Trade Secret Misappropriation

One of the more challenging questions in many complex trade secret cases is: When should a plaintiff be required to identify its alleged trade secrets, and with what level of specificity? This question is not answered by the Defend Trade Secrets Act or (in most instances) state trade secret statutes, and case law on this

Plaintiffs wishing to sue for patent, copyright, or trademark infringement all have one thing in common: they must prove they own the IP at issue. Not so for trade secrets. Last month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that the Pennsylvania Uniform Trade Secrets Act only requires a plaintiff to lawfully possess, rather than formally own, the trade secrets it wishes to vindicate. With this opinion, the Third Circuit affirmed a district court decision awarding $3.5 million in damages and fees to NASA subcontractor Applied Fluid Systems Inc. (“AFS”) in its suit for trade secret misappropriation.

The “sorry story of disloyalty and deception piled upon deception” began in 2009, when AFS entered into a three-year contract with the Virginia Commonwealth Space Flight Authority (the “Authority”) to build, install, and maintain a hydraulic system for a NASA rocket launch facility. However, the Authority experienced financial difficulty, and eventually had to cede control of the launch system to a private entity, Orbital Sciences Corp. (“Orbital”). Through this acquisition, Orbital inherited the AFS contract. Importantly, the initial contract between AFS and the Authority made any materials generated by AFS for the Authority the property of the Authority.
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On May 6, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine denied plaintiff Alcom’s request for a temporary restraining order (“TRO”), which sought to enjoin a competitor’s alleged misappropriation of trade secrets. The court denied the request for a TRO, holding that Alcom’s speculation about the potential harm it would suffer absent the TRO was not enough to show a likelihood of irreparable harm, as required to obtain a TRO. The case serves as a reminder that when proving irreparable harm, courts require more than just speculation.

In 2015, Alcom (a trailer manufacturer) hired Mr. Temple (defendant) as a sales representative for its horse and livestock trailers. As the sole salesperson in North America for the Frontier line of trailers, Mr. Temple gained significant responsibilities including developing and maintaining sales leads, as well as growing Alcom’s customer base for those trailers. Mr. Temple signed various agreements as conditions to his employment, including (i) confidentiality agreement, (ii) non-disclosure agreement, (iii) non-compete agreement, and (iv) a non-solicitation agreement. Alcom required Mr. Temple to sign the agreements as a precondition for accessing highly valuable and confidential company information relating to customer incentive program details, sales and marketing information, and unique insights into the needs and operational requirements of the trailer dealers he solicited.
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Crowell & Moring invites you to attend the fifth installment of our Trade Secrets Webinar Series – The Revolving Door of Autonomous Vehicle Talent: Managing Employee Access to Trade Secrets & Facilitating Robust Investigation of Safety Issues, taking place on Tuesday, May 12th at 02:00 pm (EDT).

Autonomous Vehicle (“AV”) developers have been aggressively working to safeguard their vital design documents and data, and have increasingly relied on lawsuits to protect their proprietary information and to prevent such information from reaching their competitors as human talent continues to revolve through the AV industry. Given the increasing popularity of self-driving technology, AV developers should remain vigilant in protecting the trade secrets governing their autonomous vehicle programs and should be sure to implement sound policies for retrieving data upon employee departure.

Join Crowell & Moring attorneys Cheryl Falvey, Rukiya Mohamed, and Paul Mathis for a live discussion on trade secret and liability issues unique to AV developers as well as best practices.

To register, please click here.
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The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a new light on the risk of trade secret theft to businesses worldwide from greater employee mobility associated with rising unemployment and a looming recession, cyberattacks by opportunistic hackers, and a growing remote workforce with technological threats from increased use of smart devices that may leave little to no data trail.

Companies should not only consider what to do to safeguard their trade secrets now, as explored in our earlier post on Trade Secret Protection During the COVID-19 Pandemic, but how best to create and communicate the plan for responding to any discovery of trade secret misappropriation.
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Are non-competes still enforceable in middle of the unprecedented economic disruption caused by COVID-19? Many employers have reacted to the business impact of COVID-19 by downsizing and laying off employees, some of whom signed non-compete agreements or restrictive covenants to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests, including its trade secrets and confidential information. Those same businesses now are left wondering whether those non-compete agreements are enforceable in the wake of massive unemployment triggered by the pandemic.

The answer to this question is complex, and depends on state law, public policy, and the terms of the specific agreements. Each state scrutinizes non-competes and restrictive covenants differently and, therefore, the answer may be different depending on where the business and employee are located or the agreement’s choice of law provision.
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When does a cause of action come close enough to a trade secret claim to become preempted by the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“CUTSA”)? CUTSA preempts statutory and common law claims “based upon misappropriation of a trade secret.” In other words, with some exceptions, claims predicated on trade secret misappropriation allegations may only be asserted through a CUTSA claim.

California courts have articulated two different CUTSA preemption tests: (1) the “common nucleus” test and (2) the “dependence” test. In many cases, the two tests will yield the same result. Sometimes, however, the tests will produce divergent outcomes.
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On April 21, 2020, Lex Machina released the third iteration of its annual trade secret litigation report (request the report here). Based on data from federal district court filings in Lex Machina practice areas from 2010 – 2019, the report reveals several interesting items worth highlighting.

First, trade secret cases increased by about 30% between 2015 and 2017. This is no surprise given the May 2016 passage of the Defend Trade Secrets Act – the first federal statute directed at trade secrets. But, since 2017, the increase in trade secret filings has leveled off, with roughly the same number of cases in 2017, 2018, and 2019 (around 1400 in each year). Remarkably, the number of cases in these three years is within five of each other.

Second, the report provided stats for the other common causes of actions pled in trade secret cases.
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The Federal Circuit recently rejected an attempt to avoid a trade secret trial in state court by invoking federal jurisdiction under patent law. Intellisoft discovered, in the early 2010’s, that Acer had applied for a patent which incorporated its alleged trade secrets.  Intellisoft sued Acer in March 2014 in California state court asserting various state law claims, including trade secret misappropriation. The Acer patent was thus a key component of Intellisoft’s trade secret misappropriation evidence and was the subject of fact and expert discovery by both parties.

The case proceeded in state court for three years. As discovery wrapped up, one of Intellisoft’s experts opined that an Intellisoft employee – who created some aspects of the trade secrets at issue – should be named as an inventor on Acer’s patent. Additionally, a second Intellisoft expert opined that portions of the Acer patent’s claims corresponded to various Intellisoft trade secrets.
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In addition to reshaping how business is being done, COVID-19 has presented companies with unprecedented challenges and an increasingly remote work force and has made it more important than ever for businesses to evaluate the security and protection of their trade secrets and confidential information.

Crowell & Moring attorneys Jim Stronski, Anne Li,