On July 21, 2020, the First Circuit clarified the high burden that a plaintiff faces when asserting that certain types of business materials are protected trade secrets. In TLS Mgmt. & Mktg. Servs., LLC v. Rodriguez-Toledo, No. 19-1104, 2020 WL 4187246, at *6 (1st Cir. July 21, 2020), the court reversed a district court’s bench trial verdict in favor of the plaintiff in a trade secret misappropriation case on the ground that the business materials at issue did not constitute trade secrets. Plaintiff TLS Management and Marketing Services, LLC, a Puerto Rico-based tax planning and consulting firm, argued that the defendants misappropriated two of its protectable trade secrets: (1) a portion of its “Capital Preservation Reports,” which contained tax recommendations specific to an individual TLS client based on an analysis of applicable statutes and regulations; and (2) its “U.S. Possession Strategy,” which consisted of a scheme that would allow Plaintiff’s clients to take advantage of a lower tax rate on outsourced services by contracting with Plaintiff and buying its shares.

Defendant Rodriguez-Toledo was the founder of Plaintiff’s competitor, Defendant ASG Accounting Solutions Group, Inc., and for some time worked for Plaintiff TLS as a Managing Director under a subcontract between Plaintiff and ASG. After departing from TLS, Rodriguez-Toledo provided tax advice to Plaintiff’s former clients regarding how to avoid certain tax penalties triggered by terminating their relationships with TLS, which TLS’s U.S. Possession Strategy was also intended to avoid. Rodriguez-Toledo also allegedly downloaded the Capital Preservation Reports from TLS’s Dropbox account without authorization before he left TLS. TLS filed suit against both ASG and Rodriguez-Toledo for misappropriation of the two trade secrets and violation of a nondisclosure agreement. The district court found they had misappropriated both trade secrets following a bench trial, and the defendants appealed.
Continue Reading First Circuit Reverses Misappropriation Verdict, Citing Lack of Specificity

A federal judge in Colorado declined to sanction Plaintiff DTC Energy Group Inc. (“DTC”) for disclosing information governed by a civil protective order. DTC Energy Group, Inc. v. Hirschfeld, 1:17-cv-01718 (D. Colo. July 27, 2020).

DTC, a consulting and staffing firm serving the oil and gas industry across the United States, filed suit in July 2017 against Defendants Ally Consulting, LLC (“Ally”), a former business partner and direct competitor of DTC, and two former DTC employees.

The amended complaint alleged a variety of claims, including trade secret misappropriation, unfair competition, breach of employment contract, and civil conspiracy to steal trade secrets.

During  discovery, and subject to an oral protective order issued by the court, Ally produced to DTC documents and information that contained certain of Ally’s trade secrets.  DTC later shared documents produced as “confidential” in the litigation with both its outside criminal attorney and with a Denver assistant district attorney after receiving a grand jury subpoena for those documents.  Ally and the other defendants accused DTC of malfeasance and of willful violation of the protective order, and sought sanctions in the  litigation.
Continue Reading Caught between a rock and a hard place; that is, a subpoena and a protective order

The U.S. Department of Justice has secured yet another conviction against a Chinese national for trade secret theft which is part of a larger push to protect valuable intellectual property.

Li Chen, a long time biotech researcher in a medical lab at Nationwide Children’s Hospital Research Institute in Ohio, pled guilty to conspiracy to misappropriate trade secrets and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.  Chen, and her husband Yu Zhou, a fellow biotech researcher, were indicted in September 2019 following an extensive investigation. The indictment and plea agreement details their efforts to steal trade secrets related to exosome isolation technology, which represents a critical development in the diagnosis and treatment of pediatric diseases, including liver cancer and a condition found in premature babies.
Continue Reading Chinese Biotech Researcher Pleads Guilty to Trade Secret Misappropriation

Anthony Levandowski, one of the founding members of Google’s self-driving car program and a former Uber executive, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution after pleading guilty to one count of stealing self-driving car trade secrets from Google.  This sentencing comes after years of civil and criminal matters relating to this lucrative technology.

Continue Reading Prison Time for Founding Member of Self-Driving Car Program in Trade Secret Theft Case

On October 7, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) issued a Step-by-Step Guide for Determining if Commercial or Financial Information Obtained from a Person is Confidential Under Exemption 4 of the FOIA. The Step-by-Step Guide is used by agencies, in conjunction with guidance from the Office of Information Policy (“OIP”) to determine whether commercial or financial information provided by a person is “confidential” under FOIA Exemption 4. FOIA Exemption 4 protects trade secrets and commercial information that is privileged or confidential. The DOJ Guidance is another tool that can be used by practitioners to determine when information must be disclosed under a FOIA Request.

