In Elite Auto Body v. Autocraft Bodywerks, the Austin Court of Appeals held that the Texas anti-SLAPP statute applies to a company’s claim that a former employee communicated confidential information and trade secrets to a competitor. This meant that the company was required to produce evidence to support every element of the claim at the beginning of the lawsuit—a significant burden.

This sounds like a fairly technical issue, but it’s an important development, with potentially far-reaching consequences for departing employee litigation—and other kinds of litigation. Elite Auto Body is also a great case to read if you’re fascinated by questions of statutory interpretation. And who isn’t?

Textualism vs. originalism

Interpreting the text of a statute or constitution is a fundamental challenge in the law.  The “textualist” would say that courts should apply the “plain meaning” of the text of a statute, without resort to any extrinsic sources such as the intent of the legislature or what would make better public policy.

This view probably resonates with the average “man on the street,” but in its strict form, textualism borders on the absurd.  If hard cases could really be decided by simply applying the plain text, we wouldn’t need judges schooled in the law.

Textualism is often associated with “originalism,” which is the view that a statutory or constitutional provision should be interpreted based on the original understanding of the text. But the two are not the same. In fact, originalism shows that textualism is insufficient (at least in hard cases). If the text alone were sufficient to resolve disputes, then resort to the original understanding of the text would be unnecessary.

Trade secret protection vs. freedom of speech

Let’s take an example everyone knows: the First Amendment protection of “freedom of speech.” Then let’s take a statute pertinent to the Elite Auto Body case: the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (TUTSA). TUTSA provides civil remedies for “misappropriation” of “trade secrets.”[1]  Emailing your employer’s trade secrets to a competitor would be a clear violation of TUTSA.

So does TUTSA violate the First Amendment? If I can’t email my employer’s confidential information to another company, doesn’t that restrict my “freedom of speech”?

The “vulgar textualist” would say no, under the plain meaning of the First Amendment, sending an email is not “speech,” so the First Amendment doesn’t apply. But no serious person in the law, even a “textualist,” would apply such a hyper-literal interpretation. Obviously, the First Amendment is intended to protect forms of communication broader than actual “speech.”

And it is well established that there are certain categories of communication that do not enjoy full First Amendment protection: fraudulent statements, intentionally defamatory statements, communications between participants in a criminal conspiracy, just to name a few. People may disagree on the exact contours of the categories of expression that do not enjoy First Amendment protection, but no one seriously questions the basic premise that some kinds of communication are not protected (even though the premise is not derived from the “plain meaning” of the text).

Similarly, just about everyone would agree that communication of trade secrets is one of these categories. People may argue about where to draw the line on trade secret protection, but few would seriously dispute the general principle that the First Amendment allows laws that prohibit the communication of trade secrets.

With this point established, we have set the stage for the Texas anti-SLAPP statute, the recent Elite Auto Body case, and an interesting test for textualism.

The Texas anti-SLAPP statute

Texas adopted its anti-SLAPP statute in 2011. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. The term SLAPP doesn’t actually appear in the statute, but the “anti-SLAPP” purpose of the statute is widely recognized. (For background, see A Primer on the Texas Anti-SLAPP Statute and Five Years of Anti-SLAPP in Texas.)

The idea was to give defendants the right to seek early dismissal of unfounded lawsuits that plaintiffs file to punish Texas citizens for exercising their free speech rights. When the statute applies, the defendant can require the plaintiff to produce evidence to support each element of its claims at the beginning of the lawsuit. If the plaintiff fails to meet this burden, the lawsuit gets dismissed.[2]

This is a big deal. As Texas litigators will recognize, a SLAPP motion is equivalent to a “no-evidence” motion for summary judgment. The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure allow a defendant to file a no-evidence motion for summary judgment, which places the burden on the plaintiff to come forward with evidence to support the challenged elements of its claims. If the plaintiff fails to respond with evidence, the claim gets dismissed.

That’s effectively the same thing the anti-SLAPP statute does. So why is it such a big deal? The key difference is that you can’t file a no-evidence motion for summary judgment until after the plaintiff has had adequate time for discovery.[3] This is a significant limitation.

The anti-SLAPP statute, in contrast, allows the defendant to file a motion to dismiss at the beginning of the case, before the plaintiff has had any time for discovery.[4] This is a major strategic advantage for the defendant. Often the plaintiff needs discovery in order to obtain evidence to support all of the elements of its claims. If the legislature gave defendants the right to file this kind of motion in every case, it would be a tectonic shift in the balance of power between Texas plaintiffs and defendants.

