Recent case offers lessons on how to get (or avoid) a trade secrets injunction in Texas

When I say “drywall installation,” I’m guessing “trade secrets” is not the first thing that pops into your mind. Personally, I think of John Goodman’s character Dan Conner from the TV show Roseanne.

But a recent opinion from a federal district court in Dallas may change that. See Marek Brother Systems, Inc. v. Enriquez, No. 3:19-CV-01082, 2019 WL 3322162 (N.D. Tex. July 24, 2019).

Marek Brother Systems offered commercial and residential construction services, including ceilings, “acoustical solutions,” flooring, and paint. Juan Enriquez was a Marek project manager. Id. at *1. It does not appear that Enriquez signed any non-compete.

Enriquez did two typical things before resigning from Marek to run his own business. First, he formed an LLC, JP Acoustics and Drywall. Second, he sent a Marek customer list to his personal email address.

Let’s pause here for just a moment. Neither one of these things is necessarily wrongful, but both are a bad idea.

Under Texas law, it is not a breach of an employee’s limited fiduciary duty to make plans to compete with his employer. This can even include forming the entity the employee plans to use to compete. See Fiduciary Duty Lite: What Employees Can and Can’t Do Before Leaving.

But employees, why would you want to do this? Forming an LLC is relatively quick and easy. You can do it the day after you resign, and that’s one less thing for the employer to complain about.

Likewise, sending a company customer list to your personal email address is not necessarily wrong. In most businesses, it’s not unusual for employees to email or transfer company documents to their personal devices or accounts for work at home or on the road. This often happens, even when the company prohibits such personal use on paper. So, if a salesman emails himself an open orders list every week, it’s less suspicious if he does so the week before leaving, and if everybody at the company knows employees sometimes do this.

But again, unless you’re certain you will stay with the company until retirement, why would you do this? You should keep in mind Wolfe’s First Law of Trade Secrets Litigation: whatever company information the employee takes on the way out the door will be the alleged “trade secrets” in the company’s subsequent lawsuit.

Enriquez’s third mistake was naming the company “JP Acoustics and Drywall.” I would have called it “JP Drywall . . .” An “acoustics” company sounds like it has trade secrets; a “drywall” company doesn’t.

But let’s get back to the legal issues. Marek claimed that Enriquez’s email included confidential contact information for Marek’s customers and “proprietary notes” about the customers. Id. at *1. One of Marek’s customers was Muckleroy and Falls, id. at *1, which sounds like a business in a Frank Capra movie. Both Marek and JP Acoustics did work for Muckleroy and Falls after Enriquez left Marek. Id. at *4.

Marek claimed that Enriquez was using Marek’s confidential information to advance his business. Id. at *1. Marek sued Enriquez and JP Acoustics, claiming misappropriation of trade secrets, as well as breach of fiduciary duty, tortious interference with contract, and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Marek asked for an injunction to stop the defendants from doing business with any company that was a customer of Marek during the 12 months before Enriquez resigned. Id. at *2.

Marek claimed it spent years accumulating the customer information, and that it made diligent efforts to ensure the secrecy of its customer information, including restricted access to facilities, computer passwords, and disclosure to employees only on a “need to know” basis. Id. at *4.

The defendants responded that the customer information was readily available online or in the Yellow Pages. Id.

So was Marek entitled to a trade secrets injunction?

Let’s pause again to note that this is about as plain-vanilla a soft trade secrets case as you are going to find. You could have said to me “drywall manager leaves company, company files trade secrets suit,” and I could have guessed the essential facts (except maybe the name of the customer). So the outcome of the case may tell us something about how courts deal with typical customer list cases.

The federal district court judge said no, Marek was not entitled to an injunction.[1] First, the court said that the claims for breach of fiduciary duty and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act were based on conduct that occurred before termination of employment, any resulting damage was “readily quantifiable,” and therefore there was no threatened irreparable harm. Id. at *3. For the authoritative explanation of these concepts, see Injunction Junction, What’s Your Function?

Then the court turned to the claims of trade secrets misappropriation and tortious interference with contract. Illustrating Wolfe’s First Law, Marek claimed that its trade secrets were the customer information Enriquez emailed to himself.

