Photo Album Inventor’s Trade Secrets Case Survives Summary Judgment – IL ND

The Northern District recently discussed the reach of the apparent agency doctrine along with trade secret abandonment in a spat over a photo album device.

The plaintiff in Puroon, Inc. v. Midwest Photographic Resource Center, Inc., 2018 WL 5776334 (N.D.Ill. 2018), invented the Memory Book, a “convertible photo frame, album and scrapbook” whose key features included embedded magnet technology (to keep pictures in place) and an interchangeable outside view.

The plaintiff sued the defendant photo-album seller when plaintiff learned the defendant was selling a product similar to the Memory Book. Defendant opposed the suit, claiming it independently created the analogous album product.  Both sides moved for summary judgment motion on multiple claims.

Apparent Agency

The salient agency issue on plaintiff’s breach of contract claim was whether a third-party who performed manufacturing services for the defendant and to whom the plaintiff sent some photo book samples was the defendant’s apparent agent If so, defendant was potentially liable on plaintiff’s breach of contract claim which asserted defendant went back on its promise to build Memory Book prototypes.

In Illinois, a statement by a purported agent alone cannot create apparent authority. Instead, for apparent authority to apply, the court looks to statements or actions of the alleged principal, not the agent. Once a litigant establishes that an agent has authority to bind a principal, the agents’ statements are admissible as an agent’s statement made within the scope of the agency. See Fed. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(D)(a statement is not hearsay if offered against opposing party and made by party’s agent or employee on a matter within the scope of that relationship while it existed.) [*5]

Here, there was record evidence that a high-ranking employee of defendant referred to both defendant and the manufacturer as “we” in emails. The court viewed this as creating the impression in a reasonable juror that the manufacturer was an agent of defendant.

Because of this fact question – was the manufacturer the defendant’s agent? – both parties’ summary judgment motions were denied on plaintiff’s breach of contract claim.

Trade Secret Misappropriation

The bulk of the opinion focuses on whether the plaintiff sufficiently established that its Memory Book device qualified for trade secret protection and whether there was enough misappropriation evidence to survive summary judgment. The Court answered (a muted) “yes” on both counts.

The court refused to attach trade secret protection to the Memory Book’s embedded magnets feature; the Court noted that magnets had been used extensively in other photo container products.

The Court did, however, afford trade secret protection to plaintiff’s manufacturing specifications.  It found the ‘specs’ secret enough to give plaintiff a competitive advantage.  The Court also noted that plaintiff supplied the specs to defendant only after it signed an NDA.  This was enough for the plaintiff to take its trade secrets claim to a jury and survive summary judgment.

Trade Secret Abandonment

The Court rejected defendant’s argument that plaintiff abandoned its trade secrets by sending samples to retailers and presenting Memory Book at trade shows.

It stated that the trade show attendees could not have identified the Memory Book’s manufacturing specifications merely by looking at the device or handling a sample. The court also credited plaintiff’s evidence that the album retailers weren’t provided with the Memory Book’s specs. The court opined that “reasonable steps for a two or three person shop may be different from reasonable steps for a larger company” and concluded that “[g]iven the fact that [Plaintiff] is a small, one-person company, a reasonable jury could find that [its]  efforts . . . were adequate to protect the Memory Book’s secrets.”

Afterwords:

Corporate entities should not too closely align themselves with third party independent contractors if they wish to avoid contractual liability on an agency theory;

Inventors should make liberal use of NDAs when sending prototypes to vendors, partners or retailers;

A smaller company can likely get away with less strenuous efforts to protect trade secrets than its bigger company counterparts.  The larger and more sophisticated the company, the more sedulous its efforts must be to protect its confidential data.

The ‘Procuring Cause’ Rule – Ill. Appeals Court Weighs In

The First District recently applied the ‘procuring cause’ doctrine to award the plaintiff real estate broker a money judgment based on a reasonable brokerage commission in Jameson Real Estate, LLC v. Ahmed, 2018 IL App (1st) 171534.

The broker provided the defendant with specifics concerning an “off market” car wash business and the land it sat on. The plaintiff later gave defendant a written brokerage contract for the sale of the car wash business and property that provided for a 5% sales commission.  The defendant never signed the contract.

After many months of negotiations, defendant orally informed plaintiff he no longer wished to buy the property and stopped communicating with plaintiff.

