Departing Employee imageAlarms sounded when John Absmeier, technical director of Delphi Automotive’s Silicon Valley autonomous vehicle project, announced he was leaving to join Samsung’s Silicon Valley innovation center where he would lead a self-driving car technology team.  They grew louder upon Delphi’s determination that Absmeier downloaded hundreds of thousands of company files and folders onto personal devices prior to giving notice, deleted tens of thousands of files of unknown subject matter on or before giving notice, and retained possession of tens if not hundreds of thousands of company files (contained on personal external hard drives or personal cloud accounts) after having left Delphi.

Delphi has thus far been able to identify some of what Absmeier downloaded—including over 100 gigabytes of data that appears to be the contents of his “My Documents” folder and his Outlook e-mail folder. These documents consist of many, if not all, of the work emails that Absmeier sent and received while a global executive. Those emails include confidential and sensitive information, and confidential and sensitive documents in the form of e-mail attachments. There was no legitimate reason for Absmeier to be downloading work-related documents and emails in the days and weeks before his resignation— and, in fact, there is no evidence that he had ever downloaded documents from his work computer onto external hard drives before October 15, 2015.

Delphi v Absmeier Am Cmplt

This conduct appeared to give Delphi a strong basis for asserting wrongful acquisition of its trade secrets and actionable trade secret misappropriation.  Delphi filed a lawsuit and moved for a preliminary injunction in federal court under the court’s diversity jurisdiction, but the court found that Delphi was unlikely to succeed on its trade secret misappropriation claims and denied injunctive relief on these grounds.

Luckily for Delphi, in addition to being able to assert trade secret misappropriation, it also had a signed non-compete agreement.  Doubly lucky for Delphi, choice-of-law rules dictated the application of Michigan law, which favored enforcement of the agreement over the competing policy favoring freedom of employees to seek new employment (recognized in other states like California).  Delphi was able to obtain an injunction enforcing the non-compete.

The game-changing combination of choice-of-law rules pointing to the law of jurisdictions enforcing non-competes is a subject for another day (and hopefully a separate post!).

For now, the interesting question is what was done by the departing Delphi engineer Absmeier and his counsel (no doubt in close coordination with new employer Samsung) to avoid trade secret misappropriation liability?  The answers provide something of a checklist for departing engineers and new employers on what they can do to mitigate the risk of liability for trade secret misappropriation.  In particular, in the Delphi case, the defense was able show:

#1 Departing employee was forthcoming about taking new job with potential competitor.

#2 Departing employee offered explanation for the challenged pre-departure downloads and  deletions, e.g., done as part of routine company file back-up, or to remove personal  documents and photos.

#3 Departing employee within approximately two weeks of notice returned all remaining  company devices (e.g., thumb drives) and company-related documents

#4 Departing employee and counsel retained a third-party forensic consultant to:

quarantine all personal storage devices that contained a mixture of company and personal information

sequester any personal cloud-based storage accounts (e.g. Dropbox) containing folders holding company information

sequester personal email (e.g., Gmail) and delete all emails relating to company as opposed to personal information

#5 Departing employee swore on oath that A) he no longer had any company information in  his possession and B) that he had not disclosed or used any Delphi data or documents in  course of his employment with Samsung.

#6 Defense counsel made available for inspection the data and devices sequestered with  third-party consultant.

These actions were described in detail in sworn declarations provided by the departing engineer, Absmeier (attached- Departing Enginner Absmeier Declaration), along with supporting declarations of his counsel and the forensic consultant.  Based on this evidence, Delphi was unable to meet its burden of showing “a significant lack of candor or willingness to misuse trade secrets,” and therefore Delphi was not entitled to enjoin Absmeier’s employment with Samsung based on alleged threatened misappropriation of Delphi trade secrets. (Preliminary Inj. Order attached-Delphi Automotive PLC v Absmeier)

The Delphi litigation falls within the category of cases holding that mere possession of company data subsequent to departure (absent additional evidence such as prior bad behavior, that the data was improperly acquired prior to departure, intent to disclose or use the data in the future, or refusal to return the data) will not be sufficient to establish liability for threatened trade secret misappropriation.  See, e.g., FLIR Sys., Inc. v. Parrish, 174 Cal. App. 4th 1270, 1279 (2009); Cent. Valley Gen. Hosp. v. Smith, 162 Cal. App. 4th 501, 528 (2008).

 

 

Although many may be asserted, quite often far less warrant protection
Although many may be asserted, quite often far less warrant protection

The question is whether it is possible to get a court to enter partial summary judgment before trial on some but not all of the trade secrets that the defendant is accused of stealing.

As discussed in the Sept 28 post, the answer is that this may not be possible if the lawsuit is filed in California state court.

But if the trade secret lawsuit is filed in federal court, the answer is yes.  In federal court, it is easier to weed out before trial alleged trade secrets that do not satisfy the legal requirements for protection.

