Motions to Seal in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation

Motions to Seal in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation

If you’re a Texas litigator, like me, then you probably already know that filing documents in state court under seal can be kind of a pain. There’s this pesky Rule 76a of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.

Rule 76a reads like it was written by some real do-gooder types:

  • Court records are “presumed to be open to the general public.”
  • Sealing court records requires showing a “specific, serious and substantial interest” that outweighs both the “presumption of openness” and “any probable adverse effect that sealing will have upon the general public health or safety.”
  • You have to file a motion to seal that is “open to public inspection” and “post a public notice” at the courthouse.
  • The public notice must contain “a brief but specific description of both the nature of the case and the records which are sought to be sealed.”
  • The court must hold a public hearing on the motion to seal.
  • The sealing order must state the “specific reasons” for finding the required showing has been made.
  • A non-party—oh, I don’t know, like maybe, the press?—can intervene to oppose a motion to seal.
  • Anyone who participated in the hearing can appeal the ruling.

This is great, right? We can’t have a Ford Pinto situation where Big Corp seals the court records that show its product explodes on impact and kills unsuspecting consumers. Openness! Transparency! Sunlight is the best disinfectant! The public has a right to know!

That all sounds great, but for most practicing litigators, this just sounds like stuff from the movies.

In a typical lawsuit I handle, my client cares a lot about the case, as does the opposing party, but nobody else cares. So, when I file a sealing motion under Rule 76a and post a notice on the courthouse door, I know that no one is going to read that notice or show up at the hearing to contest the motion. Ronan Farrow just isn’t going to care about the confidential profit margins inside Jim Bob’s Valve Supply Shop.

So for me, Rule 76a is just a hoop to jump through, with no public benefit, and it’s kind of annoying. It’s not that big a deal, but it is one more thing my client has to pay for.

This is especially likely to be an issue in my focus area, departing employee litigation, because that kind of case usually includes claims between competitors regarding confidential information and trade secrets. If the point of the lawsuit is to try to protect my client’s trade secrets, the last thing I want to do is reveal the trade secrets in documents publicly filed with the court.

Enter TUTSA, the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act. While Rule 76a establishes a presumption of openness designed to protect the public’s right to know, TUTSA has a whole section designed to do the opposite. 

Specifically, Section 134A.006(a) of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code commands that “a court shall preserve the secrecy of an alleged trade secret by reasonable means.” Then it goes on to say that “[t]here is a presumption in favor of granting protective orders to preserve the secrecy of trade secrets.” And the options available to the judge include “sealing the records of the action.”

But how do we square this more permissive sealing rule for trade secrets cases with the more restrictive Rule 76a?

Well, TUTSA itself tells us how. “To the extent that this chapter conflicts with the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, this chapter controls.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 134A.007(c).

And just in case that wasn’t clear enough: “the supreme court may not amend or adopt rules in conflict with this chapter.” Id.

Well, that settles it. If a case involves alleged trade secrets, then a motion to seal is governed by the more flexible provisions of TUTSA, and the hoop-jumping exercises of Rule 76a don’t apply, right?

Not so fast. TUTSA only displaces Rule 76a where the two are in conflict. In HouseCanary, Inc. v. Title Source, Inc., No. 19-0673, 2021 WL 1711123 (Tex. April 30, 2021), the Texas Supreme Court held that TUTSA only displaces some of Rule 76a.

(If the name of the case sounds familiar, maybe it’s because I wrote about the substantive issues in HouseCanary in The Jury Charge in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation.)

Writing for the majority, Justice Busby explained that TUTSA partially displaces the substantive sealing standards of Rule 76a, but “does not provide a separate, self-contained pathway—independent of Rule 76a—for seeking and ordering the sealing of court records.” In other words, “Rule 76a provides procedures and standards for sealing court records that include trade secrets, while TUTSA provides standards for protecting secrets by means including sealing.”

So what does TUTSA displace and not displace?

Specifically, HouseCanary held that TUTSA replaces the Rule 76a presumption that court records are open with a presumption “in favor of granting protective orders to preserve alleged trade secrets, including those in court records.”

But HouseCanary rejected the argument that “TUTSA supplants all of Rule 76a and provides an entirely separate path to sealing.” “Showing a conflict between TUTSA and one part of Rule 76a does not displace the whole rule,” Justice Busby reasoned. “Those procedures include public notice, the prohibition against motions for reconsideration absent changed circumstances, and the right of appeal.”

But how do you give public notice without spilling the beans? Easy. “[H]olders of a trade secret can notify the public of the type of information they seek to seal without disclosing that information,” the court said.

This is perhaps the most important practical result for practicing litigators: even in a trade secrets case, if you want a sealing order you still have to post the public notice required by Rule 76a.

And you still have to show that less restrictive means than sealing entire records—such as redaction—would be effective to preserve the trade secrets. That’s because TUTSA “lists a sealing order as only one of several means of preserving a trade secret.”

Thus, TUTSA is not necessarily a free ticket to seal any document filed with the court that a party claims contains alleged trade secrets.

So, the upshot of HouseCanary is that if you want to file a document in Texas state court under seal, on the ground that it contains alleged trade secrets, then you should:

  1. File a motion to seal under Rule 76a.
  2. Cite the presumption of protection of trade secrets from TUTSA, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 134A.006(a).
  3. Point out the presumption of openness in Rule 76a(1) does not apply (citing HouseCanary).
  4. Explain why less restrictive means, such as redaction, would not be adequate to protect the secrecy of the information. Tex. R. Civ. P. 76a(1)(b).
  5. Post the required public notice, including a “brief but specific description of . . . the nature of the case,” Tex. R. Civ. P. 76a(3), and a description of the “type of information” you seek to seal “without disclosing that information.” HouseCanary.
  6. Present your proposed sealing order at the hearing.
  7. Make sure your proposed order recites all the things required by Rule 76a(6) (except you probably don’t have to include “the specific reasons for finding and concluding whether the showing required by paragraph 1 has been made,” because under HouseCanary, that requirement is displaced by TUTSA).

Yes, this is kind of a pain, but no, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you do it. I’m sure some helpful blogger will publish a form Motion to Seal soon.

And assuming nobody shows up at the hearing to oppose the motion, your motion will usually be granted.

But there’s still one problem. This procedure is all well and good for pretrial filings with the Court, but what about evidence at trial? In a trade secrets trial, there will be both testimony and exhibits that reveal the alleged trade secrets. Trials are generally open to the public.

So if you offer evidence of your client’s trade secrets, or fail to object when the other side does so, have you waived trade secrets protection?

This was also an issue in HouseCanary. Title Source argued that HouseCanary waived trade secret protection by offering exhibits containing the trade secrets and discussing them in open court.

But the Texas Supreme Court said these facts alone did not conclusively establish a waiver. The court reasoned that information does not have to be kept “absolutely secret” to maintain trade secret status. Only “reasonable measures” are required. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 134A.002(6)(A). Whether secrecy has been lost is a “fact-intensive determination,” and publicly filing a document containing the trade secrets is just one factor to consider.

“Other relevant considerations include whether and when subsequent measures were taken to preserve the document’s secrecy, whether a competitor could readily ascertain the information, and whether the document was further published or disseminated outside court records.”

Thus, Title Source did not conclusively show that the exhibits lost their trade secrets status just because they were offered in a trial open to the public.

Dealing with trial exhibits containing alleged trade secrets is still a practical problem. But HouseCanary at least establishes that trade secrets status is not automatically lost just because an exhibit is admitted in the trial without a sealing order.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. 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.

Texas Trade Secrets Law 101 (Remastered)

Texas Trade Secrets Law 101 (Remastered)

Fixing a hole . . .

Why would you redo a masterpiece?

In the case of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, perhaps the most famous rock album of all time, it was mainly because of the technology available when the Beatles originally recorded the record in 1967.

Giles Martin, son of famed Beatles producer George Martin, explained this in an interview with NPR. He identified at least four important limitations of the recording and mixing technology available at the time.

First, stereo was still a new thing, and the Beatles had released most of their albums in mono. This explains why George Martin reportedly spent three weeks on the mono mix of Pepper and only three days on the stereo mix.

Second, you couldn’t sit at a computer for hours mixing all the tracks until you got it just right. As Giles Martin explained, mixing was essentially a live performance where his dad and famed engineer Geoff Emerick adjusted the levels on the fly.

Third, they had to keep the drum levels down, literally to keep the needle from jumping out of the groove of the record. Sorry, Ringo.

And finally, the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper on the four-track technology available at the time. If you know the album at all, you know the songs must have had more than four tracks. This magic was achieved by recording one four-track tape to a single track of another four-track tape.

Voila! Sixteen tracks. But sound quality was lost in the process.

When Giles Martin remixed the classic album in 2017, he was able to avoid all four problems. The result was a version of Sgt. Pepper that was noticeably different—and better, according to most listeners—without sounding too different.

The act you’ve known for all these years . . .

That’s what I wanted for Version 3.0 of my “Texas Trade Secrets Law 101” paper. Stick to the original concept—talk right down to earth, in a language lawyers and non-lawyers can easily understand—but update and improve it.

I had one problem Giles Martin didn’t: the temptation to make the paper longer. Giles wasn’t about to add new songs to the album (aside from alternate takes and songs available on the Super Deluxe version), but I had the ability to add new sections, new cases, new commentary.

To avoid the trap of making the paper longer and less readable, I imposed a limitation on myself: add new case cites where helpful, but keep the paper under five thousand words.

How? I had to count them all. Plus, I got under the limit by deleting some unnecessary citations, trying to tighten up the language throughout, and eliminating some of my personal commentary.

That last part was perhaps the hardest. My personal views gave earlier versions flavor. But sometimes you just have to cut the fluff. And I have to admit, it’s getting better.

After all, the goal of Texas Trade Secrets Law 101 (Remastered) is not to wax philosophical, but to give Texas business people and the lawyers who represent them a practical but substantive guide to the essentials of Texas non-compete law and litigation. You can download it here:

As I say in the Conclusion, the paper only scratches the surface, but it’s Texas Trade Secrets Law 101, not Advanced Texas Trade Secrets Law.

You’ll have to wait for the “Advanced” version. It can’t get no worse.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. 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 (or the paper) as legal advice for your case.

Does “Misappropriation” of Trade Secrets Require “Use” or “Disclosure”?

Does “Misappropriation” of Trade Secrets Require “Use” or “Disclosure”?

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:

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.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. 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.

Irreparable Injury, I presume?

Irreparable Injury, I presume?

