In one of the first Court of Appeals decisions applying the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held in First Western Capital Management Co. v. Malamed that a plaintiff must prove irreparable harm to get a preliminary injunction under the Act.
If you know anything about injunctions, that probably doesn’t surprise you. “Irreparable harm” is one of the traditional requirements for obtaining an injunction.
But it wasn’t that simple. The plaintiff made the plausible argument that, because the statute authorizes an injunction and does not expressly require proof of irreparable harm, then evidence of irreparable harm is not required. In other words, there is a presumption of irreparable harm when the plaintiff proves the statute was violated.
The Tenth Circuit rejected this argument. The Court of Appeals reconciled its prior decisions by drawing a distinction between a statute that mandates injunctive relief and a statute that merely authorizes injunctive relief. When a statute only authorizes an injunction—as the DTSA does—then the plaintiff still has to prove the “traditional” requirements for an injunction, including irreparable harm.
The district court had already found that the plaintiff did not prove irreparable harm, so the Court of Appeals reversed the preliminary injunction. (You can read more about the district court opinion here.)
So what does this case from Colorado mean for lawyers who handle trade secrets litigation in my home state of Texas?
Lessons from First Western: Plaintiffs should offer evidence of irreparable injury
As I said here, if you represent a plaintiff asking for a preliminary injunction in a Defend Trade Secrets Act case, you should offer evidence of irreparable harm. Then you can make two arguments. First, we’ve proven irreparable harm. Second, even if we haven’t proven irreparable harm, we don’t have to.
Unless and until the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals holds that the Tenth Circuit got it wrong in First Western, you don’t want the second argument to be your only argument; you want it to be your fallback position. So come prepared with evidence of irreparable harm.
But what evidence is that?
There is no single way to show irreparable harm, but here are a few typical arguments that damages would be inadequate to compensate your client for the defendant’s use of your client’s trade secrets:
- It will be difficult to quantify the amount of damages.
- Loss of the trade secrets at issue will be irreversible.
- It’s unlikely the defendant has sufficient assets to satisfy a judgment for damages.
These arguments don’t always hold up to scrutiny, but you want to have something to argue. The judge will feel more comfortable granting an injunction if you at least offer some evidence to try to show irreparable harm.
Of course, if you represent the plaintiff you can still argue that proving a violation of the statute is sufficient. There is some authority in the Fifth Circuit for the proposition that “where a statute expressly provides for injunctive relief, irreparable harm is presumed and need not be established.”
You can also cite pre-DTSA case law holding that the threatened disclosure of trade secrets is presumed to cause irreparable injury.
But you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.
Should the First Western principle apply to Texas statutes?
If you represent the defendant in a Texas trade secrets lawsuit, First Western can help you in two ways. First, and more obvious, you can cite First Western for the argument that the plaintiff still has to prove irreparable harm to get an injunction under the Defend Trade Secrets Act.
First Western isn’t binding in the Fifth Circuit, you can concede, but its reasoning is sound. When Congress passed the DTSA, it was well aware (in theory) of the long-established principle that courts require proof of irreparable injury to get an injunction. If Congress had wanted to excuse plaintiffs from that requirement, it could have expressly said so.
Second, and perhaps less obvious, defendants can argue that the principle applied in First Western should also apply to the Texas trade secrets statute and the Texas non-compete statute.
Like the Defend Trade Secrets Act, these statutes expressly authorize but do not require injunctions.
Just as the DTSA says a court “may grant” an injunction, the Texas non-compete statute says that a court “may award” injunctive relief. Similarly, the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act says that actual or threatened misappropriation of trade secrets “may be enjoined.”
The fact that these statutes do not mandate an injunction for violating the statute means that the plaintiff still has to prove the traditional equitable requirements for obtaining an injunction—including irreparable harm.
At least that’s the argument, applying the distinction from First Western.
Just keep in mind there have been some Texas cases going the other way, suggesting that proof of irreparable injury is not required because the non-compete statute preempts other law and expressly authorizes injunctions.
Personally, I think that’s wrong, but until the Texas Supreme Court definitively decides the issue, if I represent the plaintiff I may at least make the argument that proof of irreparable injury isn’t required.
Govern yourselves accordingly.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a 2020 Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation.
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.
 See, e.g., U.S. v. McMillan, 946 F. Supp. 1254, 1266 (S.D. Miss. 1995) (citing EEOC v. Cosmair, Inc., 821 F.2d 1085, 1090 (5th Cir. 1987), and U.S. v. Hayes Int’l Corp., 415 F.2d 1038, 1045 (5th Cir. 1969)).
 See Heil Trailer Int’l Co. v. Kula, 542 Fed. Appx. 329, 335 (5th Cir. 2013) (citing Texas cases). Courts are a little imprecise about this. You could read the cases to say that the disclosure of trade secrets is irreparable injury, or that disclosure of trade secrets excuses the plaintiff from proving irreparable injury, but the distinction may be academic.
 Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(a).
 Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 134A.003(a).
 Compare Sanders v. Future Com, Ltd., No. 02-15-00077-CV, 2017 WL 2180706, at *10 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth May 18, 2017, no pet.) (mem. op.) (plaintiff that proves violation of non-compete statute is entitled to permanent injunction without showing of traditional injunction elements), with Argo Group US, Inc. v. Levinson, 468 S.W.3d 698, 701-2 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2015, no pet.) (joining courts holding that a plaintiff seeking a temporary injunction for violation of the non-compete statute still must show irreparable injury).