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, after it accused a prospective business partner pilfered its confidential data.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendants, the First District appeals court asked and answered some important questions that often arise in trade secrets litigation.

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 hopefully motivate it to partner with the plaintiff.  Cigna ultimately declined plaintiff’s overtures and instead joined up with IncentOne – one of plaintiff’s competitors.  The plaintiff sued on the theory that Cigna incorporated many of plaintiff’s secret wellness program elements into its current arrangement with IncentOne program.  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 in support of each element of the 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” don’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 plaintiff’s workplace wellness program and the one ultimately developed by Cigna and IncentOne to support a trade secrets violation.  These stark wellness program differences were too glaring for the court to find misappropriation. (¶ 35)

Plaintiff also failed 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 contemplating a future business relationship 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 where there is no proof of misappropriation.  To hold otherwise, would stifle businesses’ attempts to form economically beneficial partnerships.

 

Illinois Consumer Fraud Act Applies To ‘Biz to Biz’ Insurance Dispute Says Fed. Court

In GoHealth, LLC v. Zoom Health, Inc., 2013 WL 6183024, the Northern District provides a detailed summary of the necessary Illinois pleading elements of some signature business torts in a diversity contract dispute involving the sale of insurance products.

Plaintiff and defendants entered into a written agreement where plaintiff would sell insurance product leads to defendants for a fee.  The defendants would in turn use the leads in peddling insurance products to its own customers.  The relationship soured and each side filed claims against each other.  Defendant’s counterclaims sounded in consumer fraud and common law fraud. Each side moved to dismiss.

The Court struck defendants’ fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims and upheld its consumer fraud and trade secrets counts.

Fraud Claim and Negligent Misrepresentation Claims

The Court dismissed the defendants’ common law fraud  and negligent misrepresentation claims.  An Illinois fraud plaintiff must allege a (i) knowingly false statement, (ii) intended to induce reliance in the plaintiff, (iii) reliance by the plaintiff and (iv) damages resulting from the reliance.

Negligent misrepresentation has the same elements as fraud except the plaintiff must allege a negligent or reckless (instead of intentional) false statement.  Federal specificity-in-pleading rules under Rule 9(b) don’t apply to a negligent misrepresentation claim. *9-10.

Defendants’ fraud count asserted that plaintiff falsely inflated defendants commission and renewal rates and misstated some sales projections.

The Court found that these two statements non-actionable as they involved future events (e.g. future sales and commissions projections).  Statements of future intent, opinions or of financial projections don’t equal fraud under the law.

The Court also rejected defendants’ argument that plaintiff was in business of providing information for the guidance of others in their business dealings – a key exception to the economic loss rule (this rule posits that you can’t recover in tort where a contract governs the parties’ relationship.)

The Court held that plaintiff was contractually obligated to provide sales leads and nothing else.  It wasn’t hired to provide sales projections or renewal forecasts – the bases for defendants’ fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims.  Any information provided by plaintiff in connection with the leads was peripheral to the contract’s core purpose.  *11.

Consumer Fraud Claims – Allowed

The court sustained defendants’ consumer fraud counterclaim. 815 ILCS 505/1 (the “Act”).  The consumer fraud count was based on plaintiff furnishing over 40,000 bogus and recycled sales leads to defendant instead of fresh leads.

Allowing the claim, the Court broadly construed the Act to encompass business-to-business relationships: “the protections of the Act are not limited to consumers”, but applies broadly to “persons”, including businesses. *12.

The court found the defendant was a “consumer” of plaintiff’s sales leads which constituted intangible property under the Act. (The Act applies to intangible property.)

The defendants’ claim that plaintiff supplied a high volume of duplicate leads also stated a deceptive act under the Act.   *12.

Afterword:

This case is post-worthy for its application of the consumer fraud statute to a purely business-to-business setting and its discussion of what constitutes “information” in the context of a negligent misrepresentation claim that will beat an economic loss rule challenge.