The DOJ Guidance followed on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision in in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media (described in a previous blog post) where the Supreme Court addressed the question of “when does information provided to a federal agency qualify as confidential.” The Supreme Court held that information is confidential and protected if: (1) the information is “customarily kept private, or at least closely held” and (2) where the receiving party provides “some assurance” that the information will be kept secret.

The DOJ Guidance outlines three questions to help determine if information is confidential under FOIA Exemption 4. Continue Reading DOJ Step-by-Step Guidance to Determine if Trade Secrets are Confidential Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

This week, the U.S. government continued its enforcement activity against Chinese government-sponsored trade secret theft, indicting two Chinese hackers for allegedly stealing data from 25 domestic and international companies, including targeting those now researching COVID-19 testing, vaccines, and treatment. The two defendants had allegedly acquired hundreds of millions of dollars worth of trade secrets and other valuable business information across a span of nearly eleven years. This announcement follows in the wake of the indictment of Dr. Charles Lieber, a former Harvard professor, who allegedly lied about his participation in China’s “Thousand Talents Plan,” a program that has been accused of facilitating the stealing of American trade secrets. Our coverage of that indictment is here.

On Tuesday, July 21, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced charges against Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi in the Eastern District of Washington, alleging that they hacked the computer networks of 13 United States and 12 international companies in industries ranging from high tech manufacturing and medical device engineering to solar energy and pharmaceuticals, all between September 2009 and July 2020. Continue Reading DOJ Targets Chinese Hackers for Stealing United States Trade Secrets

The trade secrets of American industries and research institutions are often the target of foreign interests, as this blog has detailed in the past. Most recently, on June 9, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) indicted the former Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department and nanoscientist, Dr. Charles Lieber, for allegedly making false statements to federal authorities about his participation in China’s “Thousand Talents Plan.” This Plan, according to a 2019 Senate report, is part of China’s “strategic plan to acquire knowledge and intellectual property from researchers, scientists, and the U.S. private sector.” Past participants in the Plan have included a former General Electric engineer, Xiaoqing Zheng, who was indicted in April 2019 for allegedly stealing GE’s trade secrets related to turbine technology while employed at GE Power & Water in Schenectady, New York.

China’s Thousand Talents Plan began in 2008 and has been a concern of the U.S. government for some time. A 2019 Senate report characterized the Plan as a danger to American national security and proprietary information and stated that it “incentivizes individuals engaged in research and development in the United States to transmit the knowledge and research they gain [in the United States] to China in exchange for salaries, research funding, lab space, and other incentives.” Continue Reading Harvard Professor Indicted for Allegedly Lying About Participation in Chinese Talent Recruitment Program

China’s National People’s Congress has released a draft law for comment that would impose harsher criminal penalties for any trade secret theft from Chinese companies that benefits foreign companies.

China’s current law imposes a maximum sentence of 3 years imprisonment for “serious” instances and 10 years for “particularly serious” instances of trade secret theft. The proposed law would impose harsher sentences for trade secret theft benefiting a foreign entity, resulting in 5 years for “serious” instances and a minimum of 5 years with no maximum for “particularly serious” instances. Continue Reading China Proposes Harsher Penalties for Trade Secret Theft in Draft Amendment

Companies looking to protect valuable trade secrets and confidential information routinely employ multiple precautions ranging from employee training to technological safeguards.

Another potential tool in the arsenal, and worth careful consideration for companies operating in the government contract space, is the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) recently released final public draft of enhanced security requirements. NIST Special Publication (SP) 800-172, formerly known as Draft NIST SP 800-171B, provides 34 enhanced requirements to protect Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) associated with critical programs or high value assets from the risks posed by advanced persistent threats (APTs). Continue Reading Companies Protecting Trade Secrets Should Consider Role of NIST’s Enhanced Security Requirements

A recent case is a helpful reminder to companies with valuable intellectual property to be diligent in protecting trade secrets and monitoring compliance by employees with access to this confidential information.

On June 15, 2020, Ryan, LLC (“Ryan”) filed a lawsuit in Texas state court against S.K. Thakkar (“Thakkar”), who was employed by a company acquired by Ryan, and Ernst & Young, LLP (“Ernst & Young”), his new employer, seeking a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction based on alleged (1) trade secret misappropriation, (2) tortious interference with contract, and (3) breach of contract. Continue Reading Misappropriation Claims Brought Over Tax Trade Secrets