Why should we care?  For each allegedly misappropriated trade secret that is allowed to be argued at trial, the costs incurred in either proving up or rebutting the claim run in the tens if not the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on attorneys, experts and discovery, not to mention the significant time the court and the jury must devote to determining liability on each such claim.  In other words, the potential savings of time and money to all concerned (court, jurors, and parties) from taking fewer trade secrets to trial are huge. Also, settlement before trial is much more likely if the parties know in advance which trade secret claims will or will not be tried. Continue Reading You Can Get Partial SJ on Some But Not All Trade Secrets . . . In Federal Court

Not necessarily in California. The answer depends upon the unsettled issue whether California summary adjudication rules allow courts to dismiss some but not all of the asserted trade secrets before trial.

Trade secret claims brought by a technology company typically allege theft of not one but many trade secrets.  The law recognizes as separate and specific trade secrets not just a particular technology, but also the underlying research, study, tests or investigation relating to this technology.  For example, in Perlan Therapeutics, Inc. v. Superior Court, 178 Cal. App. 4th 1333, 1345 n.10 (2009), the court found that “Perlan’s eight purported trade secrets are: ‘(1) the Charles Invention, (2) Perlan’s Protein Multimerization Process, (3) Perlan’s novel idea [involving sialidase to] create a drug to combat the flu, and (4) all related research, (5) development, (6) advancements, (7) improvements and (8) processes related thereto.’”

Each of the numerous alleged trade secrets must satisfy certain requirements before they are deemed protectable in the eyes of the law.  A trade secret must be described with sufficient particularity and have independent economic value derived from having been kept secret.  And even if a particular trade secret is deemed legally protectable, there is no actionable theft (misappropriation) unless the trade secret has been improperly acquired, used or disclosed.

It is very rare that all trade secrets asserted at the beginning of a case satisfy all the requirements.   There often are many clunkers among the asserted secrets and this is sussed out through the development of the case leading up to the trial.   Furthermore, the identity of the bad trade secrets is or at least should be quite clear to the parties and the court following expert discovery, and in some cases even earlier in discovery.  Limiting trial to those trade secrets that have some basis in law or fact can save the parties hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney and expert fees and costs otherwise incurred to prosecute or defend the bad trade secrets on top those that might have some merit.  Precious and scarce court resources are saved for resolving legitimately asserted trade secrets (and are not diluted or wasted on resolving the bad ones).

In California, it may not be possible to obtain partial judgment on some but not all asserted trade secrets.  Lawsuits brought in California court for misappropriation of trade secrets under California law (California Uniform Trade Secrets Act, Civ. Code, § 3426 et seq.) are governed by state procedural rules for summary judgement and summary adjudication.  Code Civ. Proc., § 437c subd. (a) (summary judgment) and (f) (summary adjudication).  Summary judgement terminates the entire action.  Summary adjudication is directed to some but not all “causes of action,” such that following entry of summary adjudication the case proceeds to trial on the remaining causes of action.  You therefore can’t get summary judgment on some but not all trade secret claims, but you might get summary adjudication if the challenged trade secret claim is deemed a “cause of action” within the meaning of the rule. Continue Reading Can You Get Partial SJ on Some But Not All Trade Secrets?

Jury trial on reasonable royalty? Courtesy Google Images
Right to jury trial on reasonable royalty damages differs depending on whether suit brought under DTSA or California version of UTSA

The new Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) became law on May 11, 2016 and applies to any misappropriation that occurs on or after that date.

Although the DTSA creates a federal, civil remedy for trade secret misappropriation, it does not preempt state law.  This is going to encourage serious forum shopping, including, among other things, over the right to jury trial.

The federal law cedes to the jury the determination of all possible monetary damages claims.  In comparison, the version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA) adopted by California (CUTSA), while giving the jury the issues of lost profits and unjust enrichment, reserves for the trial judge the determination whether and to what extent to award reasonable royalty damages. Continue Reading Unlike California, New Federal Trade Secret Law Offers Right to Jury Trial on Reasonable Royalty Damages

Late yesterday, the House of Representatives joined the Senate in passing a sweeping new statute that creates a new federal civil cause of action for trade secret theft.  The new statute, called the Defense of Trade Secrets Act (DTSA), can be found here and is expected to be signed into law by the President within the next few days.

Where will we first see the effects of the new federal trade secret law?  Answer: in the hundreds (thousands?) of currently pending state court trade secret misappropriation cases.  Soon after the DTSA becomes effective there will be a significant increase in federal district court decisions being relied upon in state courts to explain and construe existing state trade secret statutes. Continue Reading Wave of Federal Trade Secret Decisions Soon to Hit State Courts

This post summarizes Proportionality Compels Early Disclosure of Patent Damages, found here, first published by the IP Law Section, State Bar of California in connection with the March 23, 2016 seminar “Patent Disputes for our Time: New Realities, New Approaches.” 