But the court was not persuaded. It started by quoting the Trilogy Software case:

“[I]nformation that a firm compiles regarding its customers may enjoy trade secret status under Texas law.” Trilogy Software, Inc. v. Callidus Software, Inc., 143 S.W.3d 452, 466 (Tex. App.—Austin 2004, pet. denied) (citations omitted). “But this does not mean that trade secret status automatically attaches to any information that a company acquires regarding its customers; if it did, it would amount to a de facto common law non-compete prohibition.” Id. at 467. “Before any information can be a trade secret, there must be a substantial element of secrecy.” Id. (citation omitted). Secrecy requires that the information “is not generally known or readily ascertainable by independent investigation.” Id. (citations and quotation marks omitted). “It is the burden of the party claiming secrecy status to prove secrecy.” Id. (citations omitted).

If this sounds familiar, it might be because I discussed this case in my post When is a Customer List a Trade Secret?

Marek failed to persuade the court that the customer information was not “readily ascertainable.” The court cited several things missing from Marek’s case:

  • Marek did not provide the court with the email attachments containing the alleged trade secrets.
  • Marek did not describe the nature of the “proprietary notes” or why they should be considered proprietary information.
  • Marek did not offer specific facts to support its allegation that it “spent years accumulating” the customer contact information.

Id. at *4.

Maybe Marek should have seen it coming. The same judge had denied a TRO two months earlier in Computer Sciences Corp. v. Tata Consultancy Servs. Ltd., No. 3:19-cv-970-L, 2019 WL 2058772, at *3-4 (N.D. Tex. May 9, 2019), finding there was no evidence the emailed confidential software source code was actually shared with software developers.

But let’s not be too quick to fault Marek’s counsel. The deficiencies in Marek’s evidence seem obvious, but maybe the email attachments were not that helpful to Marek’s case. Perhaps the proprietary notes were not that proprietary. Perchance there were no more specific facts to be offered. Or maybe there was just not enough time to get the evidence needed.

And even if Marek had proven the customer information was a trade secret, there was another big hole in Marek’s evidence: proof of some nexus between the use of the alleged trade secrets and loss of sales to customers. (Picture Marek saying “Causation!” the way Jerry Seinfeld says “Newman!”)

The court said Marek did not allege that Defendants outbid Marek for any particular job or otherwise took Muckleroy and Falls business from Marek. Rather, both parties were servicing Muckleroy and Falls “to neither’s detriment and without direct competition.” In the absence of evidence that the defendants were injuring Marek’s business relationship with the customer, the court said, it could not find that Marek was substantially likely to suffer an irreparable injury due to the defendants’ contact with the customer. Id. at *4.

Injunction denied.

Nevertheless, the story had a happy ending. The parties later signed this Agreed Injunction that barred Enriquez and JP Acoustics from initiating new business with a list of specified customers.

And the Marek case provides lessons for both employees and employers in trade secrets cases.

Employees:

  • DON’T form an LLC for your future competing business any sooner than you really need to.
  • DON’T send company documents to personal devices or email accounts, even for valid reasons.
  • DON’T take customer lists when you leave. Is it really that hard to find the customers? (If so, the list might actually be a trade secret.)
  • If you take a customer list, DO show that the information in it is readily ascertainable.
  • If you do something you shouldn’t have before leaving, DO argue that it can be compensated with damages, so no injunction is warranted.
  • DO watch my video Dumb Things Employees Do Before Leaving a Company for similar tips in convenient audiovisual form.

Employers:

  • DO offer the misappropriated confidential documents as evidence, under seal if necessary.
  • DO specifically explain why the customer information is valuable and not readily ascertainable.
  • DO try to offer evidence that the employee has actually used the confidential information to take specific customer business from you (I know, this is often easier said than done).
  • DON’T expect to get an injunction merely because an employee has taken confidential company documents.
  • DO watch my video Smart Things Companies Can Do to Protect Confidential Information.

Finally, whether you’re an employee or employer, do get advice from a lawyer as early as possible, preferably one with experience handling departing employee disputes. That might help you avoid the common mistakes above. In the words of another John Goodman character, “Donny you’re out of your element!”

—————————————–

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. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

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] To be precise, the court construed the motion for preliminary injunction as a motion for temporary restraining order, denied a TRO, and set a hearing on a preliminary injunction.

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