‘Helpful’ Client List Not Secret Enough to Merit Trade Secret Injunction – IL Court

Customer lists are common topics of trade secrets litigation.  A typical fact pattern: Company A sues Ex-employee B who joined or started a competitor and is contacting company A’s clients.  Company A argues that its customer list is secret and only known by Ex-employee B through his prior association with Company A.

Whether such a claim has legal legs depends mainly on whether A’s customer list qualifies for trade secret protection and secondarily on whether the sued employee signed a noncompete or nondisclosure contract. (In my experience, that’s usually the case.)  If the court deems the list secret enough, the claim may win.  If the court says the opposite, the trade secrets claim loses.

Novamed v. Universal Quality Solutions, 2016 IL App (1st) 152673-U, is a recent Illinois case addressing the quality and quantity of proof a trade secrets plaintiff must offer at an injunction hearing to prevent a former employee from using his ex-employer’s customer data to compete with the employer.

The plaintiff pipette (a syringe used in medical labs) company sued to stop two former sales agents who joined one of plaintiff’s rivals.  Both salesmen signed restrictive covenants that prevented them from competing with plaintiff or contacting plaintiff’s customers for a 2.5 year period and that geographically spanned much of the Midwest.  The trial court denied plaintiff’s application for injunctive relief on the basis that the plaintiff failed to establish a protectable interest in its clients.

Result: Trial court’s judgment affirmed.  While plaintiff’s customer list is “helpful” in marketing plaintiff’s services, it does not rise to the level of a protectable trade secret.

Rules/Reasoning:

Despite offering testimony that its customer list was the culmination of over two-decades of arduous development, the court still decided in the ex-sales employees’ favor.  For a court to issue a preliminary injunction, Illinois requires the plaintiff to show: (1) it possesses a clear right or interest that needs protection; (2) no adequate remedy at law exists, (3) irreparable harm will result if the injunction is not granted, and (4) there is a likelihood of success on the merits of the case (plaintiff is likely to win, i.e.)

A restrictive covenant – be it a noncompete, nondisclosure or nonsolicitation clause – will be upheld if is a “reasonable restraint” and is supported by consideration.  To determine whether a restrictive covenant is enforceable, it must (1) be no greater than is required to protect a legitimate business interest of the employer, (2) not impose undue hardship on the employee, and (3) not be injurious to the public.  (¶ 35)

The legitimate business interest question (element (1) above) distills to a fact-based inquiry where the court looks at (a) whether the employee tried to use confidential information for his own benefit and (b) whether the employer has near-permanent relationships with its customers.

Here, there was no near-permanent relationship between the plaintiff and its clients.  Both defendants testified that many of plaintiff’s customers simultaneously use competing pipette vendors.  The court also noted that plaintiff did not have any contracts with its customers and had to continually solicit clients to do business with it.

The court then pointed out that a customer list generally is not considered confidential where it can be duplicated or pieced together by cross-referencing telephone directories, the Internet, where the customers use competitors at the same time and customer names are generally known in a given industry.  According to the Court, “[i]f the information can be [obtained] by calling the company and asking, it is not protectable confidential information.” (¶ 40)

Since the injunction hearing evidence showed that plaintiff’s pipettes were typically used by universities, hospitals and research labs, the universe of plaintiff’s existing and prospective customers was well-defined and known to competitors.

Next, the court rejected plaintiff’s argument that it had a protectable interest because of the training it invested into the defendants; making them highly skilled workers. The court credited evidence at the hearing that it only takes a few days to teach someone how to clean a pipette and all pipette businesses use the same servicing method.  These factors weighed against trade secret protection attaching to the plaintiff’s customers.

Lastly, the court found that regardless of whether defendants were highly skilled workers, preventing defendants from working would be an undue hardship in that they would have to move out of the Midwest to earn a livelihood in their chosen field.

Afterwords:

This case provides a useful summary of what a plaintiff must show to establish a protectable business interest in its clients.  If the plaintiff cannot show that the customer identities are near-permanent, that they invested time and money in highly skilled workers or that customer names are not discoverable through basic research efforts (phone directories, Google search, etc.), a trade secrets claim based on ex-employee’s use of plaintiff’s customer list will fail.

Third Party Enforcement of A Non-Compete and Trade Secret Pre-emption – IL Law

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In Cronimet Holdings v. Keywell Metals, LLC, 2014 WL 580414 (N.D.Ill. 2014), the Northern District of Illinois considers whether a non-compete contract is enforceable by a stranger to that contract as well as trade secret pre-emption of other claims.

Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiff, who previously signed a non-disclosure agreement with a defunct metal company (the “Target Company”) it was considering buying, filed a declaratory action against a competitor (“Competitor”) requesting a ruling that the non-disclosure agreement and separate non-competes signed by the Target Company’s employees were not enforceable by the competitor who bought  the Target Company’s assets. The NDA and non-competes spanned 24 months.

The plaintiff moved to dismiss eight of the ten counterclaims filed by the Competitor.  It argued the Competitor lacked standing to enforce the non-competes and that its trade secrets counterclaim (based on the Illinois Trade Secrets Act, 765 ILCS 1065/1 (“ITSA”)) pre-empted several of the tort counterclaims.

