Are You a Teacher or a Storyteller?

Are You a Teacher or a Storyteller?

People have different communication styles

One thing I’ve learned after almost 20 years of marriage is that everybody has a different communication style. Let’s take the time my lovely wife was almost caught in the crossfire of a Houston highway gang shootout. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but it was probably something like this:

Me: Hi, honey, how was your day?

Her: Oh my goodness, it was crazy. You’ll never believe what happened.

Me: What happened?

Her: Well, you remember the kids had appointments at the orthodontist today, right?

Me: Right [I didn’t really remember]

Her: Their appointment was at 3:00, so we left around 2:00 and got on I-45, and then . . .

Time out. If you’re like me, you may already feel a little impatient. You just want to know what happened! You don’t want to be kept in suspense.

If this had happened to me, the conversation would be more like this:

Wife: How was your day today?

Me: It was good, but when I was driving to work I got stuck in a police chase. The guys the police were chasing pulled over and pointed their guns out their windows! I was right in the middle of it. It was scary, but luckily I was able to maneuver around the police cars and drive away unharmed.

See how I got right to the point and summarized what happened?

I used to wish my wife would do that too, so we could get to more important things, like watching Monday Night Football. But eventually I realized that’s just not her style. And now I actually enjoy the way she turns the day’s events into a story.

She’s a “storyteller.” I’m a “teacher.” She’s good at telling a story that keeps your attention. I’m good at explaining complicated facts or legal issues in a simplified way that teaches the audience the essential things they need to know. At least that’s what I wrote in my website profile.

But what’s the best style for the courtroom?

Trouble is, I’m a trial lawyer, not a teacher. Is my style right for the courtroom? It seems like most great trial lawyers are known as master storytellers. And good storytelling has tremendous psychological appeal. If you can frame the facts of your case as a compelling story of right and wrong, you may get the judge or jury on your side before the first witness even takes the stand.

Part of what makes storytelling effective is the suspense of not knowing what’s going to happen. I discovered a great example of this recently on YouTube. The video was G.E. Smith talking about playing in Bob Dylan’s band.

Those of you of a certain age will remember G.E. Smith. In the early 90s my college buddies and I religiously watched him fronting the Saturday Night Live band each week. (I mean, other than all the Saturday nights when we were dating extremely attractive coeds, of course.) We always got a kick out of seeing the different guitars G.E. would trot out. And if you’re really old, you may even remember him from those early Hall and Oates videos on MTV.

Anyway, in this video G.E. Smith tells the story of how he got to tour with Bob Dylan, one of his childhood idols. Before you read the rest of this, watch the video here.

Did you watch it? You saw that playing vintage guitars isn’t G.E.’s only talent. He also has a knack for storytelling. I think there are two key elements: he keeps you in suspense about what happened, and there’s a point at the end.

It wouldn’t be quite the same if G.E. had my style. If he just wanted to “teach the material,” he might say something like this:

I got the opportunity to tour with my idol Bob Dylan because at the New York studio audition, which I thought at the time was just an informal jam session, I knew one of his more obscure early songs called “Pretty Peggy-O.” Bob was impressed enough that he asked me to play guitar in his band. I toured with him for several years while I was still doing Saturday Night Live, and it was a great experience.

In my defense, this version gets right to the point and doesn’t waste words. But it’s also kind of dry. So do I need to change my style to be more engaging in the courtroom?

I think it depends. The opening statement in a jury trial is an obvious opportunity to tell a story. But there are many courtroom situations where storytelling is not a good idea.

For example, an oral argument in an appellate court is not the right venue for telling a story. Sure, you want to present key facts in a way that supports your legal argument, but you don’t want to rehash underlying facts or details of the trial. The judges have already read the briefs. They want you to focus like a laser on the difficult issues they have to decide.

bed-book-book-bindings-1447273
Stories. Good for kids. Not always good for courtrooms.

Even in the trial court, storytelling isn’t always the best strategy. Let me give you an example based loosely on cases I’ve handled.

Let’s say I’m defending against a motion for a temporary injunction to enforce a non-compete. The plaintiff’s lawyer starts off the hearing by telling the story of what happened: Mr. Employee came to work for the company, the company gave him leads, confidential customer information, and training, Mr. Employee decided to leave, and then he jumped ship to a competitor, hoping his clients would follow.

That’s a pretty typical approach. Of course, the plaintiff’s lawyer is going to tell the story in a way that emphasizes the factual grounds for granting an injunction.

When it’s my turn to talk to the judge, one approach would be to tell the same story, but from my client’s perspective. “Your Honor, about nine years ago, my client went to work for ABC Company and started building his client base from nothing, using only his laptop and hard work . . .” You get the idea.

But I don’t do that. Instead I go right to my strongest points:

Your Honor, you’re not going to hear any evidence today that a single client has moved its business from ABC Company to my client’s new employer. So there is no imminent harm whatsoever, and any harm that might occur could be adequately compensated with damages.

This can be an instant momentum changer. If I’m lucky, the judge immediately picks up on my argument and says to the other lawyer, “wait a minute, is it true that at this point your client hasn’t lost any customers?” And so the balance shifts.