Does misappropriation of trade secrets create a presumption of irreparable injury in Texas?

This is one of my best blog posts to come down the pike. It’s going to cement my blog’s status as one of the best sources for new developments in Texas trade secrets law. But maybe I’m being too presumptuous.

I’m guessing my Fivers don’t obsess over every new Texas trade secrets case like I do. So you may not realize the Texas Supreme Court made a big change to Texas trade secrets law on Juneteenth 2020.

The opinion, Pike v. Texas EMC Management, LLC, __ S.W.3d __, 2020 WL 3405812 (Tex. June 19, 2020), sparked a huge debate on law Twitter. One camp says that when Justice Brett Busby writes an opinion pouring out a multi-million-dollar jury verdict, it’s a “Buzz-burn.” The other faction says it’s a “Buzz-kill.”

But the change I’m talking about may have flown under the radar. Justice Busby’s opinion covered a lot of legal ground. So you may not have noticed that Pike overruled a line of Texas cases that say irreparable injury is presumed when a defendant misappropriates trade secrets.

At least I think it did.

Let’s drill down into the Pike case to understand why, and then I’ll explain why it’s important.

The secret sauce in Pike was a new kind of cement developed by EMC Cement. Pike was the President. When concrete cratered, a new company called VHSC bought the EMC Cement plant at a foreclosure sale and hired President Pike. See id. at *1-3.

The jury found that VHSC and Pike misappropriated EMC Cement’s trade secrets, and the trial court entered a judgment for millions in damages, including $1.5 million for misappropriation of trade secrets. Id. at *4. The Texas Supreme Court reversed the damage award on the kind of procedural and evidentiary grounds only an appellate lawyer could love. See id. at *12-13.

EMC Cement had also asked for a permanent injunction to stop VHSC and Pike from continuing to use the trade secrets. The trial court denied that request. Id. at *22.

But if the jury found that the defendants misappropriated the trade secrets, why didn’t that finding entitle EMC Cement to a permanent injunction against future use of its trade secrets?

The Court of Appeals presumed imminent and irreparable injury

That’s what the Waco Court of Appeals wanted to know. The Court of Appeals first said that the misappropriation of trade secrets established a presumption of imminent harm. Pike v. Texas EMC Mgm’t, LLC, 579 S.W.3d 390, 427 (Tex. App.—Waco 2017). Pike and VHSC “were in possession of EMC Cement’s trade-secret information and were in a position to use it,” the court said, so “imminent harm is presumed.” Id.

But imminent harm is not the same as irreparable harm, as I explained in Injunction Junction, What’s Your Function? Imminent means something is about to happen. Irreparable means you can’t compensate for that thing with damages. Those are two different things.

It’s easy to see why misappropriation of trade secrets would establish a presumption of imminent harm. If the defendant takes the plaintiff’s trade secrets and is in a position to use them, it’s not a big stretch to say harm is about to happen.

But irreparable? I don’t see how possession of the plaintiff’s trade secrets by a defendant in a position to use them proves that damages would be inadequate to compensate for the use of the trade secrets. That’s a non sequitur. I suspect this notion started with courts confusing imminent and irreparable. Plus, courts may have been looking for an easy rationale for affirming injunctions, even where there was really no evidence of irreparable injury.

However it came about, there is a line of Texas cases suggesting a presumption of irreparable injury arises when a defendant is in a position to misuse the plaintiff’s confidential information or trade secrets, and the Court of Appeals in Pike cited some of those cases. Id. at 428.

For example, in Williams v. Compressor Engineering Corp., 704 S.W.2d 469, 470 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1986, writ ref’d n.r.e.), the court said a finding of irreparable injury is unnecessary where a former employee is working for a direct competitor.

In IAC, Ltd. v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., 160 S.W.3d 191, 200 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2005, no pet.), the court said that “[w]hen a defendant possesses trade secrets and is in a position to use them, harm to the trade secret owner may be presumed,” and “[t]he threatened disclosure of trade secrets constitutes irreparable injury as a matter of law.”

pikes-peak-highway-3799979_1920
The Pike case went all the way to the peak of Texas courts

Based on the case law, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs satisfied both the imminent harm and irreparable injury requirements, and it was therefore an abuse of discretion for the trial court to deny a permanent injunction. Pike, 579 S.W.3d at 428.

In other words, the Court of Appeals said the misappropriation of trade secrets established a presumption of irreparable injury, supporting an injunction. But what does that really mean?

What’s a “presumption” anyway?

Let’s camp out for a second on “presumption.” What does that really mean? There are two kinds of presumptions in the law. A conclusive presumption is a legal conclusion that arises from certain facts and cannot be disputed. A rebuttable presumption is a legal conclusion that arises from certain facts, but that conclusion can be rebutted with other facts. When the law just says “presumption,” that usually means a rebuttable presumption.

So rebuttable presumptions are more common, and they essentially shift the burden of proof. Once a party offers evidence sufficient to create the presumption, the other party can rebut the presumption by offering some evidence—it doesn’t have to be a lot—that the presumption is wrong. At that point the presumption disappears. Poof! Then it’s up to the fact-finder to weigh the evidence and decide who is right.

So, for example, let’s say the cases cited by the Court of Appeals in Pike are correct that threatened misappropriation of trade secrets creates a presumption of irreparable injury. That means the burden then shifts to the defendant to offer evidence that the misappropriation will not cause irreparable injury. The defendant can rebut the presumption by offering evidence that the alleged harm can be adequately compensated by damages. Then the presumption should disappear.

That sounds pretty easy, right? You might even wonder why the presumption is such a big deal if it is so easily dispelled.

I’ll come back to that.

The question here is whether the Court of Appeals was right that the jury finding of misappropriation of trade secrets created a presumption of irreparable injury, which would entitle the plaintiffs to an injunction.

The Texas Supreme Court’s reasoning on irreparable injury

The Texas Supreme Court said no, the trial court was right and the Court of Appeals was wrong. Despite the jury’s finding of misappropriation of trade secrets, EMC Cement failed to show irreparable injury.

How can this be? What about the presumption?

Let’s remember what irreparable injury means: harm that cannot be adequately compensated by damages. As the Pike court recited:

“If there is a legal remedy (normally monetary damages), then a party cannot get an injunction too.” Pike, 2020 WL 3405812 at *24 (citing Schneider Nat’l Carriers, Inc. v. Bates, 147 S.W.3d 264, 284 (Tex. 2004)).

“[A] plaintiff can prove there is no adequate remedy at law where damages cannot be calculated.” Id. (citing Dresser-Rand Co. v. Virtual Automation Inc., 361 F.3d 831, 848 (5th Cir. 2004)).

“For purposes of injunctive relief, an adequate remedy at law exists when the situation sought to be enjoined is capable of being remedied by legally measurable damages.” Id. at *24 n. 38 (citing Dresser-Rand, 361 F.3d at 848).

So the question in Pike became whether damages for the future use of the trade secrets could be calculated in some legally measurable way. The Texas Supreme Court found that damages could be measured—and therefore there was no irreparable injury—where three factors were present:

(1) the plaintiffs themselves sought actual damages for misappropriation of the trade secrets,

(2) the plaintiffs presented expert testimony at trial that attempted to quantify the damages for the misappropriation of the trade secrets, and

(3) the damage calculation presented by the plaintiffs included damages attributable to future use of the trade secrets (not just past use).

See id. at *23.

In short, where the plaintiffs sought damages and presented expert testimony of damages partly attributable to future harm, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the plaintiffs a permanent injunction on the ground that they had an adequate remedy at law. Id. at *24.

You might be thinking this is no big deal for the plaintiffs in Pike because, hey, they still got to recover millions in damages, right? Well, no. Remember, the court poured out the trade secrets damage award.

But the fact that the plaintiffs failed to present sufficient expert testimony to support the damage award did not change the court’s conclusion that damages would have been adequate. “The failures of the EMC plaintiffs’ experts to take the necessary steps to connect their opinions to supporting data do not establish that no damages could be calculated.” Id.

Ouch. That does burn a little.

Pike teaches us that the plaintiff won’t be entitled to a trade secrets injunction where (1) the plaintiff seeks actual damages for trade secrets misappropriation, (2) the damages could be properly quantified, (3) the plaintiff presents expert testimony that tries to quantify future damages in some way, and (4) the trial court decides not to grant an injunction.

This tells us that just because there is misappropriation of trade secrets doesn’t mean there is irreparable injury. But it leaves many questions unanswered.

Questions left unanswered by Pike

First, don’t sleep on the standard of review. Technically, the holding in Pike was not that the trial court’s denial of an injunction was the right decision, but only that the trial court’s denial of an injunction was not an “abuse of discretion.” In theory, if the trial court judge had decided to grant an injunction, the court could have found that decision was also not an abuse of discretion (and I suspect that’s what would have happened).

But still, the standard of review is not the whole story. What happened to the presumption of irreparable injury? The Texas Supreme Court didn’t say it was overruling the cases that say misappropriation of trade secrets creates a presumption of irreparable injury. But it did say there was no irreparable injury, even where the jury found misappropriation of trade secrets. So how could the presumption still apply?

There are two ways to look at this. One is that Pike overruled the “presumption” line of cases sub silentio. “Sub silentio” is a Latin phrase that means “like a thief in the night.” You could interpret Pike as rejecting the presumption of irreparable injury without expressly saying so.

But another way to look at it is that, even assuming the evidence of misappropriation created a presumption of irreparable injury, there was other evidence that rebutted the presumption. Namely, the evidence that damages could be calculated. This is probably the better interpretation.

 

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It’s really not my place to tell you how to interpret Pike

The rest of the questions raised by Pike arise from the old trick of removing just one of the factors present in the case and asking if the result would change.

Let’s say the plaintiff presents expert testimony limited to past damages, without taking into account any future damages. Or let’s say the plaintiff doesn’t present any expert testimony whatsoever on damages. Would these differences change the result?

You could argue it shouldn’t make any difference. The question is not whether the plaintiff asked for damages or proved damages, but whether the plaintiff could have sought damages for the alleged misappropriation and reasonably quantified them.

So I think it comes down to whether anyone offers evidence that damages could or could not be calculated. And that leads to my practice tips.

Practice tips suggested by the Pike decision

Considering the importance of the irreparable injury requirement, you’d think lawyers on both sides of trade secrets injunction fights would routinely offer evidence to show that damages would or would not be adequate to compensate the plaintiff. But in practice, lawyers rarely do this, especially at the temporary injunction stage.

