If a windmill kills a bird in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
That has always struck my literal mind as a silly question. Of course it makes a sound. It doesn’t make a difference whether someone is there to hear it or not.
But obviously there is more to it than that. There are more philosophical points embedded in the question. Is our reality determined by our experience of reality? Does it matter whether something happens, if no one experiences it?
The same kind of point comes up in trade secrets litigation. I see it a lot. (But disclaimer: my hypothetical is not based on any particular case; if it seems similar to your case, that’s just because the same kind of thing tends to happen in a lot of cases.)
Let’s say our favorite hardworking sales person, Dawn Davis, gets frustrated with her employer, Paula Payne Windows, and decides to quit to join a competitor, Real Cheap Windows.
During her last week on the job, Dawn logs into the Paula Payne computer system using her password and opens six months of sales reports. She downloads them to her personal laptop (which she uses for work), or transfers them to a USB drive, or emails them to her personal Gmail account. This kind of thing happens a lot.
Dawn goes to work for Real Cheap the next week. When Paula Payne finds out that Dawn joined a competitor, she has Fred, her “IT guy,” investigate. Fred discovers that Dawn downloaded the sales reports. Paula Payne Windows sues Dawn and Real Cheap, claiming misappropriation of trade secrets and asking for an injunction to stop Dawn from working for Real Cheap.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the sales reports contain trade secrets, although this is usually a contested issue. See When Is a Customer List a Trade Secret. Let’s also assume that Dawn had authorization to access the computer system but was not authorized to access the particular sales reports at issue.
“Yes, I told Real Cheap’s President I had the sales reports,” Dawn says, “and we discussed generally what kind of information they contained.” But Dawn claims she never provided any of the Paula Payne Windows documents to Real Cheap, and that she never used them for any purpose.
Of course, Paula Payne Windows is skeptical. Paula Payne suspects that Dawn provided the documents to Real Cheap and used the confidential pricing information in the sales reports to undercut Paula Payne and poach some of its customers. But Paula Payne Windows has no evidence to prove this.
This fact pattern is similar to the scenario in the Waymo v. Uber case, one of the biggest trade secrets trials in recent years.
Variations on this theme are common. Employee behaves badly and takes confidential documents, Employer sues, and Employee denies using or disclosing the documents.
It raises several key practical and legal issues.
1. If the defendant wrongfully acquired the trade secrets but did not use or disclose them, is there “misappropriation”?
Let’s start with acquisition of the trade secrets. If the defendant wrongfully acquired the trade secrets, does the plaintiff have to prove the defendant also used or disclosed them?
The short answer is no. Here is the definition of “misappropriation” in the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act:
(3) “Misappropriation” means:
(A) acquisition of a trade secret of another by a person who knows or has reason to know that the trade secret was acquired by improper means; or
(B) disclosure or use of a trade secret of another without express or implied consent by a person who:
(i) used improper means to acquire knowledge of the trade secret;
(ii) at the time of disclosure or use, knew or had reason to know that the person’s knowledge of the trade secret was:
(a) derived from or through a person who used improper means to acquire the trade secret;
(b) acquired under circumstances giving rise to a duty to maintain the secrecy of or limit the use of the trade secret; or
(c) derived from or through a person who owed a duty to the person seeking relief to maintain the secrecy of or limit the use of the trade secret; or
(iii) before a material change of the position of the person, knew or had reason to know that the trade secret was a trade secret and that knowledge of the trade secret had been acquired by accident or mistake.
Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 134A.002(3). The federal Defend Trade Secrets Act has the same definition. 18 U.S.C. § 1839(5).
In short, TUTSA “provides six theories under which a plaintiff can establish misappropriation of trade secrets.” Six Dimensions, Inc. v. Perficient, Inc., 969 F.3d 219, 230 (5th Cir. 2020). These six theories can be grouped under two categories: (1) “acquisition of a trade secret” and (2) “disclosure or use of a trade secret.” Id.
So there you have it. “Acquisition” can be misappropriation, even without use or disclosure, if it meets the definition of misappropriation in the statute.
Yet courts have struggled with this question. In StoneCoat of Texas, LLC v. ProCal Stone Design, LLC, 426 F. Supp. 3d 311 (E.D. Tex. 2019), Judge Mazzant carefully surveyed Texas case law on whether “use” is an essential element of a trade secrets claim. He noted that some Texas cases say use is required, while others say it is not. Id. at 340-44. But ultimately, it was unnecessary to resolve that question because there was sufficient evidence to raise a fact issue on whether two defendants used the secret “French formula” at issue. Id. at 344-45.