You see, the longer I’ve practiced in trial courts, the more I’ve learned the value of leading with your best stuff and getting right to the point.

But I still like my wife’s stories.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

 

Texas Trade Secrets 101 2.0

Texas Trade Secrets 101 2.0

Ready for an early Christmas present?

I originally published my “Trade Secrets 101” memo in Trade Secrets 101: What Texas Businesses and Lawyers Need to Know. I designed it to give Texas businesses and their lawyers a helpful overview of Texas and federal trade secrets law.

With generous help from lawyer Paul T. Freeman, I have now updated that memo. You can download the new version here.

Regrettably, the new version is longer. But it has significant improvements, including:

  • More case cites
  • A new section on TCPA motions to dismiss
  • Less of my unsupported editorializing

Finally, despite my general preference, the case cites have been moved to footnotes. Don’t @ me.

___________________________________________________________________

IMG_4571

Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

 

 

 

Florida Man Friends Judge on Facebook, Defeats Motion to Disqualify

Florida Man Friends Judge on Facebook, Defeats Motion to Disqualify

Shortly before Election Day 2018, I had a temporary injunction hearing where the judge made an interesting statement. After the close of evidence, the judge said he would take the injunction under advisement. Then he added that he had a campaign fundraiser that evening and did not want to see any of us there. Because “that just ain’t right,” he said.

I appreciated the judge doing this. I don’t think he was concerned that someone showing up at his fundraiser would sway him one way or the other, but he understood how it would look. I think he wanted to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

The funny thing is, it would have been perfectly legal and ethical for us lawyers to show up and hand checks to the judge—at least under Texas rules and the cases applying them. Texas courts have repeatedly held that  a lawyer’s campaign contributions to a judge do not require recusal. They brush aside the obvious appearance of impropriety for pragmatic reasons: if campaign contributions were disqualifying, Texas judges would have to recuse themselves in half their cases.

The judge’s statement stayed on my mind after the election, when headlines focused on  the great State of Florida.

I love Florida for two reasons. First, Disney World. Second, the great headlines.

You know the kind of headlines I’m talking about:

Florida Man Breaks Into Jail to Hang Out With His Friends 

Florida Woman Calls 911 Three Times Over McDonald’s Chicken McNugget Shortage

Florida Clerk Smashes Jar of Ranch Dressing Onto Darth Vader Armed Robber 

Florida Strip Club Offers Free Flu Shots

Florida Supreme Court Rules That Facebook Friendship Does Not Disqualify Judge

Which of these do you think are real?

Ok, it’s a trick question. The answer is “all of the above.”

“Friends of an indeterminate nature”

The headline about a judge’s Facebook friendship is the most recent. Last week, the Florida Supreme Court held in a 4-3 decision that the mere fact that a judge is Facebook “friends” with a lawyer in a case before the court does not require disqualification of the judge.[1]

If that sounds familiar, maybe it’s because I wrote about the earlier Florida Court of Appeals decision in Social Media in Litigation Part 3: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

The underlying case was a civil suit by a law firm against a former client. After filing the lawsuit, the law firm hired a lawyer listed as a “friend” on the trial court judge’s personal Facebook page. It appears this was the only evidence regarding the relationship between the judge and the lawyer.

To disqualify a judge under Florida law, the movant must have a “well-grounded fear” that he will not receive a fair hearing. The question is whether the facts alleged “would place a reasonably prudent person in fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.”[2]

Note this has a subjective and an objective component. The subjective question is whether the movant fears the judge won’t be fair—not whether the judge will actually be unfair. The objective question is whether that fear is reasonable.

After laying out this standard, the Florida Supreme Court did what courts usually do when confronted with a new issue involving social media: analogize to pre-social media conduct. So the court started out by asking whether a “traditional” friendship between a lawyer and judge requires disqualification.

The mere existence of a friendship does not inherently reveal the degree or intensity of the friendship, the court said. “It follows that the mere existence of a friendship between a judge an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship.” Thus, “[n]o reasonably prudent person would fear that she could not receive a fair and impartial trial based solely on the fact that a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge are friends of an indeterminate nature.”[3]

That is why, under Florida law, “an allegation of mere friendship between a judge and a litigant or attorney appearing before the judge, standing alone, does not constitute a legally sufficient basis for disqualification.”[4]

The Florida Supreme Court then applied these principles to a Facebook friendship. You can already see where this is going. If a friendship IRL does not require disqualification, why should a Facebook friendship require it?

The court made the obvious observation that a Facebook “friendship” is not “as a categorical matter” the equivalent of a “traditional” friendship. That means a Facebook friendship “does not objectively signal the existence of the affection and esteem involved in a traditional ‘friendship.’”[5]

It’s common knowledge that Facebook friendship varies in degree from “greatest intimacy” to “virtual stranger” to “complete stranger,” the court said. “It is therefore undeniable that the mere existence of a Facebook ‘friendship,’ in and of itself, does not inherently reveal the degree or intensity of the relationship between the Facebook ‘friends.’”[6]

In short, “the mere fact that a Facebook ‘friendship’ exists provides no significant information about the nature of any relationship between the Facebook ‘friends.’”

