Part 3 of 3 in my series
Fivers, you may be wondering why I have not yet reported on the Texas legislature’s recent amendments of the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act. I like trade secrets law. I like litigation. And I like making fun of whatever the Texas legislature does. So what gives?
Well, three things. First, you can already find other good reports on this topic, like Leiza Dolghih’s blog post here. Second, the recent changes to the Texas trade secrets statute, while important, are not that big of a deal. And third, I predict that recent court decisions applying the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) are going to be a bigger deal for Texas trade secrets litigation.
That’s because filing a motion to dismiss under the TCPA is likely to become a routine move by defendants in Texas trade secrets lawsuits.
Texas courts have held that the TCPA applies to claims based on disclosure of alleged trade secrets
So how did we get here? To recap Part 1 and Part 2:
- The TCPA is the Texas “anti-SLAPP” statute intended to protect the “little guy” from nuisance litigation filed in retaliation for exercising free speech rights.
- The TCPA allows the defendant to file a motion to dismiss that stays discovery and requires the plaintiff to offer evidence proving each element of its claims.
- The purpose of the statute is to protect constitutional rights, but the Texas Supreme Court has instructed Texas courts to apply the “plain meaning” of the text, which is much broader.
- In Elite Auto Body, the Austin Court of Appeals followed the Texas Supreme Court’s instructions and held that the TCPA applied to a company’s claim that its former employees communicated the company’s confidential information and trade secrets to a competitor.
In Part 1, I explained how this issue provides a sort of case study for the “textualist” theory of statutory interpretation, which has received some airplay recently with Neal Gorsuch filling the Merrick Garland seat on the Supreme Court. In Part 2, I hypothesized that the holding in Elite Auto Body is inconsistent with the legislature’s intent and suggested that this illustrates a problem with strict textualism.
But if you’re a lawyer or a party in a trade secrets lawsuit, you don’t care about all that. You want to know what Elite Auto Body means for your lawsuit.
Will it become routine for defendants in Texas trade secrets lawsuits to file motions to dismiss under the TCPA?
It seems likely that defendants in trade secrets lawsuits will now routinely file motions to dismiss under the TCPA. First, because Elite Auto Body says they can. Second, because it will usually be good strategy.
The crux of the Elite Auto Body decision was the statute’s broad definition of the “exercise of the right of association” as “a communication between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests.”
The court found that the plaintiff alleged two kinds of communications falling under the statute’s broad definitions: (1) communications between the departing employees and the second employer disclosing confidential information or trade secrets; and (2) communications with employees of the first employer to induce them to work for the second employer.
So, in any case where the plaintiff alleges either (1) communication of the plaintiff’s trade secrets or (2) solicitation of the plaintiff’s employees, the defendants have the option to file a motion to dismiss under Elite Auto Body.
Filing a motion to dismiss will often have benefits for the defendant:
- The motion will take the wind out of the plaintiff’s sails by immediately staying discovery until the court rules on the motion.
- It requires the plaintiff to respond with evidence of each element of its claims. This will force the plaintiff to put its “cards on the table” early in the case.
- In some cases, it will be difficult for the plaintiff to meet its burden before it has had any meaningful discovery.
Of course, there are potential disadvantages to filing a motion to dismiss. Despite the Texas Supreme Court’s instruction to apply the plain meaning of the statute, some trial court judges will still be reluctant to dismiss trade secrets claims that do not implicate constitutional free speech rights. Fighting over the motion to dismiss will often be expensive, and if the judge denies the motion, it will tend to embolden the plaintiff, which could make settlement more difficult. Worst case, if the judge finds that the defendant’s motion was frivolous or solely intended to delay, the court can award attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff.
Despite these concerns, in most cases filing an early motion to dismiss under the TCPA will be good strategy for defendants, if the plaintiff alleges “communication” of the alleged trade secrets.
But that’s a big “if.”
Will it become routine for plaintiffs to plead around the TCPA?
If it becomes routine for defendants to file a motion to dismiss in Texas trade secrets lawsuits, plaintiffs will catch on.
And Elite Auto Body suggests a solution for them. As I pointed out in Part 2, the court in Elite Auto Body said that the TCPA does not apply to allegations of using the alleged trade secrets, as opposed to communication of the trade secrets. That’s why the Austin Court of Appeals only dismissed the plaintiff’s claims in part. It did not dismiss the claims based on conduct that does not constitute “communications” as defined by the TCPA.
So, as Patrick Keating suggested on his trade secrets blog here, it may become routine for plaintiffs to avoid a motion to dismiss by pleading only use of the alleged trade secrets rather than disclosure of the alleged trade secrets. (Here is a Form Original Petition that does just that.) If that happens, then case law applying the TCPA to trade secrets claims may become, as Keating says, “much ado about nothing.”
But I’m not sure this maneuver will become totally routine. First, the plaintiff doesn’t always have a basis to claim use of the trade secrets. Second, the disclosure of the trade secrets is sometimes just too good a part of the story to leave out.
*Update: The Austin Court of Appeals returned to applying the TCPA to a trade secrets claim in Craig v. Tejas Promotions, LLC, No. 03-16-00611-CV, 2018 WL 2050213 (Tex. App.–Austin May 3, 2018), holding that the TCPA applied to a claims for conspiracy to misappropriate trade secrets. This case suggests that, as I predicted, some plaintiffs will continue to plead communication of the alleged trade secrets, which invites a TCPA motion to dismiss.
In many cases, the employer will discover that an employee has taken company information and joined a competitor, but the employer will not have any direct knowledge that the employee has used the information. And it is not unusual for employees to take company information when they leave but to refrain from using it after coming to their senses (or talking to a lawyer).
In cases like that, it may be dangerous for the employer to plead that the employee has used the alleged trade secrets. The plaintiff must have a good-faith factual basis for the allegation. Look for more plaintiffs to plead “on information and belief” that the defendant has used the alleged trade secrets.
In other cases, the plaintiff will really want to plead disclosure of the trade secrets, because that will be the juiciest part of the story. When an employee secretly emails confidential company information to his next employer, who can resist emphasizing that fact in the lawsuit? In those situations, the plaintiff’s lawyer will have to weigh the value of pleading bad acts by the defendants against the possibility of inviting a motion to dismiss.
Or just make a federal case of it
On the other hand, the plaintiff’s lawyer can simply avoid this dilemma by filing suit in federal court under the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act. All you need is a sufficient connection to interstate or foreign commerce, and any claim you would make under the Texas trade secrets statute can be made under the federal statute. And then the TCPA would not apply.
Or would it? I will let the appellate lawyers and former law review editors discuss among themselves. (Narrator: whether you can file a TCPA motion in federal court would actually become a hot issue and even be raised in a suit involving the President.)
*Update: The legislature later amended the TCPA to exempt trade secret claims, and the Fifth Circuit held that the TCPA does not apply in federal court. See how the story ends at Shrinkage: TX Legislature and 5th Circuit Cut the TCPA Down to Size.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.
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. The provided forms are only for the convenience of other lawyers. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post or the forms as legal advice for your case.
 Elite Auto Body LLC v. Autocraft Bodywerks, Inc., No. 03-15-00064-CV, 2017 WL 1833495, 520 S.W.3d 191 (Tex. App.—Austin 2017, pet dism’d).
 Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.001(2).
 Elite Auto Body, 2017 WL 1833495 at *8.
 See my disclaimer about forms above.
 Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.003(c). Under Section 27.006(b), for good cause the court may allow “specified and limited discovery” relevant to the motion.
 See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.005(c).
 Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.009.
 Elite Auto Body, 2017 WL 1833495 at *9.