Judge Mazzant returned to this issue in Accresa Health LLC v. Hint Health Inc., No. 4:18-cv-00536, 2020 WL 3637801, at *8-11 (E.D. Tex. July 6, 2020), discussing the StoneCoat opinion and other Texas opinions in detail. Again, he found that even assuming “use” is required, there was sufficient evidence to create a fact issue on whether the defendant used the alleged trade secrets. Id. at *11.
The cases stating that “use” is an element of a trade secret claim should be taken with a grain of salt. You have to start with the plaintiff’s theory of the case. If the plaintiff’s theory is that the defendant used or disclosed the trade secrets, then it will be accurate for the court to say evidence of “use” or “disclosure” is required. If, on the other hand, the plaintiff relies on an “acquisition by improper means” theory, then evidence of use may not be required.
In short, under the plain language of the statute’s definition of “misappropriation,” the “acquisition” theory is still a potentially viable theory.
But persuading a judge that “use” of the trade secrets is not required may be an empty victory. Because there is an obvious follow-up question: if the defendant didn’t use the trade secrets, how was the plaintiff damaged? Isn’t it the proverbial tree falling in the forest that no one hears?
2. If the evidence proves that Real Cheap Windows acquired the trade secrets from Dawn Davis but did not use them, what are the actual damages?
In theory, it may be possible to prove that Dawn Davis’s acquisition of the trade secrets—without any use or disclosure—caused actual damages to Paula Payne Windows. But in practice it will be difficult. Let’s say Paula Payne Windows cannot show that it lost any customer sales as a result of Dawn downloading the confidential sales reports. In that case it may have no actual damages.
But wait, Paula Payne, will protest. How can you say we were not damaged? Suppose our IT guy had to spend many hours investigating Dawn’s computer activity, and then we had to pay a forensic expert to investigate further. Then we had to pay our lawyer a huge amount of fees to send Dawn a demand letter, file a lawsuit, seek a Temporary Restraining Order, etc. How can you say we were not damaged?
Paula would have a point, but there’s a threshold problem with her argument. Generally, under Texas law a plaintiff cannot recover attorneys’ fees as actual damages. Worldwide Asset Purchasing, L.L.C. v. Rent-A-Center East, Inc., 290 S.W.3d 554, 570 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2009, no pet.). There are some exceptions, but none that fit the typical trade secrets dispute.
What about the forensic expert fees? Could Paula Payne Windows recover those expert fees as actual damages? The argument would be that but for the acquisition by improper means, the forensic investigation would not have been necessary.
If there is evidence that the employee’s misconduct naturally led to the company needing to hire a forensic expert to investigate, the fees may be recoverable as actual damages. See Sandberg v. STMicroelectronics, Inc., 600 S.W.3d 511, 528-29 (Tex. App—Dallas 2020, pet. filed) (forensic expert fees were recoverable as actual damages where they resulted from employee taking laptop computer with confidential information on it home after termination and not returning it for four days).
But whether the misappropriation caused those fees will depend on the specific facts. Was the forensic investigation caused by Dawn’s improper acquisition of the trade secrets, or did the forensic investigation cause the company to discover the improper acquisition? If it’s the latter, that may not be a viable actual damages theory. Similarly, if the internal IT guy is on salary, it’s probably an uphill battle to claim damages for time spent on the investigation.
So, when the misappropriation theory is acquisition by improper means, rather than use or disclosure, there may be some viable arguments for recovering actual damages, but usually those damages will be relatively minor. (I say “relatively,” because forensic expert fees, like attorneys’ fees, can add up quickly, easily reaching six figures or more in some cases.)
That’s good news for the employee, but it doesn’t lessen the sting of attorneys’ fees the employee will have to pay to defend a lawsuit.
Most of my trade secrets cases are not Google vs. Uber. They’re more like Jim Bob’s Oilfield Supply vs. Vince’s Valves. That means the cost of defense is sometimes a bigger factor than the amount of actual damages.
In many cases, that’s exactly what the plaintiff is counting on. If the company suing my client has more money and more determination, it may try to use the cost of litigation to bully my client into submission.
That brings up the next question.
3. If Dawn really didn’t use or disclose the information in the documents, how can she get the lawsuit dismissed without spending a small fortune on attorneys’ fees?
I encounter this practical problem a lot. There are several procedural options, but most of them have a low success rate.
a. Rule 12(b)(6) Motion in Federal Court
If Paula Payne Windows sues Dawn Davis in federal court and doesn’t allege specific facts establishing that Dawn used or disclosed the trade secrets, Dawn’s lawyer can file a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. I cover this in Set Phazrs to Stun: Motions to Dismiss in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation.