Patent litigation norm: bludgeon one another before determining case value
Patent litigation norm: bludgeon one another before determining case value

The Dec 2015 amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure call for greater effort on the part of the court and the parties to ensure that the time and expense invested in a case is proportional to value of the case.  The typical practice in patent litigation of bludgeoning first and valuing later presents a particularly compelling focus for the renewed emphasis on achieving proportionality.

Since there is a direct causal relationship between early disclosure of patent damages and achieving proportionality, the high likelihood is that courts, going forward, will strictly enforce the requirement that a patent plaintiff provide its damage computations in its Rule 26(a) initial disclosures.  To avoid prejudice to the patent plaintiff, any such early disclosures should be non-binding and subject to revision as the case proceeds. Continue Reading Amendments to Civil Procedure Rules: Ending Patent Practice of Bludgeoning First and Valuing Later

DTSA does not block employment based merely on inevitable disclosure (courtesy Google images)
DTSA does not block employment based merely on inevitable disclosure (courtesy Google images)

Proposed legislation creating a federal cause of action for trade secret misappropriation is on the fast track to becoming law, as described in James Pooley’s excellent post What You Need to Know About the Amended Defend Trade Secrets Act [link], January 31, 2016 Guest Post, Patently-O.  Referred to as the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”), the legislation was favorably reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 28, 2016.

For those seeking to catch up on these developments, the recent posts and articles by Mr. Pooley and his colleagues are a great place to start learning the salient characteristics of the new law, including the rejection of the idea that an employee should be blocked from taking a new job based on the doctrine known as “inevitable disclosure.”  The DTSA’s rejection of “inevitable disclosure” warrants a closer look; it means the DTSA embraces California’s robust policy favoring free mobility of employees between jobs.  Let’s break this down. Continue Reading New Federal Trade Secret Law is Pro Employee Mobility and Rejects Inevitable Disclosure

Trend is patent litigation loser pays fees or costs - but not this time (courtesy Google Images)
Trend is patent litigation loser pays fees or costs – but not this time (courtesy Google Images)

The significant filing fees spent by an accused infringer on a successful American Invents Act (AIA) review are not taxable as costs in the underlying district court patent litigation, according to the January 5, 2016 decision [pdf] in Credit Acceptance Corp v. Westlake Services.

In Credit Acceptance, the district court refused to tax as costs the $73,200 in filing fees paid by the accused infringer and prevailing party Westlake to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in successfully challenging Credit Acceptance’s patent in an AIA review.  Although the ruling goes against the general shift of both the Courts and Congress to increasing the financial risks of bringing unsuccessful patent litigation (this in service of the underlying policy of reducing the number of frivolous patent litigations), it appears to have been correctly decided.

Credit Acceptance tracks what has become a fairly typical fact pattern.  The owner of a patent claiming a business method or a software innovation brings suit for patent infringement in federal court.  In response, the accused infringer seeks AIA review by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) of the validity or patentability of the claimed invention.  The court stays the litigation pending administrative review.  The PTAB sustains the challenge, compelling the party asserting patent infringement to voluntarily dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice.  As observed in Credit Acceptance, there is strong case precedent for finding that under these circumstances the accused infringer is the prevailing party. Continue Reading Loser Does Not Pay for AIA Costs

negativespace-15

Image from NegativeSpace

For the last few decades, corporations ranging from startups to large multinationals first turned to utility patents to protect their innovative software. These patents protected everything from the minute details of microprocessor operation (e.g., Intel’s microprocessor power consumption patent) to algorithms for a search engine (e.g.Google/Stanford’s page rank patent) to innovative user interfaces (e.g.,Amazon’s “one-click” patent). In fact, by 2011, patents on software made up more than half of all patents being issued.

See the August 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office on Intellectual Property here.

The Supreme Court’s June 2014 ruling in Alice v. CLS Bank calls into question the eligibility for patent protection of these issued utility patents on computer software, and is a barrier to future applications on computer software.  Alice and its progeny compel software developers to look beyond patents to protect their intellectual property.  What are these alternatives?  When and how can they be used? Continue Reading Courts Everywhere are Finding Software Patents Invalid, So What Next?

Lex Machina’s Spring 2015 Patent Case Filing Trends:

Patent case filings have been generally higher in the first five months of 2015 than in the last 8 months of 2014. May of 2015 had the most patent cases filed on any month so far this year (606 cases).

Lex Machina depicts this trend in this graphic:

Patent cases filed Jan 2014 through May 2015 (2015 in orange).
Lexmachina.com/blog, July 10, 2015, Fig. 1: Patent cases filed Jan 2014 through May 2015 (2015 in orange).

But why are we seeing this recent increase in patent case filings?  Isn’t this surprising given legislative, court, executive and administrative developments that have made it much more difficult to successfully sue for patent infringement?  Nope.

Continue Reading Possibility of More Reform Spurs Increase in Patent Case Filings