Why is that?

I think it’s mainly because the lawyers are focused on other issues. Litigators in these situations instinctively focus on whether the defendant did something wrong. Whether the resulting injury is “irreparable” is usually an afterthought.

And there is good reason for this instinct. In practice, trial court judges usually decide temporary injunctions based on how wrongful they think the defendant’s conduct was. See Does a Breach of a Texas Non-Compete Cause “Irreparable Injury”?  The judges don’t always think that hard about whether the threatened harm is irreparable.

And the trial court judges really don’t need to worry too much about it. A decision on a temporary injunction almost always holds up on appeal, because the Court of Appeals applies an “abuse of discretion” standard.

That’s not the only reason lawyers and judges don’t focus on irreparable injury. Even when they address the common-law requirements for an injunction, they tend to focus on whether the injury is imminent. But as I said, imminent and irreparable are two different things. Imminent means something is about to happen if the judge doesn’t stop it. That has nothing to do with whether damages would be adequate to compensate for the harm that is about to happen.

In many cases, you can get by focusing on whether the harm is imminent, but if you really want to bring your “A game” to a temporary injunction fight, you should actually offer evidence concerning the irreparable injury element. This isn’t my first temporary injunction rodeo, so I have some ideas on this, some of which I previously shared in Temporary Injunction Rulings in Texas Non-Compete Cases.

If you represent the plaintiff who is trying to get a temporary injunction in a trade secrets case, you want somebody to testify that it would be difficult to calculate the damages that would result from the defendant’s use of the trade secrets. Even better, you want that person to give specific reasons why calculating damages would be difficult.

Conversely, if you represent the defendant in a trade secrets injunction hearing, you want to offer evidence that the plaintiff could calculate the damages resulting from the use of the alleged trade secrets. This can be counter-intuitive, especially to your client. So you’ll want to explain in advance why it sounds like you’re offering evidence to prove damages for the plaintiff.

But what kind of evidence? One great way to get this evidence is on cross-examination of the plaintiff or plaintiff’s representative. “So Mr. CEO, it says in this Petition your company is claiming trade secrets damages in this case, correct?” Yes, the CEO will have to say. “But there’s no way you could calculate those damages with any reasonable certainty, is there?” You get the idea.

At the least, you can prepare your client to testify that “the plaintiff could calculate the damages that would result from my use of the alleged trade secrets.” That’s better than nothing. But that sounds a little conclusory, so it’s even better if your client can testify specifically about how damages could be calculated. If this makes you nervous, you can preface it by saying “we’re not agreeing to any claim for damages made by the plaintiff.”

But if you really want to show that damages would be adequate, consider expert testimony. You usually don’t have much time to prepare for a temporary injunction, but you probably have enough time to find and hire a qualified damages expert. The expert doesn’t have to do a whole damages calculation.

All you really need is for the expert to review the plaintiff’s pleadings, and maybe the depositions (if there are any), and then to testify that a qualified expert could calculate the amount of damages that would result from the use of the trade secrets alleged by the plaintiff. “I have calculated damages in dozens of cases like this one,” your damages expert can probably say. “It’s not necessarily easy, but it can be done with reasonable certainty, and it could be done in this case.”

Boom. You just rebutted any presumption of irreparable injury.

Now that’s a Buzz-burn.

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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.

The Jury Charge in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation

The Jury Charge in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation

When you hear “misappropriation of trade secrets,” you might picture some elaborate heist where the thief is lowered into the secure underground vault from an opening in the AC duct, like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. The thief hacks into the company’s server, downloads the secret weapons technology, then boards a plane to China where he hands the flash drive to a shadowy figure in exchange for a briefcase full of cash.

Of course, most trade secrets lawsuits are nothing like that.

For one thing, the typical trade secrets claim involves boring “soft” trade secrets like customer lists, pricing, and other customer information. And even in cases involving “hard” trade secrets like the literal or figurative secret sauce, the parties to the dispute usually had some legitimate business or employment relationship with each other before things went south.

That means in most trade secrets lawsuits, the person who allegedly “misappropriated” the trade secrets initially acquired them lawfully.

For example, in the typical departing employee dispute, an employee legitimately acquires the company’s trade secrets while working for the company. Another typical scenario is a contract between two companies containing an NDA. It might be an agreement between a vendor and a customer, or an agreement between two companies pursuing some kind of joint venture. They voluntarily share confidential information with each other, agreeing not to use it outside of that particular transaction.

In these situations, the initial acquisition of the trade secrets is not tortious. The claim is that misappropriation happened later, when the person did something with the trade secrets that he wasn’t supposed to do.

Both the Texas trade secrets statute and the federal trade secrets statute anticipate this kind of claim in the same way: a complicated multi-pronged definition of “misappropriation.”

“Misappropriation” means stealing, using, or disclosing

The definition of “misappropriation” is the same in both the Texas and federal trade secrets statutes. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 134A.002(3); 18 U.S.C. § 1839(5).  I would quote it but that would just confuse you. Instead, I’ll just sum it up as Wolfe’s Second Law of Trade Secrets Litigation: You can’t steal a trade secret, and you can’t use or disclose a trade secret without the owner’s consent.

(In case you missed it, Wolfe’s First Law of Trade Secrets Litigation says whatever company information the employee takes on the way out the door will be the alleged “trade secrets” in the company’s subsequent lawsuit.)

My Second Law is, of course, an oversimplification. And the statute doesn’t use the word “steal.” But Wolfe’s Second Law does capture the essence of “misappropriation.”

What I call stealing is what the statute calls “acquisition” of a trade secret by someone who knows or has reason to know that the trade secret was acquired by “improper means.”

The statute has a non-exclusive definition of “improper means” that includes “theft, bribery, misrepresentation, breach or inducement of a breach of a duty to maintain secrecy, to limit use, or to prohibit discovery of a trade secret, or espionage through electronic or other means.”

As you can see, “acquisition” through “improper means” is not limited to stealing a trade secret. It also includes getting a trade secret from someone you know (or should know) stole it. But for simplicity, let’s stick with “stealing.”

Stealing is fundamentally different from the other kind of misappropriation, use or disclosure. If you steal a trade secret, you can be held liable, even if you never do anything else with it. In other words, if you steal a trade secret in the woods and nobody hears it, it still makes a sound.

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Is this where they keep the trade secrets?

This distinction between stealing and using/disclosing becomes important in litigation. If you’re thinking ahead, you can see where this is going: the use or disclosure of a trade secret will often cause compensable damages to the owner of the trade secret, but how does mere acquisition of a trade secret harm the owner?

To make this more concrete, suppose an employee walks out the door on his last day with the company’s entire secret customer list, throws it in a drawer, and never looks at it again. How does that cause any damages?

Hold that thought.

The Casteel problem in jury trials

In most cases, the trade secrets damages question will be for a jury to decide, if the case gets that far. The Court’s Charge will give the jury questions, definitions, and instructions to guide the decision.

Typically, a trade secrets charge will have three key questions: (1) is the information actually a trade secret? (2) did the defendant “misappropriate” the trade secret? (3) what damages, if any, did the misappropriation cause?

But why only three questions? What if there are multiple trade secrets at issue in the case? And what if there are multiple ways the defendant allegedly “misappropriated” the trade secrets? In cases like that, it seems like it would be more precise to break these broad questions down into more specific questions.

Well, that’s not the way we typically do it. Texas law requires “broad-form” submission of questions to the jury, at least when “feasible.” There is a mountain of literature on what broad-form submission means, but to save you time I’ll sum it up as follows: the trial court should submit one broad question on each element of a cause of action, except when there is a good reason not to.

Let’s apply this to the most ordinary kind of lawsuit, a personal injury claim arising from a car accident. Typically, there will be one damages question that combines multiple elements of recoverable damages. The instruction might look like this:

In determining the damages Big Trucking caused Ms. Smith, you may consider:

    1. Physical pain and mental anguish.
    2. Loss of earning capacity.
    3. Physical impairment.
    4. Medical care.

Yawn. What could be more ordinary?

But suppose during the trial Ms. Smith’s lawyer offered no evidence whatsoever regarding loss of earning capacity. And suppose Big Trucking’s lawyer specifically objected to this instruction ahead of time, saying “Your Honor, you can’t include loss of earning capacity in the instruction because there’s no evidence.”

The judge brushes aside the objection, the jury returns a verdict for $90,000 in damages, and the trial court enters judgment for Ms. Smith in that amount. What should the Court of Appeals do with that?

A. Affirm the judgment. Any error is harmless, because the jury could have based the $90,000 on the other three elements of damages.

B. Reverse the judgment and order that Ms. Smith gets nothing. Her lawyer shouldn’t have included loss of earning capacity in the charge.

C. Reverse the judgment and remand for a new trial. Including an element for which there was no evidence is reversible error because there is no way for Big Trucking to show whether the $90,000 improperly included some amount for loss of earning capacity.

There is a case to be made for A, emphasizing judicial economy and respect for jury verdicts. If you picked B, you might be a sociopath. But if you picked C, you are in sync with the Texas Supreme Court.

These were essentially the facts of Harris County v. Smith, 96 S.W.3d 230 (Tex. 2002), except the defendant was Harris County, not Big Trucking. Harris County held that it was an error for the trial judge to submit a broad-form question that included an element for which there was no evidence, and that this was a harmful error because it prevented the appellate court from determining whether the jury based its verdict on an invalid element of damages. Id. at 234.

The court based this decision on a precedent from two years earlier, Crown Life Ins. Co. v. Casteel, 22 S.W.3d 378 (Tex. 2000). Casteel had followed the same reasoning, except that Casteel involved a liability question (not damages), and the objectionable element in Casteel was improper because it was legally invalid (not because of lack of evidence).

In Harris County the Texas Supreme Court found these distinctions immaterial. It therefore established a general principle for Texas jury trials: If a question to the jury includes an element that should not have been submitted, either because it is legally invalid or there is no evidence to support it, and if the complaining party timely and specifically objects to that defect, then the jury’s affirmative answer cannot stand.

Appellate lawyers now call this a Casteel error. They could call it a Harris County error, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Ok, but what does this appellate procedure detour have to do with trade secrets litigation?

The definition of “misappropriation” is custom-designed to create a Casteel problem

It is easy to see how a trade secrets lawsuit could create a Casteel error. This is likely to happen in several ways.