In gutting most (8 out of 10) of the counterclaims, the court applied the operative rules governing when non-competes can be enforced by third parties:

 Illinois would likely permit the assignment of a non-compete to a third party;

Enforcing a non-compete presupposes a legitimate business interest to be protected;

– A legitimate business interest is a fact-based inquiry that focuses on whether there is (i) a “near-permanence” in a customer relationship, (ii) the company’s interest in a stable work force , (iii) whether a former employee acquired confidential information and (iv) whether a given non-compete has valid time and space restrictions;

A successor corporation can enforce confidentiality agreements signed by a predecessor (acquired) corporation where the acquired corporation merges into the acquiring one;

– A successor in interest is one who follows an original owner in control of property and who retains the same rights as the original owner;

– The ITSA pre-empts (displaces) conflicting or redundant tort claims that are based on a defendant’s misappropriation of trade secrets;

– Claims for unjust enrichment, quasi-contract relief or unfair competition are displaced by the ITSA where the claims essentially allege a trade secrets violation;

– The ITSA supplants claims that involve information that doesn’t rise to the level of a trade secret (e.g. not known to others and kept under ‘lock-and-key’);

(**4-5).

The court found that since a bankruptcy court (in the Target Company’s bankruptcy) previously ruled that the Competitor didn’t purchase the non-competes, and wasn’t the Target Company’s successor, the Competitor lacked standing to enforce the non-competes.

The Court also held that once the Target Company stopped doing business, its non-competes automatically lapsed since it no longer had any secret data or customers to protect.

The Court also agreed that the Company’s ITSA claim pre-empted its claims that asserted plaintiff was wrongfully using the Target Company’s secret data.  The court even applied ITSA pre-emption to non-trade secret information.  It held that so long as the information sought to be protected in a claim was allegedly secret, any non-ITSA claims based on that information were pre-empted.

Afterwords:

(1) A non-compete can likely be assigned to a third party;

(2) Where the party assigning a non-compete goes out of business, the assignor no longer has a legitimate business interest to protect; making it hard for the assignee to enforce the non-compete;

(3) ITSA, the Illinois trade secrets statute, will displace (pre-empt) causes of action or equitable remedies (unjust enrichment, unfair competition, etc.) that are based on a defendant’s improper use of confidential information – even where that information  doesn’t rise to the level of a trade secret.

Illinois Court Examines Trade Secrets Act and Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine In Suit Over Employee Wellness Health Program

The plaintiff workplace wellness program developer sued under the Illinois Trade Secrets Act in Destiny Health, Inc. v. Cigna Corporation, 2015 IL App (1st) 142530, alleging a prospective business partner pilfered its confidential data.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendants, the First District appeals court asked and answered some prevalent trade secrets litigation questions.

The impetus for the suit was the plaintiff’s hoped-for joint venture with Cigna, a global health insurance firm.  After the parties signed a confidentiality agreement, they spent a day together planning their future business partnership.  The plaintiff provided some secret actuarial and marketing data to Cigna to entice the firm to partner with plaintiff.  Cigna ultimately declined plaintiff’s overtures and instead teamed up with IncentOne – one of plaintiff’s competitors.  The plaintiff sued and claimed that Cigna incorporated many of plaintiff’s program elements into Cigna’s current arrangement with IncentOne.  The trial court granted Cigna’s motion for summary judgment and plaintiff appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Rules/Reasons:

On summary judgment, the “put up or shut up” moment in the lawsuit, the non-moving party must offer more than speculation or conjecture to beat the motion.  He must point to evidence in the record that support each element of the pled cause of action.  In deciding a summary judgment motion, the trial court does not decide a question of fact.  Instead, the court decides whether a question of fact exists for trial.  The court does not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence in deciding a summary judgment motion.

The Illinois Trade Secrets Act (765 ILCS 1065/1 et seq.) provides dual remedies: injunctive relief and actual (as well as punitive) damages for misappropriation of trade secrets.  To make out a trade secrets violation, a plaintiff must show (1) existence of a trade secret, (2) misappropriation through improper acquisition, disclosure or use, and (3) damage to the trade secrets owner resulting from the misappropriation. (¶ 26)

To show misappropriation, the plaintiff must prove the defendant used the plaintiff’s trade secret.  This can be done by a plaintiff offering direct (e.g., “smoking gun” evidence) or circumstantial (indirect) evidence.  To establish a circumstantial trade secrets case, the plaintiff must show (1) the defendant had access to the trade secret, and (2) the trade secret and the defendant’s competing product share similar features.  (¶ 32)

Another avenue for trade secrets relief is where the plaintiff pursues his claim under the inevitable disclosure doctrine.  Under this theory, the plaintiff claims that because the defendant had such intimate access to plaintiff’s trade secrets, the defendant can’t help but (or “inevitably” will) rely on those trade secrets in its current position.  However, courts have made clear that the mere sharing of exploratory information or “preliminary negotiations” doesn’t go far enough to show inevitable disclosure.

Here, there was no direct or circumstantial evidence that defendant misappropriated plaintiff’s actuarial or financial data.  While the plaintiff proved that defendant had access to its wellness program components, there were simply too many conceptual and operational differences between the competing wellness programs to support a trade secrets violation.  These differences were too stark for the court to find misappropriation. (¶ 35)

Plaintiff also failed to prove misappropriation via inevitable disclosure.  The court held that “[a]bsent some evidence that Cigna [defendant] could not have developed its [own] program without the use of [Plaintiff’s] trade secrets,” defendant’s access to plaintiff’s data alone was not sufficient to demonstrate that defendant’s use of plaintiff’s trade secrets was inevitable.  (¶¶ 40-42).

Afterwords:

A viable trade secrets claim requires direct or indirect evidence of use, disclosure or wrongful acquisition of a plaintiff’s trade secrets;

Access to a trade secret alone isn’t enough to satisfy the inevitable disclosure rule.  It must be impossible for a defendant not to use plaintiff’s trade secrets in his competing position for inevitable disclosure to hold weight;

Preliminary negotiations between two businesses that involve an exchange of sensitive data likely won’t give rise to an inevitable disclosure trade secrets claim where the companies aren’t competitors and there’s no proof of misappropriation.  To hold otherwise would stifle businesses’ attempts to form economically beneficial partnerships.