(Practice Tip: This is one factor that favors filing your trade secrets suit in state court. But of course there are many factors.)
As I wrote in the Phazr post, I’m usually not a big fan of filing a motion to dismiss, but in this scenario it makes some sense. If the plaintiff does not allege specific facts establishing that the defendant used or disclosed the trade secrets, there is a decent chance the court will grant the motion. See, e.g., Phazr, Inc. v. Ramakrishna, No. 3:19-CV-01188-X, 2019 WL 5578578, at *1-2 (N.D. Tex. Oct. 28, 2019).
On the other hand, all the plaintiff has to do is allege facts sufficient to make a plausible case that the defendant used or disclosed the trade secrets. See, e.g., Computer Sciences Corp. v. Tata Consultancy Servs., Ltd., No. 3:19-cv-970-X(BH), 2020 WL 2487057, at *6 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 7, 2020) (denying motion to dismiss where plaintiff alleged facts sufficient to plausibly allege misappropriation by unauthorized disclosure and use to develop a competing software platform).
So, even in federal court it’s usually difficult to get a motion to dismiss granted.
In Texas state court? Forget about it. At least, that’s what people used to say.
b. Rule 91a Motion in Texas State Court
Times have changed. Texas now has Rule 91a, which allows you to file a motion to dismiss a cause of action on the grounds that it has “no basis in law or fact.” A cause of action has no basis in law “if the allegations, taken as true, together with inferences reasonably drawn from them, do not entitle the claimant to the relief sought.” That’s pretty similar to the federal standard, so even if Dawn Davis gets sued in state court, her lawyer could give it a try.
But it’s probably an uphill battle. It’s not clear that Rule 91a incorporates the “Twiqbal” plausibility standard that applies in federal court. See Reaves v. City of Corpus Christi, 518 S.W.3d 594, 610 n.10 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2017, no pet.) (“this Court has rejected the argument that rule 91a replaced Texas’s notice-pleading standards with federal fact-pleading standards”). And if the court denies Dawn’s motion to dismiss, it could order her to pay Paula Payne’s attorneys’ fees. Tex. R. Civ. P. 91a.7.
c. TCPA Motion in Texas State Court
There was a brief, exhilirating era when you could file a motion to dismiss a trade secrets claim under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), the Texas “anti-SLAPP” statute, but those days are over. Texas courts have been steadily narrowing the scope of the TCPA, and the legislature has now carved trade secrets claims out of the TCPA. See my post Shrinkage: TX Legislature and 5th Circuit Cut the TCPA Down to Size. Or if you want something more scholarly, see Targeting the Texas Citizen Participation Act: The 2019 Texas Legislature’s Amendments to a Most Consequential Law.
d. Special Exceptions in Texas State Court
If you were a defense lawyer in Beaumont in 1979, you probably loved special exceptions. They’re delightfully old-fashioned. A special exception usually asks the court to order the plaintiff to plead a vague claim more specifically, or else to go hence without day.
Special exceptions are something of a throwback. These days, when there is so much pretrial discovery, judges tend to say that the better way for the defendant to pin down the plaintiff on specifics is through discovery devices like interrogatories, Rule 194 disclosures, and depositions.
But in this case, special exceptions may be just what the doctor ordered. If the plaintiff has no specific evidence of use or disclosure and just relies on broad conclusory allegations, I’ll file a special exception that asks the court to order the plaintiff to plead the specific facts supporting the allegation and, if the plaintiff cannot do so, to dismiss the trade secrets claim. If nothing else, it sets me up to try to spike the ball with a later motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment.
e. Motion for Summary Judgment
This is the grand-daddy. If Paula Payne Windows has no real evidence that Dawn Davis used or disclosed the alleged trade secrets, then a motion for summary judgment is the most direct way to attack that defect.
The problem, in a word, is discovery.
If Dawn’s lawyer files a motion for summary judgment at the start of the case, the lawyer for Paula Payne Windows is going to object that discovery has to come first. That means serving and responding to requests for production of documents, scheduling and taking depositions, and fighting over discovery disputes in pretrial hearings. All of that takes a lot of time and money. So it usually defeats the purpose of trying to get an unfounded claim dismissed quickly and inexpensively.
This is a problem in all kinds of litigation, not just trade secrets litigation. The Texas legislature and Texas courts have tried to do something about it—such as passing the TCPA—but there’s no easy answer. Unless you’re going to cut off a plaintiff’s right to seek discovery to support its claim, litigation is just going to be expensive. There’s no way around it.
Kind of like a forest.
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. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.