First, suppose the plaintiff claims that it has two kinds of trade secrets. Maybe one is a customer list and the other is a proprietary software program. Suppose there is evidence that the software is a trade secret, but insufficient evidence that the customer list is a trade secret. If the judge submits a single broad question asking whether the plaintiff owned a trade secret and the jury answers “yes,” how do we know if the jury improperly based that answer on the customer list?

Second, let’s assume the court submits a single damages question, but the plaintiff advances multiple theories about what was a trade secret and how the trade secrets were misappropriated, some of which have no evidence to support them. How do we know which theory the jury based the damages on?

Third, and most to the point here, there is the question on “misappropriation.” Let’s say the plaintiff claims both kinds of misappropriation, i.e. stealing and using/disclosing. What if there is no evidence of stealing? If the jury answers yes, there was misappropriation, there is no way to know if the jury based that answer on stealing or not.

In other words, a Casteel problem.

Fortunately, we have the Texas Pattern Jury Charges to help.

The Texas Pattern Jury Charge tracks the statute’s definition of “misappropriation”

A committee of the State Bar of Texas publishes the Texas Pattern Jury Charges, affectionately known as the PJC. The PJC provides standardized jury questions, definitions, and instructions. It is not legally binding on judges, but most judges will follow it most of the time.

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The 2016 PJC included trade secrets questions for the first time

In 2016 the PJC added new questions specifically addressing trade secrets claims. These questions line up with the three questions I outlined earlier, i.e. (1) existence of a trade secret, (2) “misappropriation” of a trade secret, and (3) damages.

Reviews were largely positive. See Book Review: The New Texas Pattern Jury Charge on Trade Secrets. As one reviewer wrote:

The new questions and instructions on trade secret misappropriation do what the Pattern Jury Charge is supposed to do. They provide a template for submitting trade secrets misappropriation questions that is consistent with Texas law and broad enough to apply to different kinds of cases.

Above all, the one thing you want to avoid in a jury instruction is misstating the law. The PJC question on misappropriation of trade secrets tries to avoid this by asking one simple question, “Did Don Davis misappropriate Paul Payne’s trade secret,” and following that question with instructions that track the statutory definition of “misappropriation.” This is a common PJC approach.

You can see the appeal of this. How can the other side complain about your proposed jury instruction if it quotes the language of the statute verbatim?

The problem with the Pattern Jury Charge approach to “misappropriation”

Still, tracking the language of the statute is not always the best approach, and sometimes it’s even the wrong approach, as we will see.

The problem is that the statutory language may not fit the facts of the case. As one reviewer noted back in March 2017:

There is a danger of rote use of the PJC questions when more specific questions tied to the facts of the case would be more appropriate and more understandable to the jury. . . . If the dispute is about whether the former employee used the employee’s customer list, why not just ask “did Don Davis use Paul Payne’s customer list?”

Ok, I confess. That reviewer was me. But still, it’s a valid point.

As I explained in my review, I tend to prefer more factually-specific trade secrets questions. “I like my questions better than the PJC questions,” I wrote. “They get right to the point and are easier for the jury to understand.”

But I neglected to mention another benefit of a trade secrets question that is specifically tailored to the facts of the case: it helps you avoid a Casteel problem.

A case study on “misappropriation” and the Casteel problem: Title Source v. HouseCanary 

The San Antonio Court of Appeals applied Casteel to a trade secrets claim in Title Source, Inc. v. HouseCanary, Inc., No. 04-19-00044-CV, 2020 WL 2858866 (Tex. App.—San Antonio June 3, 2020, no pet. h.). The jury question tracked three alternative elements of the statutory definition of “misappropriation” and quoted the statutory definition of “improper means.” The problem, Title Source argued, was that there was no evidence to support one of those elements.

The stakes for this technical issue of appellate procedure? Only a $706 million verdict, the largest in Bexar County history (according to Title Source’s brief).

The case arose from a contractual relationship in which acquisition of the alleged trade secrets was initially lawful. Title Source, a company affiliated with Quicken Loans that provides services including real estate appraisals, contracted with HouseCanary, a real estate analytics company, to develop an iPad app that could be used to perform appraisals more efficiently. The parties signed several contracts that included nondisclosure obligations.

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Title Source hired HouseCanary to create an iPad app for real estate appraisers

The facts detailed in the opinion are worth reading, but suffice to say that Title Source claimed the app didn’t work, while HouseCanary claimed that in the course of the relationship Title Source misappropriated HouseCanary’s trade secrets to develop its own app, called MyAVM. The jury answered yes to the misappropriation question and then found actual damages of $235.4 million and punitive damages of $470.8 million. Id. at *1-6.

There were also some juicy allegations that came out after the trial, including alleged collusion between HouseCanary and a Title Source officer and “hush money” paid to HouseCanary employees. You can read about that in Title Source’s Brief. (I would also include HouseCanary’s brief, but it was filed under seal.)

The Court of Appeals didn’t need to reach these spicier issues, because it focused on the Casteel problem presented by the misappropriation question. That question told the jury it could find misappropriation based on either a “use” theory” or an “acquisition by improper means” theory (my “stealing”). Id. at *9.

HouseCanary argued that the evidence showed that Title Source used HouseCanary’s trade secrets by relying on the information to assist or accelerate its own research and development. Id. at *10. And there seemed to be at least some evidence to support this argument.

The problem was that the jury question on misappropriation included elements for which HouseCanary had no evidence, i.e. a Casteel error.

The question went wrong in two ways. First, it quoted the statutory definition of “improper means” verbatim. It was therefore a correct statement of the law, but the definition of “improper means” included “bribery” and “espionage,” and there was no evidence that Title Source acquired the trade secrets through bribery or espionage. Because there was no evidence to support those theories, they should have been omitted from the “improper means” definition submitted to the jury. Id.

Hold on a minute. In HouseCanary’s defense, what if no one ever said anything about bribery or espionage in the trial? What is the chance that the jury actually based its answer on a theory that was included in the definition but never argued? This seems like a hyper-technical application of Casteel.

HouseCanary argued this very point, citing a Casteel exception: “a Casteel issue is not reversible if the reviewing court can be ‘reasonably certain’ the jury did not base its findings on the invalid theories.” Id. (citing Romero v. KPH Consol., Inc., 166 S.W.3d 212, 227-28 (Tex. 2005)). HouseCanary never pursued bribery or espionage theories at trial, it argued, so it was reasonably certain the jury did not base its answer on those theories.

But the Court of Appeals sidestepped this argument by focusing on the second problem with the misappropriation question. The question allowed the jury to find misappropriation based on acquisition of the trade secrets through “breach of inducement of a breach of a duty to maintain secrecy, to limit use, or to prohibit discovery of a trade secret.” And HouseCanary argued that theory throughout the seven-week trial, and on appeal. Id.

“But there is no evidence that TSI actually acquired the trade secrets through those breaches,” the Court of Appeals said. “Instead, the evidence shows those breaches, if any, occurred after HouseCanary willingly turned over its data under the NDA, the licensing agreement, and Amendment One.” Therefore, “those breaches do not support a misappropriation finding.” Id.

This was harmful error under Casteel, especially considering the arguments made by HouseCanary’s counsel in the trial. “[B]ecause HouseCanary so heavily emphasized the evidence it presented to the jury of TSI’s alleged post-acquisition breaches, we cannot rule out the possibility that the jury found misappropriation based on those breaches.” Thus, including the acquisition by improper means language in the charge was reversible error. Id.

The result: the Court of Appeals poured out the $700+ million trade secrets verdict and remanded the trade secrets claim for a new trial. Id. at *11. (According to legal-lingo.net, “pour out” is slang for “to deny (a claimant) damages or relief in a lawsuit.”)

Suppose instead that HouseCanary had submitted a simpler misappropriation question like the one I suggested in my review of the PJC, something like “did Title Source use HouseCanary’s trade secrets to aid or accelerate development of its own app?”

Do you think the jury still would have answered yes? Would the verdict and judgment have stood up on appeal?

We’ll never know for sure, and most of my cases don’t involve $700 million verdicts, so what do I know. But I can at least say this simpler question might have avoided the Casteel problem that got the judgment reversed.

Does the Pattern Jury Charge do more harm than good?

To be fair, the PJC question on trade secrets misappropriation anticipates the kind of problem illustrated by Title Source v. HouseCanary. Tucked away in the Comment section to PJC 111.2 (Question and Instructions on Trade-Secret Misappropriation), you will find these nuggets:

For further discussion, see PJC 116.2 regarding broad-form issues and the Casteel doctrine.

The above instruction lists these six alternative improper methods of acquisition, use, or disclosure in brackets, but only the method(s) supported by the pleadings and evidence should be submitted. 

Only those [improper] means raised by the evidence should be submitted.

Only the methods or means raised by the evidence should be submitted! It’s right there in the PJC comments. They even mention Casteel by name.

So, defenders of the PJC could say, with some justification, that the problem in Title Source v. HouseCanary was not that the judge followed the PJC on “misappropriation,” but that the judge didn’t follow the PJC closely enough.

Still, it makes me wonder. Does the PJC question on misappropriation of trade secrets do more harm than good? Might it be better just to tell trial courts to look at the statute and then apply it to the specific facts in dispute?

Keep in mind, it is likely that most Texas trial court judges have never submitted a trade secrets case to a jury. This is based on purely anecdotal evidence, but I’d be willing to bet money on it. Even if I’m wrong, I guarantee most of them could count their trade secrets jury trials on one hand.

I don’t mean this as a criticism, just to point out that jury trials on trade secrets claims are very rare.

As a result, most trial court judges may feel a little unsure of themselves when deciding how to charge the jury on a trade secrets claim. They will tend to fall back on the PJC and the language of the statute, because that feels like the safer thing. It wouldn’t surprise me if that is what happened in Title Source v. HouseCanary.

But the safer thing is not always the best thing.

Just ask Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.

*Update: The San Antonio Court of Appeals issued a new opinion on rehearing on August 26, 2020. Stay tuned for analysis.

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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.

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.

Set Phazrs to Stun: Motions to Dismiss in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation

Set Phazrs to Stun: Motions to Dismiss in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation

I’m not big on motions to dismiss, for reasons I’ll explain later.

Still, I often handle lawsuits with trade secrets claims, and sometimes those claims are a little questionable, even on their face. So maybe I should give motions to dismiss another look.

It’s an important issue, because if you represent the defendant, you may be able to get the trade secrets claim dismissed before your client has to pay an arm and a leg fighting over production of documents and other discovery issues. Conversely, if you represent the plaintiff in a suit for misappropriation of trade secrets, you need to know how to adequately plead the  claim so you can survive a motion to dismiss.