The court concluded:

Therefore, the mere existence of a Facebook “friendship” between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship. No reasonably prudent person would fear that she could not receive a fair and impartial trial based solely on the fact that a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge are Facebook “friends” with a relationship of an indeterminate nature.[7]

The court added that its holding was in line with the majority of state ethics committees that have considered whether a Facebook friendship between a judge and a lawyer creates an appearance of impropriety.

Of course, we must not read too much into this. The issue was narrow: whether a Facebook friendship standing alone was sufficient to warrant disqualification.

A relationship “fraught with risk”

Nevertheless, three dissenting justices in the Florida case would have required disqualification even on this narrow basis. Justice Pariente wrote in dissent that “a judge’s involvement with social media is fraught with risk that could undermine confidence in the judge’s ability to be a neutral arbiter.” He would adopt a strict rule requiring judges to recuse themselves whenever an attorney with whom they are Facebook “friends” appears before them.[8]

The dissent did not question the standard for disqualification cited by the majority, nor did it dispute the case law dealing with actual friendship. Rather, the dissent questioned the majority’s premise that Facebook friendship is analogous to traditional friendship. “[E]quating friendships in the real world with friendships in cyberspace is a false equivalency,” the dissent argued.[9]

Wasn’t that the majority’s point? A Facebook friendship is not the equivalent of a traditional friendship, the majority said, so if a traditional friendship doesn’t automatically require disqualification, a Facebook friendship shouldn’t either.

But the dissenting opinion touches on three things  that make a Facebook friendship potentially more problematic.

First, a Facebook friendship is public. Unlike a traditional friendship, which the parties may not even know about, a Facebook friendship is typically there for everyone to see. And it’s the appearance of impropriety—and the resulting loss of confidence in the integrity of the judicial system—that matters most.

Second, unlike some other social media platforms, Facebook allows the user to select and reject friends. “[T]he selection and rejection function is what causes the potential for the appearance of impropriety, after the judge has established the social networking profile that affords the judge the ability to accept or reject ‘friends.’”[10]

Third, the dissent seems worried that social media is just too risky for judges. “An individual judge’s social media, whether it is Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or any other site, is fraught with concerns for the average litigant.”[11]

On this point at least one member of the majority agreed. Justice Labarga agreed with the majority that disqualification was not required but wrote a concurring opinion to “strongly urge” judges not to participate in Facebook. “[J]udges who elect to maintain Facebook ‘friendships’ with attorneys who have any potential to appear before them are, quite simply, inviting problems.” That means “the safest course of action is to not participate in Facebook at all.”[12]

That is obviously the “safest” thing for judges to do with social media. But is it the best thing? Could there be some benefits to judges engaging with lawyers and others on social media? Let me know what you think on my LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or Facebook.

Unless you’re a judge; that wouldn’t look right. Instead maybe I’ll see you at your next fundraiser.

___________________________________________________________________

IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. United Servs. Auto. Ass’n, No. SC17-1848, 2018 WL 5994243, at *7 (Fla. Nov. 15, 2018).

[2] Id. at *3 (citing some cases).

[3] Id. at *4.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at *6.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at *7.

[8] Id. at * 10 (Pariente, J., dissenting).

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at *11.

[11] Id. at *12.

[12] Id. at *9 (Labarga, J., dissenting).

It’s Alive, It’s ALIVE! How to Kill a TCPA Motion in a Trade Secrets Lawsuit

It’s Alive, It’s ALIVE! How to Kill a TCPA Motion in a Trade Secrets Lawsuit

It’s Franken-steen

First let’s get something out of the way. The Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) is a Frankenstein’s monster that the legislature created and now needs to reign in (not that they listen to me).

As I explained in a three-part series back in the summer of 2017, the TCPA grants defendants in certain cases the unusual right to require the plaintiff to prove its case before taking any discovery. In litigator jargon, it effectively lets the defendant file a “no-evidence” motion for summary judgment without first requiring an adequate time for discovery.

The statute was intended to curtail “SLAPP” lawsuits, e.g. where a big company sues a “little guy” in retaliation for exercising his right to publicly criticize the company. The idea was to stop litigation bullies from using groundless lawsuits to grind ordinary people into submission under the weight of crushing legal fees.

But the legislature in its wisdom used broad language in the TCPA, and the Texas Supreme Court applies the plain meaning of statutes (in theory). So the TCPA has taken on a bizarre life of its own. It can apply to just about any kind of lawsuit, including “departing employee” lawsuits where a company claims its former employees misappropriated trade secrets or other confidential information.

This really makes no sense. There is no compelling public policy reason why some defendants should have a right to file a motion to dismiss before any discovery takes place and others should not, depending on whether the lawsuit falls under the byzantine definitions in the TCPA.

Might this have been avoided by construing the statute “liberally”–rather than literally–as the statute itself tells courts to do?[1]

Maybe. But that ship has sailed. As Justice Pemberton wrote in a recent dissent, Texas courts now apply the TCPA as written, even when the implications “sound crazy.” As he noted, unintended consequences are likely when courts interpret statutes “superficially in a mistaken perception of plain-meaning textualism.”[2] So here we are.

