We recently shared a California federal court decision in Barker v. Insight Global, LLC, et al. that relied on Section 16600 of California’s Business and Professional Code to hold that, in California, non-solicitation provisions in employee agreements are presumptively invalid. The California statute governing restrictive covenants provides that “[e]xcept as provided in this chapter, every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void,” Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §16600. But it does not expressly provide conditions under which a restrictive covenant would be enforceable against an employee. This has left the statute vulnerable to the kind of judicial interpretation seen in Barker, in which the “reasonableness” standard, applied to non-solicitation provisions for decades, was rejected in lieu of an invalidity presumption.

The good news for employers, however, is that many states outside California within the Ninth Circuit have express statutory provisions permitting restrictive covenants under certain conditions as outlined in the survey below:

State
State governing restrictive covenants
Statute explicitly allows restrictive covenants in employment agreements under the following conditions:
Hawaii Haw. Rev. Stat. §480-4
  • Does not have the effect of substantially lessening competition or tend to create a monopoly in any line of commerce in any section of the State.
  • Consists of an agreement not to use the employer/principal’s trade secrets for a reasonable time.
Idaho Idaho Code §§44-2701 to 2704
  • Limited to “key” employees or independent contractors.
  • Protects the employer’s legitimate business interest.
  • Reasonable in duration, geographical area, and based on the type of employment/line of business.
  • Does not impose a greater restraint than reasonably necessary.
Nevada Nev. Rev. Stat. §§613.195-613.200
  • Supported by valuable consideration.
  • The restraint is not greater than required for employer’s protection.
  • Does not impose undue hardship on the employee.
  • If the result of a termination, employer must pay the employee’s full compensation for the entire restricted period.
Oregon Or. Rev. Stat. §653.295
  • Duration is 18 months or less.
  • Employer provides compensation for the entire restricted period equal to the greater of either (1) 50% of employee’s gross base salary and commissions or (2) 50% of the U.S. Census Bureau median income for a family of four.
  • Includes a notice requirement.
Washington Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 49.44.190
  • Permitted unless employee is terminated without just cause or laid off.
  • Applies to broadcasting industry only.

Where state statutes are silent on restrictive covenants or do not provide express carve-outs for enforcement, employers and employees have less certainty and remain more vulnerable to shifting judicial interpretations of these provisions.

In West Virginia, legislators are moving forward a bill that would criminalize trade secret theft. On February 26th 2019, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed H.B. 2014 with a 98-1 approval that would create criminal penalties for stealing trade secret or other intellectual property. The bill is now headed to the West Virginia Senate where President Mitch Carmichael has already indicated he approves and plans to move it forward. Legislators are hoping to drive tech and corporate investment in West Virginia by imposing more stringent protections for trade secrets and according to Senate President Carmichael, “[t]his bill would make sure [these companies] are protected” from intellectual property theft. If passed, the bill would apply to violations occurring after July 1st and could make West Virginia an attractive forum for companies looking to protect valuable intellectual property assets.

Legislation recently introduced in the United States Senate to protect low-wage workers could roll back the use of non-compete agreements, a common tool companies use to protect their trade secrets.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio introduced the “Freedom to Compete Act,” which aims to protect low-wage and entry-level employees from non-compete agreements, which generally restrict former employees from working at or starting competing businesses. Under this proposed legislation, employers would be prohibited from entering into, enforcing, or threatening to enforce non-compete agreements against workers considered “non-exempt” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Unlike certain executive and administrative employees, “non-exempt” workers must be paid at least the federal minimum wage and are entitled to overtime pay.

Proponents of this legislation argue that non-compete agreements unfairly restrict employment opportunities for low-wage and entry-level workers by limiting their economic mobility and their ability to negotiate for higher wages and training, which is compounded by the fact that many of these workers may already face limited employment opportunities in the current economy. In addition, proponents point out that these workers are less likely to have access to confidential information and trade secrets in the first place. Companies have long turned to non-compete agreements to ensure their trade secrets are protected, and studies indicate that about 18% of all U.S. workers are subject to non-compete agreements. If this legislation passes, companies may be forced to reevaluate what level of disclosure risk low-wage employees pose to their trade secrets and how best to protect those trade secrets without the benefit of routine non-compete agreements.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Exemption 4 provides that “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential” can be withheld when responding to a FOIA request. But what does this exemption mean? Many district courts and circuit courts have ruled on this issue but the rulings have been inconsistent regarding the standard to justify withholding information.