That’s true of any kind of lawsuit, but it’s especially important in a trade secrets lawsuit. To understand why, let’s look at a cousin of a trade secrets claim: a claim for breach of a non-compete.

It’s not hard to plead a claim for breach of a non-compete. You allege, for example, that Dawn Davis signed an employment agreement with Paula Payne Windows that includes a non-compete, that Dawn quit and went to work for a competitor, and that she has breached the non-compete by bringing her customers to the new company.

Dawn’s lawyer is going to have a hard time getting that suit dismissed at the pleading stage. In federal court, Dawn could file a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, but good luck with that. To overcome a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, all the plaintiff has to do is plead facts that are sufficient on their face. At that point the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove the facts.

It’s even easier for the plaintiff in state court in Texas, where I practice. Traditionally, there was no “motion to dismiss” in Texas procedure. The best you could do was to file “special exceptions” asking the plaintiff to plead the claim more specifically.

That has changed to some degree. Texas now has “Rule 91a” motions to dismiss and “TCPA” motions to dismiss. There was a short, glorious era when you could move to dismiss a trade secrets claim under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, but those days are gone. (See Shrinkage: TX Legislature and 5th Circuit Cut the TCPA Down to Size.)

So that leaves us with Rule 91a motions in Texas state court practice. Rule 91a is sort of the Texas equivalent of federal Rule 12(b)(6). I say “sort of” because it’s similar in some ways, different in others. Maybe I’ll cover that in a future post, but for now just Google it and you’ll probably find some decent articles.

Anyway, the point of that detour was that in both state and federal court, it’s not going to be hard for Paula Payne Windows to plead a case for breach of the non-compete. We’re not talking about whether Paula Payne ultimately wins the case, just whether it can plead enough facts to avoid getting dismissed at the outset.

Pleading problems in trade secrets cases

Adequately pleading a trade secrets claim can be more difficult. In a typical departing employee scenario, you often run into three problems.

First, you don’t always know what documents the employee took.

Second, even if you have evidence the employee took documents containing the alleged trade secrets, you may not have any direct evidence that the employee has already used the trade secrets or disclosed the trade secrets to the new employer.

Third, specifically identifying the trade secrets in your pleading may be difficult, or undesirable, or both.

Here’s an example. Suppose a company called Phazr developes cutting-edge millimeter wave (mmwave), virtualized Radio Access Network (vRAN), and Radio Frequency (RF) technology for 5G wireless communications networks. Just hypothetically.

Three of Phazr’s engineers leave the company and go to work for Mavenir, a company that competes with Phazr but does not have the capacity to develop or produce these particular technologies.

Suppose you are Phazr’s outside litigation counsel. Phazr’s general counsel calls you, freaking out. “Mavenir took our three key guys,” she says. “I’m talking about our principal wireless systems engineer, a vice president, and our principal RF engineer.”

“But did they have access to your trade secrets,” you ask.

“Absolutely,” she says. “They had access to the password-protected database and knew everything about our proprietary technology. We’ve got to get an injunction before they give Mavenir everything!”

Trouble is, Phazr doesn’t yet have any evidence that the engineers took documents containing the secret technology, nor does it have evidence that the former employees disclosed the technology to Mavenir or used it to compete with Phazr.

So you do the best you can. You plead the facts about the importance of the secret technology, the positions the employees held, their knowledge of the technology, and their access to the confidential information.

And to establish “misappropriation,” you allege that each employee “misappropriated Plaintiff’s trade secrets by taking trade secrets learned during his employment and stored on a password-protected shared database and has or will potentially use them during his employment with Mavenir to Plaintiff’s detriment.”

These were essentially the facts in the recent case Phazr, Inc. v. Ramakrishna, No. 3:19-CV-01188-X, 2019 WL 5578578, at *1-2 (N.D. Tex. Oct. 28, 2019).

Were these allegations sufficient to state a claim for misappropriation of trade secrets?

Everything I learned was wrong

If this had been a question on my first-year Civil Procedure exam in law school, it would have been easy. Sure, the pleading is not very specific about how and when the employees allegedly used the trade secrets, but the allegations are more than sufficient to give the defendant “fair notice” of the basic nature of the claim. Unless it’s a claim for fraud, which must be pled with “particularity,” that’s all the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require.

That’s the answer I would have scribbled in my blue book. And I knew a guy like Prof. Mike Tigar wasn’t big on nit-picky pleading standards. And if you had asked me the same question in my second-year Texas Civil Procedure class, it would have been even more of a no-brainer.

That’s because the Texas pleading standard was “fair notice” on steroids. If the pleading isn’t specific enough, file some special exceptions. Or serve some contention interrogatories and take a deposition. This ain’t federal court. I can just imagine Prof. Jack Ratliff saying this in his Texas twang.

But that was a long time ago. Before the dark times. Before Twombly and Iqbal.

Turns out that “fair notice” stuff was all wrong. After I graduated law school, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a pair of cases affectionately known as Twiqbal, holding that a plaintiff has to plead enough specific facts to state a claim for relief that is “plausible” on its face. And plausible means more than merely “probable.” Fair notice isn’t enough.

Technically that’s just for federal court. Texas is still Texas. But the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure are becoming more “federalized” all the time. See Federal-Style Motions to Dismiss May Come to Texas.

Mind you, the “plausible” standard is still a fairly low bar, and it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But you know if the defendant’s lawyers can make a plausible case that the plaintiff’s allegations are implausible, they’re likely to file a motion to dismiss, even if the chance of success is low.

Why BigLaw likes motions to dismiss

Motions to dismiss are especially popular in the BigLaw world. Big law firms often defend big lawsuits filed in federal court. And a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss is the perfect assignment for a BigLaw associate. You study the petition, research the law that applies, write a nice legal research memo, and then draft the motion. The partner revises the motion, and then you file it. The plaintiff files a response, you file a reply, and if you’re lucky you even get a hearing with the judge. It’s good for at least 20 billable hours.

Chances are, you will lose the motion, but that’s ok. In addition to the billable hours, this approach suits the standard BigLaw defense playbook: delay. Stop the plaintiff’s momentum. Drive the cost of the litigation up for the plaintiff. Plus, you want to try to put off the time and expense of discovery to your client as long as possible.

Besides the billable hours, motions to dismiss are often important in the lawsuits big law firms like to defend, like securities fraud class actions against big public companies. The pleading standard is even higher for such cases, especially in the Fifth Circuit, so beating a motion to dismiss is a huge win for the plaintiff. There’s a decent chance the case will then settle because of the cost of discovery to the defendant. So the motion to dismiss is often the key event in the lawsuit.

In my litigation practice, not so much. In a typical case I’m representing a smaller business, a startup, an entrepreneur, or an individual executive or salesperson. The damages are more often in the low to mid six figures, not the millions. So like a lot of small-firm lawyers, I’m not looking to delay things and drive up the cost. I usually want to get right to the merits and either settle or duke it out in court.

So like I said, I’m not big on motions to dismiss.

But two developments may change my mind. First, I see increasing use of contrived trade secrets claims to try to impose a “de facto” non-compete on departing employees. I touched on this issue in When Is a Customer List a Trade Secret?

Second, I’m seeing cases like Phazr that can be cited in support of a motion to dismiss.

The Phazr Case

The complaint in Phazr stated a pretty plausible case that the three employees had access to the company’s confidential technology. But the pleading fell short because it did not state enough facts to make a plausible case for the misappropriation element of the claim. Phazr, 2019 WL 5578578 at *4. There were three reasons for this.

First, while the complaint said the right words–“misappropriated and used or disclosed”–this was insufficient, because the “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id.

Second, the the complaint only speculated that the three employees misappropriated trade secrets. While the complaint alleged the employees took trade secrets stored on a password-protected database, it “fail[ed] to identify what trade secrets the individual defendants took from the database.”

Even aside from that, the plaintiff did not allege facts establishing that the defendants disclosed or used the alleged trade secrets:

Even if Phazr had identified the trade secrets the individual defendants took from its database (which it did not), it still fails to adequately allege that the individual defendants ever disclosed the trade secrets to Mavenir or used them at Mavenir. Indeed, Phazr has failed to show that Mavenir ever acquired the trade secrets from the individual defendants. In short, Phazr at best pleads possibility rather than plausibility.

The court added that Mavenir’s mere employment of three former Phazr employees did not establish that Mavenir acquired and used Phazr’s trade secrets. Id. This was obviously a nod to my post The “Inevitable Disclosure” Doctrine in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation.

Third, the allegation that Mavenir lacked the capacity to develop competing technologies before it hired the three employees did not establish “actual causation,” i.e. that Mavenir gained the capacity to develop the technologies by hiring the employees. Id. at *5.

The court concluded that Phazr had failed to adequately alleged misappropriation of trade secrets and therefore failed to state a claim. Id.

This conclusion was consistent with precedent, the court said. The court acknowledged that plaintiffs have survived motions to dismiss by “identifying specific trade secrets that defendants used to assist competitors in stealing clients.” Id. (citing BRG Ins. Sols., LLC v. O’Connell, No. 3:16-CV-2448, 2017 WL 7513649, at *8 (N.D. Tex. July 18, 2017)).

In another case, the plaintiff avoided dismissal by alleging that employees emailed themselves confidential data and that, when they joined a competitor, the competitor acquired the data and used it to bid against the first employer. Id. (citing Clean Energy v. Trillium Transp. Fuels, LLC, No. CV H-19-244, 2019 WL 1522521, at *3 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 22, 2019)).

But this was not such a case. When the complaint lacks factual content showing that a defendant took or participated in using specific information, dismissal of a trade secrets claim is appropriate. Id. (citing Red Ball Tech. Gas Servs., LLC v. Precise Standards & Sols., Inc., No. 4:17-CV- 2090, 2018 WL 276467, at *4–5 (S.D. Tex. Jan. 3, 2018)).

In short, “Phazr fail[ed] to allege particular acts of acquisition, disclosure, or use of its trade secrets that would constitute actual—and not merely possible—misappropriation.” Id.

*Update: In the words of Leslie Knope, the court gave Phazr “one chance to make a third impression,” but Phazr’s Second Amended Petition still failed to allege plausible facts showing that the defendants actually used Phazr’s trade secrets. 2020 WL 5526554, at *4 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 14, 2020). Phazr failed to allege how defendants’ knowledge was incorporated into Mavenir’s 5G products. Id.

