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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.

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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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