On January 11, 2019, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case of Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, 889 F.3rd 914 (8th Cir. 2018), cert. granted, 2019 WL 166877 (Jan. 11, 2019). The question raised is whether FOIA Exemption 4 applied to individual Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) retailer redemption data. Argus Leader Media, a South Dakota newspaper, had submitted a FOIA request to the USDA for annual SNAP redemption totals for stores that participate in the SNAP program. The USDA issues SNAP participants a card (like a debit card) to use to buy food from participating retailers. When a participant buys food using their SNAP redemption, the USDA receives a record of that transaction, which is called a SNAP redemption. The USDA refused to produce the SNAP data, citing several FOIA exemptions, which includes trade secrets and commercial information.

For the first time, the Supreme Court will address when the federal government may withhold information from a FOIA request based on the contention that responsive information is confidential or a trade secret. This decision will be critical for companies who submit sensitive information to the government.

Stay tuned.

Noncompete agreements are nothing new, in fact, 18% of all U.S. workers are subject to noncompetes while an estimated 70% of senior executives and 43% of engineers are bound by noncompetes. Employers frequently use noncompetes—which may restrict former employees from working for or starting competing businesses for a set period of time—to protect a company’s goodwill and trade secret information and as an effective tool for retaining talented employees from making a move to a competitor. Employees subject to these agreements may also be subject to a provision that provides for “garden leave,” which requires that an employee who is in the process of terminating their employment stay away from the workplace or work from home or another location during their notice period. In some cases, such “garden time” may not be paid. Recently, Massachusetts weighed in on the issue of “garden leave.” In first-of-its-kind legislation, Massachusetts signed into law House Bill No. 4714 stating that former employees in Massachusetts serving required “garden time” under noncompete agreements may be entitled to pay. Under this legislation, employers are required to pay former workers serving out their “garden leave” at least 50% of the workers’ base salary or, alternatively, provide “mutually-agreed upon consideration.” This reflects a compromise between opponents of noncompete agreements, who argue that they restrict economic growth, and the business community, which views noncompete agreements as necessary to protect legitimate business interests. In addition, this new legislation places Massachusetts squarely in the middle of a divide between states like California, which prohibits noncompete agreements except in certain limited contexts, and the many states that allow for their enforcement. However, as a practical matter, it remains to be seen how frequently former employees on “garden leave” will actually receive compensation since the bill does not define or restrict adequate consideration. Stay tuned…

New York has recently enacted disclosure laws that could impact clean product manufacturers’ ability to protect their trade secret chemical formulations. While California was the first U.S. state to pass a law requiring disclosure of all substances contained in cleaning products, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) Household Cleansing Product Information Disclosure Program imposes stricter requirements than California on what must be disclosed.

Both laws require manufactures of cleaning products to disclose all chemicals used in household cleaning products on their websites, and identify any ingredients that appear on authoritative lists of chemicals of concern. However, the New York law also requires manufactures to identify any ingredient that is a nanoscale material.

While both laws have an exemption allowing trade secrets to not be disclosed there are some key differences:

California’s Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017

New York’s Household Cleansing Product Information Disclosure Program

Disclose all intentionally added ingredients unless it is confidential business information (“CBI”) Disclose all intentionally added ingredients, including those present in trace quantities, PLUS all ingredients present only as an unintentional consequence of manufacturing and present above trace quantities (0.1%) where the manufacturer knows or should reasonably know of such ingredients, impurities, or contaminants, unless they are withheld as CBI
Provide CBI justification only on request for audit by the Attorney General Provide CBI justification only on request of the DEC for evaluation
Penalty: prohibited from selling product Penalty: prohibited from selling product PLUS an initial fine of up to $2500, and $500 for each additional day of violation

 

California’s requirements for manufacturers are a lot clearer than New York’s: the “knew or should have known” standard in New York may make full disclosure more difficult. But in either state, manufacturers are able to protect their trade secret information and withhold it from disclosure. What remains to be seen is how (and if) litigation arises challenging a company’s decision to withhold CBI, what kind of information falls within that scope, and what justification is required to maintain trade secret protection.