But if you represent the defendant in a trade secrets case, don’t get too excited about Phazr. Every case turns on the specific facts. The plaintiff only needs enough facts to plead a plausible case that the trade secrets were used or disclosed. 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).

The philosophical divide

Maybe next time I feel like a trade secrets claim against my client is especially weak, I’ll file a motion to dismiss and cite Phazr and the other cases it cites.

But the response I’ll get from the plaintiff’s lawyer is obvious: we don’t yet have specific evidence of how the defendants used or disclosed our trade secrets because they have hidden that information from us. We need discovery to find that out.

It’s at least a reasonable argument, and it points to the fundamental philosophical divide over pleading standards and motions to dismiss. One side thinks that you should not have the right to file a lawsuit and open the floodgates of discovery unless you already have evidence to support your allegations. The other side thinks you should only need a reasonable basis for pleading the claims, and the purpose of discovery is to allow you to obtain evidence to support the claims.

There’s enough wiggle room in the pleading standards to allow judges of either school of thought to decide whether they think a particular trade secrets claim is strong enough to proceed. There’s also enough room for interpretation to allow judges to block trade secrets claims they think are contrived and without merit. And maybe that’s how it should be.

For litigators like me, the bottom line is that cases like Phazr identify some common pitfalls to try to avoid when drafting the complaint (or petition), and conversely, opportunities to move to dismiss lawsuits that fall short.

*2nd Update: Broad allegations of trade secret status may not be sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss, especially if the plaintiff itself alleges disclosure to third parties. In Weinfuse, LLC v. Infuseflow, LLC, No. 3:20-CV-1050-L, 2021 WL 1165132, at *3 (N.D. Tex. March 26, 2021), the court granted a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim that its software for infusion center management was a trade secret. The court said the plaintiff’s description of the software’s features as “far too broad to qualify as trade secrets,” where the plaintiff failed “to point to specificities that convey the unique capabilities of the Software,” and the plaintiff alleged that it pitched the software to potential customers, without alleging any protective measures. Id. at *4.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. 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.

Let’s Roll: Do’s and Don’ts for Texas Trade Secrets Injunctions

Let’s Roll: Do’s and Don’ts for Texas Trade Secrets Injunctions

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!”

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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.

The “Inevitable Disclosure” Doctrine in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation

The “Inevitable Disclosure” Doctrine in Texas Trade Secrets Litigation

Does Texas law recognize the “inevitable disclosure” doctrine? Should it?

This strikes me as the wrong question. The right question is not “should Texas follow the inevitable disclosure doctrine?” but rather “what evidence is sufficient to establish imminent harm from the threatened use of trade secrets?” I propose the following dichotomy:

  1. In a “soft” trade secrets case, the mere fact that a former employee knows a company’s trade secrets and has gone to work for a competitor should usually be insufficient to establish the “imminent harm” necessary to support a temporary injunction barring the employee from working for the competitor. There must be something more, such as evidence of a plan to use the trade secrets, or evidence that the employee has already used or disclosed the trade secrets.
  2. But in a “hard” trade secrets case, “something more” might not be required if the trade secret is so super-secret and valuable the employee’s mere knowledge of it creates an imminent risk that the employee will disclose it to her new employer.

I admit that no. 2 is a little circular, but there’s really no getting around that. At least my test puts the emphasis on the degree of the threat, where it should be.

But what is a “soft” trade secret? Or a “hard” trade secret? And what is the inevitable disclosure doctrine in the first place? Let’s back up a bit.

The Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine

The inevitable disclosure doctrine is a concept in trade secrets law. It is the idea that a person who knows a company’s trade secrets can be enjoined from working for a competitor on the theory that the person will inevitably use that knowledge.[1] For example, in T-N-T Motorsports, Inc. v. Hennessey Motorsports, Inc.,[2] the court held that evidence that the defendants possessed the plaintiff’s confidential information and were “in a position to use it to compete” showed an “inherent threat” sufficient to support an injunction.

The Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (TUTSA) and the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) do not expressly refer to the inevitable disclosure doctrine. The doctrine can be seen as an application of the common-law “imminent harm” requirement for an injunction. The question is whether harm is imminent when a person with knowledge of the company’s trade secrets is working for a competitor.

The DTSA indirectly rejects—or at least constrains—application of the inevitable disclosure doctrine in two ways. First, it authorizes the court to grant an injunction “to prevent any actual or threatened misappropriation,” but with the important limitation that the court cannot “prevent a person from entering into an employment relationship.” The court can place conditions on such employment, provided the conditions are based on “evidence of threatened misappropriation and not merely on the information the person knows.” In other words, the court cannot limit a former employee’s work for a competitor based merely on the idea that the employee will inevitably disclose the employer’s trade secrets. Second, the injunction cannot conflict with an applicable state law “prohibiting restraints on the practice of a lawful profession, trade, or business.”[3]

Similarly, TUTSA codifies the common-law principle that an injunction may not prohibit a person from using “general knowledge, skill, and experience” acquired during employment.[4] This limitation emphasizes that injunctions should be narrowly tailored to prevent disclosure of trade secrets, not to unreasonably restrict employee mobility. Still, TUTSA at least leaves open the possibility that a risk of “inevitable disclosure” of trade secrets could establish the “imminent harm” needed to support a temporary injunction.

Texas law is unsettled on whether and to what extent the inevitable disclosure doctrine applies.[5] But we can draw some preliminary conclusions from the case law.

First, if there is evidence that the employee has already disclosed the alleged trade secrets to the competitor, or used the alleged trade secrets while working for the competitor, then resort to the inevitable disclosure doctrine is unnecessary. The doctrine only becomes a real issue when the evidence is that the employee possesses or knows the trade secrets but has not done anything wrong with them—yet.

Second, inevitable disclosure really goes to the question of an injunction, not damages.

Global Supply v. Riverwood

Both principles were apparent in Global Supply Chain Solutions, LLC v. Riverwood Solutions, Inc., No. 05-18-00188-CV, 2019 WL 3852661 (Tex. App.—Dallas Aug. 16, 2019, no pet.), a case showing the limits of the “inevitable disclosure” argument.

In that case, Global Supply and Riverwood were competitors in the supply chain management industry, including product data management (PDM) services. Id. at *1. They had merger discussions in which Global Supply provided a seven-page PowerPoint presentation containing financial information about Global Supply. Id. at *2. After these discussions were abandoned, Riverwood unsuccessfully solicited two customers of Global Supply and recruited Lori Austin, a consultant for Global Supply, to be Riverwood’s director of PDM services. Id. at *2-3.

Global Supply sued Riverwood and Austin in Collin County District Court, claiming misappropriation of trade secrets, but Global Supply never set a hearing on a temporary injunction. Id. at *4. After some discovery and designation of experts, the parties filed motions for summary judgment, including Riverwood’s motion for summary judgment on Global Supply’s trade secrets claim. Id.

The problem for Global Supply was that there was no “direct evidence” that Austin disclosed any trade secret to Riverwood. Id. at *7. So Global Supply argued that it was “inevitable” that Austin would disclose its trade secrets in the course of her employment at Riverwood. Id. In other words, the inevitable disclosure doctrine.

In support of its argument, Global Supply cited the Seventh Circuit’s statement that “a plaintiff may prove a claim of trade secret misappropriation by demonstrating that defendant’s new employment will inevitably lead him to rely on the plaintiff’s trade secrets.” Id. (citing PepsiCo, Inc. v. Redmond, 54 F.3d 1262, 1269 (7th Cir. 1995)).

But Collin County ain’t in the Seventh Circuit, and the trial court granted summary judgment for Riverwood and Austin.

The Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting Global Supply’s inevitable disclosure argument. The court cited Cardinal Health Staffing Network, Inc. v. Bowen, 106 S.W.3d 230, 241-42 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] April 3, 2003, no pet.), which said “[w]e have found no Texas case expressly adopting the inevitable disclosure doctrine, and it is unclear to what extent Texas courts might adopt it or might view it as relieving an injunction applicant of showing irreparable injury.” Id.

Global Supply argued that the adoption of TUTSA brought the inevitable disclosure doctrine to Texas, but the court disagreed. The court reasoned that the “ultimate merits” are not at issue in a temporary injunction hearing in a trade secret misappropriation case. Thus, whatever merit the inevitable disclosure argument may have in support of a temporary injunction, the court said the argument is insufficient to raise a fact issue on damages in response to a motion for summary judgment. Id. at *8.

The court then turned to whether Global Supply had offered sufficient evidence on the elements of its TUTSA claim. Global Supply offered the following:

  • The idea that building supply sourcing could be operated as a standalone business was the trade secret misappropriated by Riverwood.
  • Riverwood contacted a Global Supply customer about using Riverwood for sourcing building supplies, knowing he was a Global Supply customer.
  • Austin was doing the same work at Riverwood that she did for Global Supply.
  • Peck, Global Supply’s president, testified that Austin “must have” disclosed Global Supply’s confidential information in order to do her job at Riverwood.
  • Peck also testified that building supply sourcing “was unlike anything Riverwood was doing at the time.”

Id. at *14-15.

So, the evidence of misappropriation was pretty thin, especially in light of controverting evidence:

  • Global Supply did not share any information about its building supply sourcing business model with Riverwood.
  • The seven-slide PowerPoint presentation did not include this information, and Global Supply conceded that the merger discussions did not involve delivery of trade secrets other than that delivered in writing.
  • Riverwood had sourced building supplies before the merger discussions.
  • Peck conceded Riverwood could have provided building supply sourcing without his being aware of it.
  • Global Supply did not lose any business from the customer Riverwood contacted.
  • Austin testified she returned all company property to Global Supply, did not retain Global Supply documents, complied with her confidentiality agreement, never disclosed Global Supply’s confidential information or trade secrets to Riverwood, and only used generally known information.
  • Peck conceded he had no knowledge of the work Austin was actually doing at Riverwood.
  • Austin testified about how she performed her job responsibilities at Riverwood without using Global Supply’s confidential information.

Id. at *14-15.

Based on the evidence, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court properly granted summary judgment against Global Supply’s trade secrets claim. Id. at *15-16. Thus, the “inevitable disclosure” argument could not fill the gaps in Global Supply’s evidence of misappropriation of trade secrets.

So did Global Supply reject the inevitable disclosure doctrine? Not really. Two significant factors limit the reach of Global Supply. First, it was not a temporary injunction case. Trying to use the inevitable disclosure doctrine as a substitute for direct evidence of damages was a stretch.

