apply and that a finding of irreparable harm requires particularized findings regarding the alleged harm. Direct Biologics L.L.C. v. McQueen, Case No. 22-50442 (5th Cir. April 3, 2023) (Davis, Dennis, JJ., Higginson, C.J.).

Adam McQueen previously was executive vice president of Direct Biologics (DB). As a member of DB’s management, McQueen had access to DB’s confidential trade secret information regarding the production and production specifications of DB’s novel medical technologies. To protect that information, McQueen signed both non-compete and non-disclosure agreements with DB, preventing him from providing “services . . . similar to that which [he] provided to [DB],” and from disclosing or using DB’s confidential information.

McQueen resigned from his position and joined Vivex, DB’s direct competitor. Almost immediately DB sued McQueen and Vivex, alleging breach of the non-compete, breach of the non-disclosure agreement and trade secret misappropriation. Shortly thereafter, DB moved for a preliminary injunction to compel McQueen to comply with the non-compete covenant and prevent him from using DB’s confidential and trade secret information. Vivex countered by arguing that McQueen’s new role as vice president of product strategy was a “non-competitive role,” and that McQueen was sequestered from all products that would compete with DB. The district court denied the preliminary injunction motion, agreeing with Vivex that DB failed to provide any evidence that DB had been harmed. DB appealed.

DB argued that the district court erred in two ways—first, by failing to apply Texas’s presumption of irreparable harm based on McQueen’s breach of a non-compete agreement, and second, by failing to correctly apply the irreparable harm analysis by looking only at past actions.

The Fifth Circuit began by reviewing Texas’s presumption of irreparable harm. Under Texas law, the breach of a non-compete agreement can result in a presumption of irreparable harm. But, as the Court explained, the presumption does not always apply. Texas courts can decline to apply the presumption when there is no independent proof of harm. Here, not only did DB fail to produce any evidence that McQueen disclosed or used DB’s confidential information, but there also was evidence showing that he had not. Based on this record, the Court held that it was not an abuse of discretion to decline to apply the presumption.

The Fifth Circuit then analyzed the district court’s irreparable harm analysis. The Court explained that the irreparable harm analysis requires that the trial court make particularized findings regarding whether the harm was likely to occur over the pendency of the litigation, and if so, whether the harm would be difficult to quantify monetarily. While the district court here made findings directed to whether McQueen had caused harm, it did not make any findings regarding what might happen during the litigation. The [...]

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Stryking Noncompete Preliminary Injunction

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction restricting a former employee from working for conflicting organizations or communicating with a competitor’s counsel. Stryker Emp. Co., LLC v. Abbas, Case No. 22-1563 (6th Cir. Feb. 16, 2023) (Clay, Bush, JJ.; Sutton, C.J.) The Court found that the preliminary injunction was an appropriate measure to protect the plaintiff’s confidential information that was consistent with the employee’s noncompete agreement.

Stryker develops and manufactures spinal implants and related medical products. From 2013 through mid-2022, Stryker employed Abbas in various roles relating to finance and sales. As part of his job duties, Abbas led sales and finance projects, assisted with Stryker’s litigation efforts, and cultivated relationships with customers, distributors and sales representatives. These responsibilities required Abbas to have access to Stryker’s confidential information and trade secrets.

In April 2022, Abbas entered into a confidentiality, noncompetition and nonsolicitation agreement with Stryker. This agreement prohibited Abbas from disclosing Stryker’s confidential information without its consent and barred Abbas from working for “any Conflicting Organization” in which Abbas could use Stryker’s confidential information to boost the marketability of a “Conflicting Product or Service.” The noncompete provision was time limited to one year following Abbas’s departure from Stryker.

In summer 2021, a competing spinal implant manufacturer, Alphatec, began recruiting Abbas for a finance position. After determining that the finance position was too similar to Abbas’s previous work at Stryker, Alphatec created a new “sales role” that was allegedly “crafted to protect Stryker’s confidential information.” Abbas resigned from Stryker in May 2022 to take the newly created role.

Shortly after Abbas resigned, Stryker sued for breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets and violation of the Michigan Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Stryker also requested a no-notice temporary restraining order (TRO) and preliminary and permanent injunctions. The district court granted Stryker’s motion for preliminary injunction prohibiting Abbas from the following:

  • Working in any capacity for Alphatec or any “Conflicting Organization”
  • Having any ex parte communications with Alphatec’s counsel or otherwise disclosing information concerning Stryker’s litigation strategies.

Abbas appealed, arguing that the noncompetition portion of the preliminary injunction amounted to an industry-wide ban and that the communication portion impermissibly disqualified counsel.

The Noncompetition Provision

The Sixth Circuit first noted that federal law, rather than state law, defines a court’s power to issue a noncompetition restriction in a preliminary injunction. Under federal law, courts have discretion to craft preliminary injunctions based on the equities of a case and can even “proscribe activities that, standing alone, would have been unassailable.” Applying this standard, the Sixth Circuit reasoned that the preliminary injunction was not overly broad but instead preserved the status quo. First, the district court found that Abbas often worked beyond the scope of his position. Second, the district court agreed to entertain a motion to vacate the injunction if Alphatec created a new position for Abbas that Stryker found acceptable. Third, the injunction merely sought to enforce the noncompetition agreement, which [...]

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