The America Invents Act, the Defend Trade Secrets Act, and recent Court decisions demonstrate the ongoing changes affecting intellectual property. The new Trump administration is expected to continue this trend from the legislative perspective, and is expected that Congress will consider further legislation that may rival the size of the America Invents Act. At the same time, there are several key cases before the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court that will continue to shape how the courts interpret the laws that Congress enacts. IP practitioners need to be aware of the state of play and how it may affect their business. What challenges could you face?

Tune into the Trump Administration’s Focus on IP Webinar, and join Terry Rea and Mike Songer from Crowell & Moring as they discuss key issues and trends affecting intellectual property including a discussion of the administrative and judicial trends that have a direct impact on all forms of intellectual property, including patents and copyrights. Please click here to listen to the webinar or here to access the webinar event page.

In less than a year from its enactment, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) has now yielded its first jury verdict with a victory for the Florida-based company Dalmatia Import Group, Inc. The center of controversy revolved around a gourmet fig spread made with a secret recipe and process.  The jury returned a $500,000 award for theft of trade secrets, with another $2 million awarded for other claims.  This case raises several important issues regarding damages and pleading both a state trade secret claim and a DTSA claim in the same lawsuit.

The facts of the case highlight the issues involved with disclosing trade secrets to vendors or distributors. Launched in 1999, Dalmatia’s Fig Spread by all accounts has become a popular gourmet article for many households.  The recipe and production processes used to make the spread are claimed to be proprietary and extensively safeguarded.  Dalmatia engaged New York-based company FoodMatch as an exclusive distributor and began using Pennsylvania company Lancaster Fine Foods as a contract manufacturer to expose the fig jam to a wider audience.  To protect its trade secrets on the recipe and production process for the fig spread, Dalmatia required non-disclosure and non-competition agreements from FoodMatch and Lancaster.

The trio’s collaboration proved to be very successful for several years. However, in 2015 Dalmatia became dissatisfied with the quality of the fig spread from Lancaster and FoodMatch. Dalmatia then chose to engage another company for its manufacturing and distribution needs.

Continue Reading The First DTSA Verdict: $500,000 for Misappropriation of a Fig Spread Recipe

1.  Clearly label Christmas cards as “Confidential” if these contain secret wishes.

2.  Amend Confidentiality Agreements and Employee Manual to include the required Whistleblower language – those elves have rights.

3.  Have robust exit interviews with all departing elves, reminding them of their obligations to keep “reindeer games” secret.

4.  Insist that expert toy makers are warned not to reveal secret information while enjoying (too much) mulled wine with ‘Happy Holidays’-industry peers.

5.  Further restrict access to the Sleigh Packing Room with candy cane key fobs.

Continue Reading DTSA UPDATE: Tips for Santa to Maintain Trade Secrets at the North Pole

On Friday, September 9, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged the Obama Administration to take more action against the theft of trade secrets and other intellectual property.  The Chamber did so in response to a Request for Information issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), seeking industry input regarding various cybersecurity issues, including the economic consequences of hacking.

The Chamber explained that “IP-related industries generate 35 percent of America’s economic output and are responsible for two-thirds of all exports and more than 40 million jobs” and that the “threat of trade secrets theft is of increasing concern to U.S. economic well-being and job creation.”  Noting that it had previously called on Congress to pass federal civil legislation, it praised the passage of the Defend Trade Secrets Act as a step in the right direction.

Underlying the Chamber’s emphasis on trade secrets protection was its broader goal of establishing norms and deterrence to “heighten the costs on sophisticated attackers that would willfully hack America’s private sector for illicit purposes.”  This was one of only three “top” cybersecurity issues that the Chamber chose to address, along with standards and information sharing, and that it urged the executive branch to prioritize.

These and other comments submitted will help inform the new Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity, which President Obama recently convened.  The Commission will then craft recommendations to the President for improving cybersecurity – and possibly trade secrets protection – across the public and private sectors.