The bottom line is that the TCPA will apply to most trade secrets lawsuits in Texas state court. And maybe in federal court too.

This raises several strategic questions in a Texas trade secrets lawsuit:

1. Can the plaintiff avoid the TCPA by filing the trade secrets lawsuit in federal court under the federal trade secrets statute?

2. Can the plaintiff in a trade secrets suit avoid the TCPA by “pleading around” it?

3. When should the defendant in a trade secrets case file a TCPA motion to dismiss?

4. What evidence does a trade secrets plaintiff need to offer to defeat a TCPA motion to dismiss?

In the words of MC Hammer, let’s “break it down.”

Some trade secrets strategery

First, it’s possible that the plaintiff may be able to avoid the TCPA by filing the trade secrets lawsuit in federal court rather than state court. The federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) allows a plaintiff to file a trade secrets lawsuit in federal court as long as the case has some connection to interstate or foreign commerce, which means virtually every case.

Courts are divided about whether the TCPA applies in a federal case, and the Fifth Circuit has not yet resolved the issue.[3] It turns on whether the TCPA is considered “procedural” or “substantive,”[4] which is kind of like asking whether the Beatles were a rock band or a pop band.

Law professors and people who were on law review love this kind of question. Personally, I’m less intrigued. I initially assumed the TCPA was procedural and would not apply in federal court, but there are people smarter than me who argue it is substantive, and I’ll concede you can make a reasonable case for that. (If you want more details on this issue see the good summary in this Law360 article by April Farris and Matthew Zorn.)

If I had to predict, I’d say the Fifth Circuit will hold that the TCPA does not apply in federal court. But for now it remains an open question.

That means that filing your trade secrets lawsuit in federal court won’t necessarily get you out of the TCPA woods. Your choice of state or federal court will likely depend on other considerations, i.e. whether you prefer a judge appointed for life who can do whatever the *#$% he wants, or a judge with no experience who got swept into office because he picked the right political party.

Regardless of where you file your trade secrets suit, you can try to avoid a TCPA motion by pleading around the TCPA. Without getting too much into the weeds, the TCPA applies to claims that relate to “communications” about a matter of public concern. So one theory is that the plaintiff in a departing employee case can avoid the TCPA by pleading only use of the trade secrets rather than disclosure of the trade secrets. Disclosing a trade secret to the new employer is obviously “communicating” the information, so just don’t say anything about disclosure.

That’s what I mean by “pleading around” the TCPA. But this may be easier said than done. Even if the plaintiff does not expressly plead that the employee disclosed the trade secrets to the new employer, that allegation will often be implied.

Plus, the mere allegation that the employee has joined another company and used the plaintiff’s trade secrets may be enough to ensnare the plaintiff in the TCPA’s definitional web. The TCPA covers “a communication between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests.”[5] Arguably, any time an employee goes to work for a competitor, there is necessarily going to be communication between employee and employer to “collectively . . . pursue . . . common interests.”

So, omitting allegations of trade secrets disclosure from your pleadings may not be sufficient to avoid the TCPA.

Defense wins championships

Now let’s look at it from the other side. If you represent the defendant in a trade secrets case, should you file a motion to dismiss under the TCPA? I see three potential benefits:

(1) obviously, the potential early dismissal of the lawsuit;

(2) smoking out the plaintiff and making him put his cards on the table (talk about mixed metaphors); and

(3) slowing down the plaintiff’s momentum.

Also, if you win the motion you have the right to recover legal expenses “as justice and equity may require.”[6]

The potential downside of filing a TCPA motion in a trade secrets case is that, if the court finds your motion was “frivolous or solely intended to delay,” you will lose the motion and be ordered to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees for responding to the motion.[7] That’s a momentum shift like throwing a pick-six in the first quarter.

So, deciding whether to file a motion to dismiss a trade secrets case will likely come down to whether you think the plaintiff has enough evidence to prove the claim.

This gets us to the last question: if the defendant files a motion to dismiss, what evidence does the plaintiff need to offer to defeat the motion?

As a threshold matter, the plaintiff can try to prove the TCPA does not apply to the lawsuit. But if the TCPA applies, the plaintiff will need to offer evidence of three essential elements:

(1) the information at issue is a “trade secret”;

(2) the defendant “misappropriated” the trade secret; and

(3) the misappropriation caused some injury to the plaintiff.

I cover the key points of these elements in my Trade Secrets 101 memo (soon to be updated and published in the Texas Journal of Business Law). And a recent opinion from the Tyler Court of Appeals provides a roadmap for offering evidence to support these elements.

But if that salt has lost its flavor . . .