Second, the court seemed skeptical of Global Supply’s theory that its business model was a trade secret in the first place. This was apparent in the court’s statement that “Global supply does not point to any summary judgment evidence that it shared with Riverwood any information about its ‘business model’ that ‘took extensive effort to develop.’” Id. at *15.

A Harder Case

Imagine instead a temporary injunction case with evidence that the alleged trade secret is really secret and really valuable. Let’s say an oilfield services company develops a secret drilling technology that a competitor would pay millions for. The engineer who developed the technology for the company gets hired by a direct competitor as Director of Engineering. There’s no evidence that the engineer has disclosed the technology to the competitor, or even evidence that he plans to do so, but the trial court enters a temporary injunction barring the engineer from working for the competitor, citing the imminent risk that the engineer will disclose the technology.

Even then, you might question whether an injunction is warranted when the engineer hasn’t done anything wrong yet. But this scenario provides at least a stronger case for application of the inevitable disclosure doctrine, first because it involves an injunction and second because it involves a “hard” trade secret.

The two quintessential types of hard trade secrets are “secret sauce,” like the Colonel’s herbs and spices or the formula for Coke, and secret cutting-edge technology, like say, laser guidance for self-driving cars. When an employee runs off to a competitor with that kind of secret, it does seem a little unfair to require proof that employee has already given the secret to the competitor.

“Soft” trade secrets are different. Soft trade secrets are things like customer lists, customer information, and pricing information. Virtually every business has this kind of information. That doesn’t mean the information can’t be a trade secret. It can, as I explained in When Is a Customer List a Trade Secret?

But there’s a danger here. If courts grant injunctions too freely in soft trade secret cases, they risk turning trade secret law into a “de facto” non-compete for all employees who have customer information. And Texas courts have recognized we don’t want to do that. See Trilogy Software, Inc. v. Callidus Software, Inc., 143 S.W.3d 452, 466-67 (Tex. App.—Austin 2004, pet. denied) (“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”); St. Jude Medical S.C., Inc. v. Janssen-Counotte, No. A–14–CA–877–S, 2014 WL 7237411, at *16 (W.D. Tex. Dec. 17, 2014) (“To the extent St. Jude S.C. contends there is probable or inevitable disclosure simply based on the fact Janssen acquired trade secrets while working at St. Jude Belgium/Netherlands, the Court rejects this notion. If accepted, non-disclosure obligations would morph into non-compete agreements.”) .

That’s why I say in a soft trade secrets case, there should be some evidence that the employee has used or disclosed the trade secrets—or plans to do so—before the court grants a temporary injunction. If Texas courts are going to embrace the notion of “inevitable disclosure” at all, it should be limited to cases involving hard trade secrets.

Of course, the distinction between hard and soft trade secrets is not in the statutes; it’s just my terminology. And you could always have borderline cases (“semi-soft” trade secrets?) But the underlying concept—that the degree of secrecy and value of the alleged trade secrets is a factor in determining whether a temporary injunction should be granted—is sound. At least it focuses on the right question.

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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] See The Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine: A Necessary and Precise Tool for Trade Secret Law.

[2] 965 S.W.2d 18, 24 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1998, pet. dism’d). Similarly, in Rugen v. Interactive Bus. Sys., Inc., 864 S.W.2d 548, 552 (Tex. App.–Dallas 1993, no pet.), the court affirmed a temporary injunction prohibiting use of confidential information, where the former employee was in possession of the employer’s confidential information and “in a position to use it.” But in Conley v. DSC Communications Corp., No. 05-98-01051-CV, 1999 WL 89955, at *4 (Tex. App.–Dallas 1999, no pet.), the court said: “Contrary to the parties’ arguments, this Court did not recognize a ‘doctrine of inevitable disclosure’ in Rugen; instead, we recognized that enjoining an employee from using an employer’s confidential information is appropriate when it is probable that the former employee will use the confidential information for his benefit (or his new employer’s benefit) or to the detriment of his former employer.”

[3] 18 U.S.C. § 1836(b)(3).

[4] Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 134A.003.

[5] Cardinal Health Staffing Network, Inc. v. Bowen, 106 S.W.3d 230, 241-42 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] April 3, 2003, no pet.); DGM Services, Inc. v. Figueroa, No. 01-16-00186-CV, 2016 WL 7473947, at *5 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 29, 2016, no pet.) (mem. op.).

Houston Judge Calls Out Texas Supreme Court’s Simplistic “Textualist” Approach to TCPA

Houston Judge Calls Out Texas Supreme Court’s Simplistic “Textualist” Approach to TCPA

I don’t know if Justice Terry Jennings is one of my Fivers, but apparently he agrees with a lot of Five Minute Law’s past propaganda regarding textualist application of the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA).

In a concurring opinion issued just before Christmas 2018, Justice Jennings criticized the Texas Supreme Court’s overly broad and literal interpretation of the TCPA, urging both the legislature and the Texas Supreme Court to fix the problem. His opinion echoes some of the points I made in past hits like It’s Alive, It’s ALIVE! How to Kill a TCPA Motion in a Trade Secrets Lawsuit.

But what’s the problem? First let’s back up a little and recap:

  • The TCPA was intended as an “anti-SLAPP” statute, i.e. to discourage a litigation bully from filing a lawsuit against a “little guy” in retaliation for the little guy exercising his free speech rights.
  • When the TCPA applies, it gives the defendant the valuable procedural right to file a motion to dismiss that puts the burden on the plaintiff to support its claims with evidence, before the plaintiff has had any opportunity to take discovery.
  • The TCPA applies when the plaintiff’s claim “is based on, relates to, or is in response to” the defendant’s exercise of the “right of free speech” or the “right of association.”
  • The statute defines the “exercise of the right of free speech” broadly as a “communication made in connection with a matter of public concern,” with “matter of public concern” also defined broadly to include an issue related to “a good, product, or service in the marketplace.”[1]
  • The statute defines the “exercise of the right of association” broadly as “a communication between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests.”[2]

You can see from this language how the TCPA could lead to good results. A neighborhood group forms to stop a nearby refinery from releasing toxic gases. Global Oil Conglomerate instructs its BigLaw minions to sue the group for defamation based on posts on its Facebook page. Rather than buckling under the weight of enormous legal fees, the plucky neighborhood group hires a small town lawyer to file a TCPA motion to dismiss. The judge grants the motion, orders Global to pay the group’s legal fees, and Matthew McConaughey wins an Oscar for his portrayal of the lawyer.

Everyone’s happy. Alright, alright, alright.

But you can also see how the broad language of the TCPA could apply to lawsuits the legislature never had in mind. Imagine a porn star sues the President for defamation. The judge dismisses the case and orders the porn star to pay the President’s legal fees. It could happen.

That was at least a defamation case, which is clearly the type of case the legislature had in mind when it passed the TCPA. It seems much less likely that the legislature intended to fundamentally change the way departing employee cases are litigated.

Departing employee litigation is near and dear to my heart because it’s the kind of lawsuit I often handle. This is the type of case where an employee or group of employees leaves a company and either forms a competing company or goes to work for a competitor. Usually the first company asserts claims like breach of a non-compete and misappropriation of trade secrets.

These cases usually don’t raise any true “free speech” or “free association” issues. The “right of association” is not a defense to enforcement of a non-compete (provided the non-compete is reasonable and enforceable), and there is no First Amendment right to communicate your employer’s trade secrets to a competitor.

So what should the judge do in a departing employee case where the defendant files a TCPA motion to dismiss? On the one hand, the TCPA applies when a claim is based on “a communication between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests.” Construed literally, that language applies to the allegation that an employee joined a competitor and disclosed his former company’s trade secrets.

On the other hand, the purpose of the statute is to protect constitutional rights, and a claim of trade secret misappropriation really doesn’t implicate such rights. Should the judge apply the statute literally, even though the result is not what the legislature intended?

Enter textualism.

We are all textualists now

Textualism is somewhat controversial. In part this is because in practice textualism is popular with one particular political party and ideology. But everyone who works in the law—at least everyone who is serious—is a textualist to some extent. No one seriously argues that the text of a statute—or a Constitution—should be ignored.

The fact that we are all textualists to some extent is apparent in the absence of any real “-ism” that is the opposite of “textualism.” No group identifies itself as the “Non-Textualists” or the “Anti-Textualists.” (The same point applies to “originalism,” but I won’t open that can of worms here.)

No, we all agree that when you interpret a text, the starting point is, duh, the text. You might find some radical academic types who question that premise, but no one who works in the law would seriously say “the text of the statute is totally irrelevant to me.”

On the other side of the spectrum, even the most committed textualist will concede that sometimes a judge should look to extrinsic sources to interpret the text. For example, if a statute is ambiguous, even after applying canons of statutory construction, then just about everyone would agree you can look to the purpose of the statute, or some other extrinsic source, to  decide which of two reasonable constructions of the statute makes more sense.

Similarly, even the strict textualist camp would concede the principle—recognized in many court decisions—that extrinsic sources should be consulted when the literal application of a statute would produce a truly absurd result.

So if we all agree on these basic principles, what’s all the controversy about?

Here’s where it gets hard: when literal application of a statute would produce a result that, while not rising to the level of absurd, is contrary to the intended purpose of the statute. That’s where I think the dividing line is.

In this scenario, the true textualist bites the bullet and says “no, the judge should not look outside the text of the statute just because the result doesn’t make sense to the judge.”[3]

This is where textualism loses me, and I’m not the only one. When the literal application of a statute would produce a result at odds with the intended purpose of a statute, I tend to side with the non-textualists who say “no, in this case we’re not going to apply the literal meaning of the statute.” As I’ve written before, following the literal text in this situation “thwarts the intent of the legislature in the name of deference to the legislature.” See A SLAPP in the Face to Texas Trade Secrets Lawsuits – Part 2.

And I’ll give you a good example: application of the TCPA to departing employee litigation.

Application of the TCPA to departing employee litigation

Step one was the Texas Supreme Court holding in Coleman that the plain meaning of the TCPA’s broad definitions must be applied.[4] The Texas Supreme Court reaffirmed this plain meaning approach in Adams.[5]

Step two was the Austin Court of Appeals holding in Elite Auto Body that the TCPA applies to a claim that a departing employee disclosed trade secrets to his new employer. The court reasoned that a literal reading of the statute’s definition of “communication” would clearly include alleged communications among the departing employees and their new enterprise through which they allegedly shared or used the confidential information at issue.[6]

Elite Auto Body acknowledged that it would be reasonable to limit the statute to its stated purpose of protecting constitutional rights, but it found that argument foreclosed by Coleman’s plain meaning approach.[7]

One more note about Elite Auto Body: the court did not address the argument that the claims fell under the TCPA’s “commercial speech” exemption because it found that issue had been waived.[8] More about this exemption later.

