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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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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.




$6 Million Verdict Vacated in Flooring Tech Trade Secrets Row

The US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed a judgment of trade secret misappropriation because the plaintiff had not proved that the defendant’s duty to maintain the secret arose at the time it acquired the secret. AcryliCon USA, LLC v. Silikal GmbH, Case No. 17-15737 (11th Cir. Jan. 26, 2021) (Tjoflat, J.)

AcryliCon USA, LLC (AC-USA), AcryliCon International, Ltd. (AC-I) (collectively, AcryliCon), and Silikal are in the industrial flooring business. Hegstad is a chemical engineer who founded AC-I. In 1987, Hegstad invented, with Silikal’s help, a formula for a special industrial flooring material called 1061 SW. The formula belonged to Hegstad, and Silikal possessed the formula as the manufacturer of 1061 SW resin for Hegstad and AC-I. In 1997, AC-I and Silikal contractually established AC-I as the exclusive distributor of 1061 SW resin. In 2008, AC-USA was incorporated and entered into license agreements to obtain the right to import, market and sell 1061 SW (among other products) in the United States.

Thereafter, a dispute arose between AC-I and Silikal. The dispute was resolved by a 2010 global settlement agreement (GSA), which ended the prior agency relationship but provided (inter alia) that Silikal would preserve the secrecy of the formula and not sell 1061 SW resin to anyone but AcryliCon. The GSA also contained a forum selection provision stating that disputes arising from activities in the United States would be governed by Georgia law and waiving objections to personal jurisdiction in the Northern District of Georgia.

AC-USA sued Silikal in 2014 in the Northern District of Georgia, claiming that Silikal breached the GSA by manufacturing 1061 SW resin, selling it globally and taking credit for 1061 SW in its marketing. AC-USA’s complaint included several other causes of action, including misappropriation of trade secrets. Silikal moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, contending that it had not sold 1061 SW to anyone other than AcryliCon in the United States. The district court denied the motion on evidence that such sales had occurred. AC-USA moved for partial summary judgment on its contract claim and sought a permanent injunction barring Silikal from producing or selling 1061 SW. The district court granted the motion and injunction because “previous counsel for Silikal admitted” that there had been sales of 1061 SW in violation of the GSA and Silikal did not dispute that there had been a breach of contract. After trial, the jury found for AC-USA, awarding $1.5 million on the misappropriation claim and $1.5 million on the contract claim. The district court added $3 million in punitive damages. Silikal moved for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL), arguing that the district court lacked personal jurisdiction, that AcryliCon had failed to prove misappropriation, and that AcryliCon had failed to prove cognizable damages on its contract claim. The district court denied the motion, awarded AC-USA attorneys’ fees and entered judgment for AC-USC. Silikal appealed.

The 11th Circuit held that Silikal waived its challenge to personal jurisdiction by appealing only the pre-trial jurisdiction ruling [...]

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A Clear Need: To Allege Misappropriation, Identify Trade Secret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Texas Appellate Court Clarifies Scope of Remand

The Texas Fourth Court of Appeals found that a new trial on misappropriation and fraud claims must include a non-appealed breach of contract claim arising from the same set of facts. Title Source, Inc. v. HouseCanary, Inc., Case No. 04-19-00044-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio Aug. 26, 2020) (Watkins, J.).

On June 3, 2020, the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals issued an opinion remanding HouseCanary’s Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act and common-law fraud claims for a new trial because the jury instructions permitted the jury to consider both permissible and impermissible theories of recovery. (IP Update, June 18, 2020). Acting on Title Source’s motion for rehearing, the Court issued a substitute opinion with additional language clarifying the scope of the remand and making clear that HouseCanary may elect to recover on its non-appealed breach of contract claim and forego recovery (along with the new trial) on its misappropriation and fraud claims. To the extent HouseCanary sought to recover on its misappropriation and fraud claims, however, the Court held that the breach of contract claim must also be within the scope of the new trial because it arises from the same facts, and failing to include it would therefore create a risk of inconsistent verdicts.




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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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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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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