In Morgan v. Clements Fluids South Texas, three employees left Clements, an oil and gas services company, to work for two competitors. Clements claimed it trained the employees on its proprietary system for well completion and production called “salt systems.” It sued the former employees in state court for breach of their NDAs and misappropriation of trade secrets, and the employees filed a motion to dismiss under the TCPA.[8]

The defendant employees met their initial burden to show that the trade secrets claim was factually predicated on conduct that falls within either the “exercise of the right of association” or the “exercise of free speech,” as defined by the TCPA. The court reasoned that the claim was “based on, relates to, or is in response to,” at least in part, the employees’ communications among themselves and within the competitors through which they allegedly “shared or utilized” the alleged trade secrets.[9]

The court then turned to the plaintiff’s burden to establish by “clear and specific” evidence a prima facie case for each element of its trade secrets claim. The TCPA “does not impose an elevated evidentiary standard,” the court said, “and circumstantial evidence and rational inferences may be considered.”[10]

To prove the information at issue was a trade secrets, Clements claimed it had a confidential method for salt systems that gave it a competitive advantage. Its vice president signed an affidavit stating that Clements invested millions of dollars for almost 33 years on research, development, training, and testing of its salt systems, that its system was not available through any outside source, that the system was not available outside the company, and that the system had made Clements the industry leader. The Court of Appeals concluded this was sufficient “clear and specific” evidence of a trade secret.[11]

Whether the employees misappropriated the trade secrets was a closer call. The defendants argued that Clements failed to prove misappropriation because it did not show the employees actually used the trade secrets. The employees signed affidavits denying that Clements provided them with any training they did not have before working for Clements, and denying they shared any Clements information with any third party.[12]

But the court found that Clements offered sufficient evidence of misappropriation to avoid dismissal. Specifically, Clements established:

(1) The employees had no experience in salt systems before working for Clements.

(2) Clements trained the employees to perform salt systems and disclosed its proprietary formula to them.

(3) The employees left Clements to go to a company, Greenwall, that was not doing salt systems.

(4) Shortly after that, Greenwell launched a salt systems business, announcing it in a website post authored by one of the employees.

(5) Greenwell then performed a salt systems job for Pioneer, one of Clements’ customers.

“Given Clements’ description of the time, money, and effort dedicated to the development of its salt systems,” the court said, “it is reasonable to conclude from the totality of the circumstantial evidence that [the employees] used Clements’ proprietary and confidential information in concert with Greenwell to launch its salt systems business.”[13]

Finally, Clements had to offer evidence it was injured by the trade secrets misappropriation. “The burden of proof on damages for misappropriation of trade secrets is liberal,” the court said, “and is satisfied by showing the misappropriation, the defendant’s subsequent commercial use, and evidence by which the jury can value the rights the defendant obtained.” The Texas Supreme Court does not require the plaintiff to establish a specific amount of damages in response to a TCPA motion. Clements was only required to offer evidence supporting a “rational inference as the existence of damages, not their amount or constituent parts.”[14]

The defendants argued that Clements failed to link its loss of the Pioneer job to the alleged misappropriation of trade secrets, but the court disagreed. Greenwell did not previously do salt systems jobs, it performed a salt systems job for Pioneer shortly after the Clements employees joined, and Clements had previously performed all of Pioneer’s salt systems jobs. This was sufficient circumstantial evidence to link the alleged misappropriation to Clements’ loss of Pioneer’s business, establishing an injury to Clements.[15]

The Morgan case teaches us that, while speculation and assumption are not evidence of trade secret misappropriation, you don’t need surveillance camera footage of the employee handing over the secret formula either. It’s enough to offer circumstantial evidence creating a reasonable inference that an employee has used the information to help a competitor take business from the plaintiff.

But Morgan was somewhat unusual. The plaintiff had actual evidence of a secret method that other competitors (allegedly) did not know or practice.

Most trade secrets cases don’t have this. The typical case involves “soft” trade secrets like customer lists, prices, and customer information. And usually the two competitors both do the same kind of non-confidential business before and after the employee changes jobs. In these cases, the fact that a customer follows an employee from one company to another doesn’t necessarily prove the employee used any confidential information. It could just mean the employee has a good relationship with the customer.

So plaintiffs in soft trade secrets cases beware. You will probably need “something more” than losing a customer to defeat a TCPA motion. At least until the legislature fixes the monster it created.

*Update: The TCPA has arrived in the oilfield. See McDonald Oilfield Operations, LLC v. 3B Inspection, LLC, No. 01-18-00118-CV, 2018 WL 6377432 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 6, 2018) (reversing trial court’s denial of TCPA motion to dismiss in departing employee case involving competitors in the pipeline monitoring business). 

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Most of his posts don’t have so many footnotes.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.011(b) (“This chapter shall be construed liberally to effectuate its purpose and intent fully”).

[2] Hawxhurst v. Austin’s Boat Tours, 550 S.W.3d 220, 233-35 (Tex. App.—Austin 2018, no pet.).

[3] Thoroughbred Ventures, LLC v. Disman, No. 4:18-CV-00318, 2018 WL 3472717, at *3 (E.D. Tex. July 19, 2018).

[4] Even if the TCPA is substantive, it may not apply in federal court because it conflicts with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12 and 56. Id. at *3.

[5] Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.001(2).