But the anti-SLAPP statute only applies to SLAPP lawsuits, right?

The problem with the anti-SLAPP statute

The problem is that it is not so easy to distinguish between a SLAPP lawsuit and an ordinary lawsuit. A SLAPP, as the term is commonly used, has two distinguishing characteristics, one going to the merits of the lawsuit and the other going to the motive behind it. First, a SLAPP lawsuit has no merit, meaning no evidence to back it up. Second, a SLAPP lawsuit is filed for an improper motive—i.e. to silence or punish the defendant by forcing the defendant to spend money defending a lawsuit.

But defendants say these things about all kinds of lawsuits. So the first problem with the anti-SLAPP statute is that it singles out one type of litigation, when the problem it purports to address applies to all kinds of litigation.

In my view, this sort of thing is generally a bad idea. I haven’t seen a compelling explanation of why defendants in SLAPP lawsuits should get to file an early motion to dismiss while defendants in other kinds of unfounded lawsuits don’t.

Of course, there is a long tradition of the Texas legislature singling out certain types of litigation for special treatment. For example, plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases have to get an expert report just to file a lawsuit, before any discovery, while plaintiffs in other cases don’t. Defendants in residential construction lawsuits have special statutory rights that defendants in other lawsuits don’t. But why? Why should special rules apply to medical malpractice lawsuits and not, say, architectural malpractice suits?

The answer is pretty obvious. You don’t have to be a political scientist or a reporter covering the Texas legislature to understand that laws like this get passed in response to pressure from interest groups seeking protection from lawsuits. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these laws are bad public policy. We could debate all day whether the limits on medical malpractice suits are good policy or not.

But it does mean that we should approach these special-interest statutes with some skepticism. The same is true of the anti-SLAPP statute. Granted, it appears that a wide range of groups from across the political spectrum backed it, but we should still ask whether it makes sense to single out one type of lawsuit for special treatment.

While it is clear that the anti-SLAPP statute singles out one type of lawsuit, it is not so clear what type of lawsuit that is. This gets to the second problem with the statute: it tries to do surgery with a meat cleaver. The “cancer” it tries to cut out is the “big guy” filing a frivolous lawsuit against the “little guy” to try to deter the little guy from exercising his First Amendment right to criticize the big guy.

The statute does say that its purpose is to safeguard constitutional rights, but the operative language of the statute–particularly the definition of the “right of association”–is much broader than that. Nothing in the statute expressly limits its reach to “big guy vs. little guy” lawsuits, or even to lawsuits involving the exercise of First Amendment rights.

Perhaps the language of the statute could be made more precise so that it cuts like a scalpel. But no, this second problem is almost unsolvable. It would be very difficult to come up with language that would apply only to “true” SLAPP lawsuits and not to ordinary lawsuits. Like obscenity, a SLAPP is hard to define with precision. You just “know it when you see it.” That doesn’t make for a good statutory definition.

Does the anti-SLAPP statute apply to trade secrets lawsuits?

And that brings us to the question presented in Elite Auto Body v. Autocraft Bodywerks.

Misappropriation of trade secrets is not protected by the First Amendment, and it does not appear that the Texas legislature had trade secrets lawsuits in mind when it passed the anti-SLAPP statute. Yet the plain language of the statute is broad enough to apply to a claim that an employee communicated a company’s trade secrets to a competitor she has joined. So, can the defendant in that kind of trade secrets case file a motion to dismiss under the statute?

Stay tuned. I’ll address that in Part 2.

______________________________________________________________________________________

head-shot-photo-of-zach-wolfeZach Wolfe is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Austin, Houston, and The Woodlands.

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] See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 134A.002-004.

[2] Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 27.001-011.

[3] Tex. R. Civ. Pro. 166a(i).

[4] The defendant must serve the anti-SLAPP motion within 60 days of service of the lawsuit. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.003(b). On the filing of such a motion, all discovery is suspended until the court has ruled on the motion. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.003(c). For good cause, the court can allow specific limited discovery relevant to the motion. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.006(b).

6 thoughts on “A SLAPP in the Face to Texas Trade Secrets Lawsuits – Part 1

  1. Excellent series of posts Zach. Does a plaintiff skirt this issue by limiting the allegations in the Petition to an allegation of improper use of the trade secrets (no allegation regarding communication or association)?

    Like

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