Application of the TCPA to departing employee cases has since expanded. In Craig v. Tejas Promotions, the Austin Court of Appeals held that the TCPA applies to a claim of conspiracy to misappropriate trade secrets. The court reasoned that the claim rested on allegations that included “communications” between the alleged co-conspirators.[9]

In Morgan v. Clements Fluids, the Tyler Court of Appeals held that the TCPA applies to a claim based on departing employees’ communications among themselves and within the competitors, through which they share or utilize the alleged trade secrets.[10]

And that brings us to Gaskamp.

Gaskamp applies the TCPA to departing employee claims

In Gaskamp v. WSP, the WSP companies sued a group of former employees for allegedly starting a competing company while employed by WSP and then taking WSP’s trade secrets to the new company. WSP alleged that the former employees violated the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (TUTSA) by using and disclosing WSP’s trade secrets, including proprietary design software used to create architectural designs.[11]

WSP argued that the TCPA did not apply. First, WSP said its lawsuit was based on theft and use of its trade secrets, not the employee’s right to freely associate or right of free speech as required by the TCPA. Second, WSP argued that the TCPA’s commercial-speech exemption applied.

The Court of Appeals rejected the first argument. The court cited WSP’s allegations that the employees used and disclosed WSP’s trade secrets to establish a competing engineering firm called Infinity MEP. The court reasoned that the alleged “transfer and disclosure” of WSP’s trade secrets to Infinity MEP “required a communication.” In addition, the allegation of inducing customers to reduce their business with WSP would “necessarily involve communications as defined by the TCPA.” And the allegation that the employees conspired among themselves to misappropriate trade secrets and interfere with WSP’s business also necessarily involved a communication.[12]

“All these communications were made by individuals who ‘join[ed] together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests,” the court said, “the common interest being the business of Infinity MEP, operating as WSP’s competitor.” The alleged interference with customers involved communication “made in connection with a matter of public concern.” Thus, the claims related to the employees’ exercise of their rights of association and free speech, respectively, as broadly defined by the TCPA.[13]

This part of Gaskamp is important because the same reasoning would apply in almost any suit against departing employees that involves misappropriation of trade secrets. A plaintiff might be able to avoid this part of Gaskamp by alleging use of the trade secrets without any allegation of disclosure or communication of the trade secrets, but even in that case the employee could argue that the allegation necessarily relates to communications with the customers. The argument that the TCPA does not apply to trade secret misappropriation seems unlikely to succeed.

But the second argument in Gaskamp may be more promising for plaintiffs in departing employee cases. WSP argued that the statute’s commercial-speech exemption applied. That exemption states that the TCPA does not apply to a suit against “a person primarily engaged in the business of selling or leasing goods or services, if the statement or conduct arises out of the sale or lease of goods, services, or an insurance product, insurance services, or a commercial transaction in which the intended audience is an actual or potential buyer or customer.”

The Court of Appeals agreed with this argument (although for narrow procedural reasons).[14] Thus, the commercial-speech exemption applied, and the trial court was correct to deny the employees’ motion to dismiss under the TCPA as to two of the WSP plaintiffs.

This was no consolation for a third WSP plaintiff that failed to file a response to the TCPA motion (believing it had already been non-suited from the case). As to that entity, the Court of Appeals held that the motion to dismiss should have been granted.[15]

But at least one justice thought this result was “manifestly unjust.”

Justice Jennings questions the “textualist” approach to the TCPA

Justice Jennings wrote a concurring opinion. He joined in the majority opinion but wrote separately “to warn of the inherent dangers to Texas Jurisprudence posed by a rigid adherence to the ideological doctrine of so-called ‘textualism’ in construing our Constitution and statutes.”[16]

By applying the literal text of the TCPA’s definitions without considering the purpose of the statute, Justice Jennings said, the Texas Supreme Court has interpreted the TCPA “much more broadly than the Texas Legislature ever intended.” Applying the Texas Supreme Court’s literal interpretation of the statutes definitions necessarily led to a “manifestly unjust and absurd result,” but he and his colleagues were required to apply the definitions as instructed by the higher court.[17]

Still, Justice Jennings wanted to make his own view clear:

I respectfully disagree with the Texas Supreme Court’s unnecessarily broad interpretation and application of the TCPA to matters that exceed its expressly stated purpose to protect only the constitutional rights of free speech, to petition, and of association. A reasonable interpretation of the TCPA, when read in its entirety, reveals that it was never intended to apply to any of the claims at issue in this case. It should go without saying that communications allegedly made in furtherance of a conspiracy to commit theft of trade secrets and breaches of fiduciary duties do not implicate “citizen participation.”[18]

Justice Jennings went on cite the statute’s stated purpose “to encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of persons to petition, speak freely, associate freely, and otherwise participate in government,” language indicating “the legislature intended to protect only constitutionally-protected freedoms that rise to such a level that they can be considered participation in government.”[19]

He acknowledged that the statute’s “awkward” definitions, standing alone, appear to include communications that are not constitutionally protected but said “we cannot read these definitions in isolation.” While the plain meaning is the best expression of legislative intent, that is not the case when “a different meaning is apparent from the context or the plain meaning leads to absurd or nonsensical results.”[20]

In Justice Jennings’ view, the broad definitions in the TCPA should be limited by the statute’s expressly-stated purpose of safeguarding constitutional rights. “Here, unfortunately, the Texas Supreme Court, in construing the TCPA by focusing like a laser on the literalness of the bare words of its pertinent definitions, has effectively strangled the real meaning and purpose of the statute.”[21]

But again, Justice Jennings was careful to concede that the Court of Appeals is bound by the decisions of the Texas Supreme Court. That’s why he wrote a concurring opinion rather than a dissent.

So what is to be done? Justice Jennings urged two potential solutions: (1) the legislature should revise the TCPA’s definitions to include qualifying language repeating the stated purpose of the TCPA to protect constitutional rights, and (2) the Texas Supreme Court should “revisit and correct is overly-broad interpretation of the TCPA.”[22]

Those sound like reasonable suggestions. But convincing the Texas Supreme Court to change its approach sounds like an uphill battle. And the legislature? Who knows. I’m not sure there’s any powerful interest group that has enough of a stake in reigning in the TCPA. Maybe business groups who want to make it easier to protect trade secrets and stop employees from competing?

But in the meantime, as we’ve already seen, the Gaskamp opinion suggest a simpler way to limit the application of the TCPA to departing employee litigation.

A textualist solution to the TCPA problem?

The solution I have in mind is right out of Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice teaches us that when the bad guy goes textualist, the way to beat him is to go hyper-textualist. When Shylock insists on enforcing the plain meaning of a “pound of flesh,” Portia responds that his contract means exactly a pound—no more, no less. And only a pound of “flesh”—nothing else.

The commercial-speech exemption applied in Gaskamp could offer plaintiffs in departing employee cases a similar way out of the TCPA. The exemption applies when the defendant’s “statement or conduct” arises out of the sale or lease of goods or services.

What if we apply that definition literally? One could argue that a departing employee’s use or disclosure of the employer’s trade secrets always arises from the sale or lease of goods or services. What the TCPA giveth as “communication,” it taketh away as “commercial speech.”

Maybe that could work. But strangely enough, the Texas Supreme Court has not construed the commercial speech exception literally, instead adopting a four-part test based on the “context” of the exemption. See Castleman v. Internet Money Ltd., 546 S.W.3d 684, 688 (Tex. 2018).

What’s up with that?

*Update: The Dallas Court of Appeals later rejected a literal application of the TCPA and held that an element of public participation is required. See Metroplex Courts Push Back on Broad Application of the TCPA. Then the legislature and the Fifth Circuit carved back the TPCA even more. See how the story ends at Shrinkage: TX Legislature and 5th Circuit Cut the TCPA Down to Size.

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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. So far no videos of him dancing on a rooftop in college have surfaced.

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] Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.001(3), (7).

[2] Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.001(2).

[3] The realists—another camp!—might question how many “textualists” actually do this in practice when applying the literal text would yield a result they don’t like. But in theory this is what the true textualist is supposed to do.

[4] ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. v. Coleman, 512 S.W.3d 895, 901 (Tex. 2017).

[5] Adams v. Starside Custom Builders, LLC, 547 S.W.3d 890, 894-97 (Tex. 2018).

[6] Elite Auto Body LLC v. Autocraft Boywerks, Inc., 520 S.W.3d 191, 205 (Tex. App.—Austin 2017, pet dism’d).

[7] Id. at 204.

[8] Id. at 206 n.75.

[9] Craig v. Tejas Promotions, LLC, 550 S.W.3d 287, 296-97 (Tex. App.—Austin 2018, pet. filed). See also Grant v. Pivot Tech. Solutions, Ltd., 556 S.W.3d 865, 881 (Tex. App.–Austin 2018, pet. filed) (TCPA applied to claims similar to those in Elite Auto Body based on hiring of competitor’s employees and alleged sharing and use of confidential information).

[10] Morgan v. Clements Fluids South Texas, Ltd., No. 12-18-00055-CV 2018 WL 5796994, at *3 (Tex. App.—Tyler Nov. 5, 2018, no pet. h.).

[11] Gaskamp v. WSP USA, Inc., No. 01-18-00079-CV, at *1-3 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 20, 2018).

[12] Id. at *11.

[13] Id. at *12 (citing Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 27.001(2), (3), 27.003(a)).

[14] Id. at *9.

[15] Id. at *13.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at *14 (citation omitted).

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at *15 (citing Molinet v. Kimbrell, 356 S.W.3d 407, 411 (Tex. 2011)).

[21] Id. at *16.

[22] Id.

Texas Trade Secrets 101 2.0

Texas Trade Secrets 101 2.0

Ready for an early Christmas present?

I originally published my “Trade Secrets 101” memo in Trade Secrets 101: What Texas Businesses and Lawyers Need to Know. I designed it to give Texas businesses and their lawyers a helpful overview of Texas and federal trade secrets law.

With generous help from lawyer Paul T. Freeman, I have now updated that memo. You can download the new version here.

Regrettably, the new version is longer. But it has significant improvements, including:

  • More case cites
  • A new section on TCPA motions to dismiss
  • Less of my unsupported editorializing

Finally, despite my general preference, the case cites have been moved to footnotes. Don’t @ me.

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IMG_4571

Zach 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.