[6] See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.009(a)(1). A successful movant also has the right to recover sanctions sufficient to deter the plaintiff from filing similar lawsuits, see § 27.009(a)(2), but it will probably be a rare trade secrets case where the court finds such sanctions are needed in addition to attorneys’ fees.

[7] See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.009(b) (“If the court finds that a motion to dismiss filed under this chapter is frivolous or solely intended to delay, the court may award court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees to the responding party”).

[8] Morgan v. Clements Fluids South Texas, Ltd., No. 12-18-00055-CV, 2018 WL 5796994, at *1 (Tex. App.—Tyler Nov. 5, 2018, no pet. h.).

[9] Id. at *3.

[10] Id. at *4 (citing In re Lipsky, 460 S.W.3d 579, 586 (Tex. 2015)).

[11] Id. at *5-6.

[12] Id. at *7.

[13] Id. at *8. However, as to a third employee, Laney, the court held that Clements did not meet its burden. Unlike the evidence concerning the first two employees, Clements offered no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, that Laney disclosed or used the trade secrets at his subsequent employer, ChemCo. And there was no evidence of whether Chemco had performed salt systems before, or that Laney performed any salt systems jobs with ChemCo. Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at *8-9.

It’s the Norm: French Lessons on the Limits of Law

It’s the Norm: French Lessons on the Limits of Law

It’s that time again.

Every two years I write an “Election Edition” of Five Minute Law. Two years ago, on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, I posted Political Correctness, Paleo Correctness, Trump, and What All This Has to Do With Lawyers.

The primary argument: political correctness, i.e. dogmatic liberalism, is a problem, but the proper antidote is true liberalism (in the historic sense), not prejudice. The secondary argument: lawyers have a special role in defending individual liberties and tolerance.

I think subsequent events have largely confirmed both arguments. The backlash against liberalism has proceeded on multiple fronts. And on each front, lawyers have played a prominent role.

It’s striking how many of the political fights over the last two years have involved litigation, lawyers, and judges. Take the “travel ban,” separation of immigrant children, the Mueller investigation and prosecutions, just to name a few. These battles have raged in the courts, not the halls of Congress.

Even the most recent political battle, while fought in the Senate, was about who would sit on the nation’s highest court. Everybody understood the stakes.

If there is one thing both sides agree on, it’s that law matters in American politics. Whether you send money to the Federalist Society or the ACLU, you understand the power wielded by those who interpret and apply the law.

This is partly because of the Supremacy Clause. When the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, interpretation of the Constitution becomes paramount.

Even aside from the Constitution, law is fundamentally important to American politics. Whether you vote for Ted Cruz or Beto O’Rourke, you probably like to invoke the “rule of law” in support of your political opinions.

The Constitution and the rule of law are supposed to keep the majority from oppressing the minority. And we want to prevent those who come to power in the name of the majority from abusing their power to the point where they no longer bother answering to the majority. It’s part of the “checks and balances” the American founders created.

They even left us with an instruction manual, in the best book ever written about American politics. It’s really not a book, but a series of essays anonymously published under the pseudonym “Publius.”

The real identity of Publius remains shrouded in historical mystery, but some believe he was connected to Aaron Burr.

Publius was bullish on the possibilities of an American republic but had one overriding worry: how to prevent American democracy from devolving into tyranny—either by the majority or by a demagogue claiming to speak for the majority. The Constitution—along with the Bill of Rights added later—was designed to prevent this.

But Publius understood the Constitution was not an automaton that, once set in motion, would guarantee freedom for his posterity. The success of the American experiment would depend on certain virtues of the people and their leaders. The republican system could be thwarted by a leader skilled in “flattering the prejudices of the people” who could “mount the hobby horse of popularity.”

So as great as the Federalist Papers are, they are not enough. We also need the second-best book about American politics. Strangely, the man who wrote this book was not a democrat, and not even an American. He was a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville.

In his two-volume masterpiece Democracy in America, Tocqueville tackled essentially the same problem Publius confronted decades earlier: how to keep democracy from turning on itself and threatening liberty. Or to put it in our contemporary terms, how to prevent a liberal democracy from degenerating into a corrupt democracy, leading to authoritarianism.

Americans might object, “what can this Frenchman teach us about democracy, much less about America?”

But one thing Tocqueville had over Publius was a broader perspective. When Tocqueville talks about “democracy,” he does not so much mean a form of government as a social system based upon equality, the opposite of a landed aristocracy. So while the Federalist Papers focus almost entirely on politics, Tocqueville steps back and looks at the effects of democracy on politics and society.

Plus, the fact that Tocqueville was an alien in America only added to his insight.

tocqueville
America’s favorite philosophizin’ Frenchman

One advantage of Democracy in America is that Tocqueville exhibits no trace of sentimentality towards either America or democracy. While he finds many things to admire about America, and acknowledges that democracy has its advantages, he views both with a certain objective detachment.

Of course, you will not get that sort of honesty from American politicians today. They may betray the ideals of democracy, but you will never find them publicly criticizing the ideals themselves. No, they celebrate the “common man,” even if they wouldn’t be caught dead actually socializing with one.

