The South Carolina Supreme Court (S.C. Supreme Court) affirmed a state Court of Appeals finding that information taken by a minority LLC member did not have the requisite independent value to be considered a “trade secret” under the state’s Trade Secrets Act. Wilson v. Gandis, Case No. 27980 (S.C. June 3, 2020) (James, C.J.).
In response to what the trial court classified as an “unconscionable,” “brazen,” “classic squeeze-out,” Wilson brought an action against his business partners, Gandis and Shirley, along with Carolina Custom Converting (CCC), a broker of industrial film materials. Wilson was a 45% member of CCC, while Gandis and Shirley were 45% and 10% members respectively. Starting in 2011, Gandis and Shirley made multiple efforts to remove Wilson as a member of CCC. The laundry list of “oppressive acts” cited by the trial court included Gandis and Shirley’s (1) withholding guaranteed monthly distributions to Wilson, (2) monitoring Wilson’s private emails, (3) limiting Wilson’s access to CCC financials, (4) terminating Wilson’s family healthcare plan, (5) surreptitiously forming a competing business, (6) funneling money to Gandis through inflated rent payments to Gandis-owned properties and (7) attempting to physically remove Wilson from his own office using a police officer. In response to these acts, Wilson left his office with his company laptops and Blackberry, which contained information about CCC clients. The trial court and Court of Appeals found for Wilson, forcing Gandis and Shirley to buy out Wilson’s share of CCC and denying all of their counterclaims against Wilson. CCC, Gandis and Shirley filed petitions for writ of certiorari to the S.C. Supreme Court, which were granted.
The issue on certiorari was whether the trial court erred in finding CCC failed to prove its trade secret misappropriation claim against Wilson (and his subsequent employers) under the South Carolina Trade Secrets Act. In a relatively short analysis, the S.C. Supreme Court found that the trial court did not err in finding CCC failed to prove its trade secret misappropriation claim against Wilson. The South Carolina Trade Secrets Act defines a “trade secret” as information that “derives independent economic value … from not being generally known to … the public [and efforts are made] to maintain its secrecy.” The Court applied its own precedent requiring an initial analysis of “the extent to which the [alleged trade secret] is known outside of his business and … the difficulty with which the information could be properly acquired … by others.” Relying on trial testimony by two “experienced film brokers” who stated that the type of business information taken by Wilson was “widely available,” “ascertainable from trade associations [and] publicly available sources,” and that customers “are free to share” that type of information, the Court held that the record supported the trial court’s finding that the information taken by Wilson “did not have the required independent economic value” to be considered a trade secret. The Court affirmed and remanded on an issue related to the details of Wilson’s buyout from CCC.