Tocqueville, in contrast, does not praise democracy as man’s greatest achievement. Rather, he views democracy—of the social state—as inevitable, a fait accompli to be accepted. “I have not even claimed to judge whether the social revolution, whose advance seems to me irresistible, was advantageous or fatal to humanity,” he wrote in the Introduction to Volume 1, rather “I have accepted this revolution as an accomplished fact or one about to be accomplished.” (13)

And Tocqueville’s admiration for American democracy did not come from being born here. It arose from the fact that by the 1830s America had been largely successful in maintaining a peaceful and stable democratic republic. “There is one country in the world where the great social revolution I am speaking of seems nearly to have attained its natural limits,” he wrote, and “this country sees the results of the democratic revolution operating among us without having had the revolution itself.” (12)

This was in stark contrast to revolutionary France, which desperately needed lessons on maintaining a stable democratic republic. Tocqueville said he did not go to America “only to satisfy a curiosity,” rather he “wanted to find lessons there from which we could profit.” (12)

France was always on his mind. In contrast to some famous philosophers, Tocqueville generally says what he means in fairly straightforward language. But one thing that may not be obvious is that almost every time Tocqueville says something about America, he is comparing it to France. If he were to drop his elegant style and speak more bluntly, he would say, listen, France, if you want to see how to protect freedom from the dark side of democracy, look at how they do it in America.

But now, almost two centuries later, are there lessons we Americans can learn from Tocqueville?

I think so. There is a lot of wisdom in the 676 pages of Democracy in America (I recommend the English translation by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop). But if I had to boil it down to one word: mores.

Tocqueville starts by examining the institutions and operation of American government from the township up to the federal government and continues with a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of the U.S. Constitution.

But he really gets down to the nitty-gritty in Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 9: On the Principal Causes Tending to Maintain a Democratic Republic in the United States. Here Tocqueville tries to distill the essence of what makes America a successful democracy:

American laws are therefore good, and one must attribute to them a great part of the success that the government of democracy obtains in America; but I do not think that they are the principal cause of it. And if they seem to me to have more influence on the social happiness of Americans than the nature of the country itself, on the other hand I perceive reasons for believing that they exert less [influence] than mores. (294)

You may be thinking, what the heck are “mores”? It sounds like a dessert you eat on a camping trip.

Fortunately, Tocqueville tells us exactly what he means. “I understand by this word [mores] the sum of the intellectual and moral dispositions that men bring to the state of society.” (292) Today, Webster’s defines mores as “the fixed morally binding customs of a particular group.”

We don’t have to guess how important mores are to Tocqueville because he tells us explicitly:

I am convinced that the happiest situation and the best laws cannot maintain a constitution despite mores, whereas the latter turn even the most unfavorable positions and the worst laws to good account. The importance of mores is a common truth to which study and experience constantly lead back. It seems to me that I have it placed in my mind as a central point; I perceive it at the end of all my ideas. (295)

But even assuming Tocqueville was right, how do we apply this lesson to our present difficulties?

Trouble is, we don’t use the word “mores” much today. But we have a word that means something very close to what Tocqueville was talking about: norms.

Granted, it’s not an exact equivalent. When we talk about norms, we primarily mean unwritten rules that the politicians follow. When Tocqueville talks about mores, he’s referring more broadly to the beliefs and practices of the people and the politicians. But I think it’s fair to say that norms are a close cousin to mores.

So, to adjust and restate Tocqueville’s thesis in contemporary terms: laws are important to preserving freedom in a democracy, but norms are more important.

This is an important lesson, especially for lawyers. As practitioners of the law we tend to assume the law is what really matters. And it does matter. But perhaps norms are even more important.

Ok, norms are important, you say. But that’s too abstract. Which norms exactly? What are the norms that help maintain a democratic republic in America? And how do we enforce those norms?

Check back with me in two years.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.  

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients.

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Is “Just Answer the Question” Good Deposition Advice?

Is “Just Answer the Question” Good Deposition Advice?

“Just answer the question” is standard deposition advice. The idea—conveyed by countless lawyers to their clients—is that you should only answer the question asked, and nothing more. Don’t volunteer additional information.

If you’ve ever testified in a deposition, you probably heard some version of this advice from your lawyer. And you probably didn’t follow it.

“Just answer the question” may be the most ignored legal advice ever.

It’s not that people deliberately ignore advice from their lawyers. It’s just that the advice is so unnatural. Imagine a Monday morning conversation at the office like this:

Jim: Hey, Pam, how are you?

Pam: Fine.

Jim: Oh, that’s good. Did you have a good weekend?

Pam: Yes.

Jim: . . . Ok, well. Um, wow, can you believe that Texas-OU game, that was amazing, right?

Pam: Right.

No, people don’t talk like this. So expecting them to suddenly change the way they talk is asking a lot.

Now add to that strong emotions and a lot of money at stake. How many people will naturally just answer the question asked and nothing more?

I had one client who naturally just answered the question and stopped. He was an engineer.

And in a sense he was the exception that proves the rule. Social habits are not the only reason people find it difficult to just answer the question. It’s also because the vast majority of people are not analytical. Most people think intuitively, not analytically.

Try asking somebody “would you have voted for Brett Kavanaugh?” You’re not going to get a lot of “Yes, I would, because . . .” or “No, for the following three reasons. Number one . . .” Chances are you’re more likely to get some kind of emotional, gut-level reaction.

Yet despite how unnatural it is to just answer the question, some can be taught. The teachable can be trained to do a better job of just answering the question. If you work with them enough, by the time of the deposition they will do a pretty good job of just answering the question.

But some people seem unteachable. No matter how hard you try, they just can’t help themselves. There are many reasons for this.

Some people are angry about perceived injustice and want to vent their anger.

Some people have too much pride and want to show the opponent how smart they are.

Some people are nervous and talk more to try to compensate for their nervousness.

“Just answer the question” goes against the grain so much that I have sometimes wondered whether it would be better to reject the conventional wisdom and scrap the standard advice. Just let people go with the flow and answer au naturel.

But let’s not be too quick to embrace the natural approach. There are some good reasons for the conventional wisdom.

Why do lawyers tell clients to just answer the question in the first place? What exactly are we trying to avoid when we give clients this advice?

I think it comes down to trying to avoid four things. When you don’t just answer the question, you increase the likelihood that you will do one of the following:

1. Give incorrect testimony that help’s the other side’s case.

2. Give incorrect testimony that is favorable to your case but weakens your credibility.

3. Volunteer information that is helpful to the other side’s case.

4. Volunteer information that is helpful to your case, helping the other side prepare.

All of these things are bad, but some are worse than others. I have listed them from most harmful to least harmful.

The worst one is making a mistake that is helpful to the other side. This happens more often than you might think. One reason for this is that the lawyer asking the questions wants this to happen. And the more skilled that lawyer is, the more likely you are to make this kind of mistake.

Let’s look at an example from my favorite hypothetical case, Paula Payne Windows v. Dawn Davis.

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Here we see the perils of volunteering too much. This witness makes two mistakes. First, she overstates the facts by saying she never emailed any customers. Second, she volunteers the fact that she called some customers.

Following the “just answer the question” advice can help people avoid mistakes like this.

But just answering the question isn’t always the best way to answer the question. Sometimes a simple yes or no leaves out your side of the story and makes the lawyer’s job too easy.

Let’s take this example:

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Whoa! Did the witness just admit she concealed a critical fact from her employer? This is like Lester Holt getting Trump to say he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation, right? Game over.

Not necessarily. Under Texas law, an employee generally has a right to make plans to compete with her employer, and even to conceal those plans from the employer. See my popular post on Fiduciary Duty Lite.

But the simple “yes” still has a bad smell to it. Here are some alternatives:

Q: Did you conceal that fact from your employer?

A: They didn’t ask.

or

A: Yes, of course. Who wouldn’t?

or

A: Yes, because I wasn’t required to tell them I was looking.

or

A: Did you conceal that from your last employer?

Actually, scratch that last answer. Don’t do that.

But I see some appeal to the other answers, especially for courtroom testimony. These answers don’t dodge the question, but they give the witness a chance to push back. Sometimes it’s better to give an answer like this to prevent the questioning lawyer from getting on too much of a roll.

Of course, the lawyer asking the questions is likely to follow up with “is that a yes?” At that point, the witness should concede the answer. I call this the “you get to argue once” rule and wrote about it in Witness Preparation Lessons from the Waymo v. Uber Trial. If you argue too long, you’re just going to look defensive or evasive.

Plus, you don’t want to go too far in trying to match wits with the lawyer asking the questions. You may be really smart and good at your job, but I guarantee you, even a mediocre lawyer is better at duking it out in a deposition than a non-lawyer.

Wait a minute, I can hear a client saying. So first you tell me to follow the “just answer the question rule” sometimes, and then you give me another rule to follow. How am I supposed to keep all this straight, especially when I’m under pressure? It’s like telling a golfer to concentrate on five different things in the middle of swinging the club.

I agree. See What the Ken Starr Interview Can Teach Lawyers About Witness Preparation – and Golf. For some witnesses, this is just too much. It depends on the witness’s skill level and teachability.

It reminds me of when Aristotle wrote about the best kind of government regime. He analogized to athletic training and said that the best training for the best body may be different than the best training for most bodies. (The Politics, Book 4, Chapter 1)

That’s true of deposition training too. You have to adapt the training to the person. If the witness really struggles to answer hard questions, it may be better to keep it simple and “just answer the question.”

But what if the witness is unskilled and unteachable? What do you do when “just answer the question” is just more than the witness can bear?

This is where the conventional “just answer the question” advice should yield to a more fundamental maxim: listen carefully to the question.

As we’ve seen, there is no single good way to answer tough questions. The best way to answer a question often requires a judgment call.

But “listen carefully to the question” is always good advice for everybody. If you listen carefully to the question—and think about what the lawyer is really asking—you are much less likely to make the worst kind of mistakes.

So, it turns out that the main problem with “just answer the question” is that it shifts the focus to the wrong thing. The focus should be on listening to the question, not deciding how to answer.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.