When plaintiff later learned that defendant bought the property behind plaintiff’s back, plaintiff sued to recover his 5% commission. The trial court directed a verdict for defendant on plaintiff’s express contract claims but entered judgment for plaintiff on his quantum meruit complaint count.  The money judgment was for an amount that was congruent with what a typical buyer’s broker – splitting a commission with a selling broker – would earn in a comparable commercial sale.

Quantum meruit, which means “as much as he deserves” provides a broker plaintiff with a cause of action to recover the reasonable value of services rendered but where no express contract exists between the parties.

A quantum meruit plaintiff must plead and prove (1) it performed a service to the benefit of a defendant, (2) that it did not perform the service gratuitously, (3) the defendant accepted the plaintiff’s service, and (4) no written contract exists to prescribe payment for the service.

The fine-line distinction between quantum meruit and unjust enrichment is that in the former, the measure of recovery is the reasonable value of work and material furnished, while in the unjust enrichment setting, the focus is on the benefit received and retained as a result of the improvement provided.  [¶ 61]

In the real estate setting, a quantum meruit commission recovery can be based on either a percentage of the sales price or the amount a buyer saved by excising a broker’s fee from a given transaction. [¶ 64]

Where a real estate broker brings parties together who ultimately consummate a real estate sale, the broker is treated as the procuring cause of the completed deal. In such a case, the broker is entitled to a reasonable commission shown by the evidence. A broker can be deemed a procuring cause where he demonstrates he was involved in negotiations and in disseminating property information which leads to a completed sale. [¶ 69]

The appeals court found the trial court’s quantum meruit award of $50,000, which equaled the seller’s broker commission and which two witnesses testified was a reasonable purchaser’s broker commission, was supported by the evidence. (Note – this judgment amount was less than half of what the broker sought in his breach of express contract claim – based on the unsigned 5% commission agreement.)

The Court rejected defendant’s ‘unclean hands’ defense premised on plaintiff’s failure to publicly list the property (so he could purchase it himself) and his lag time in asserting his commission rights.

The unclean hands doctrine prevents a party from taking advantage of its own wrong.  It prevents a plaintiff from obtaining legal relief where he is guilty of misconduct in connection with the subject matter of the litigation.  For misconduct to preclude recovery, it must rise to the level of fraud or bad faith. In addition, the misconduct must be directly aimed at the party against whom relief is sought.  Conduct geared towards a third party, no matter how egregious, generally won’t support an unclean hands defense.

Here, the defendant’s allegation that the plaintiff failed to publicly list the property, even if true, wasn’t directed at the defendant.  If anything, the failure to list negatively impacted the non-party property owner, not the defendant.

Afterwords:

In the real estate broker setting, procuring cause doctrine provides a viable fall-back theory of recovery in the absence of a definite, enforceable contract.

Where a broker offers witness testimony of a customary broker commission for a similar property sale, this can serve as a sufficient evidentiary basis for a procuring cause/quantum meruit recovery.

 

Faulty Service on LLC Defendant Dooms Administrative Agency’s Unpaid Wages Claim Versus Security Company

The Illinois Department of Labor’s (DOL) decision to send a notice of hearing to a limited liability company and its sole member to the member’s personal post office (p.o.) box (and not to the LLC’s registered agent) came back to haunt the agency in People of the State of Illinois v. Wilson, 2018 IL App (1st) 171614-U.

Reversing summary judgment for the DOL in its lawsuit to enforce an unpaid wages default judgment, the First District austerely applies the Illinois LLC Act’s (805 ILCS 180/1-1 et seq.) service of process requirements and voided the judgment for improper service.

Key Chronology:

February 2013: the DOL filed a complaint for violation of the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (the Wage Act) against the LLC security firm and its member (the “LLC Member”);

January 2015: the DOL sends a notice of hearing by regular mail to both defendants to the LLC Member’s personal p.o. box;

March 2015: Defendants fail to appear at the hearing (the “2015 Hearing”) and DOC defaults the defendants;

June 2015: Defendants fail to pay the default amount and DOL enters judgment that tacks on additional fees and penalties;

February 2016: DOL files suit in Illinois Chancery Court to enforce the June 2015 administrative judgment;

March 2016, May 2016: Defendants respectively appear through counsel and move to dismiss the case for improper service of the 2015 Hearing notice;

June – July 2016: DOL concedes that service was deficient on the LLC defendant (the security company) and voluntarily dismisses the LLC as party defendant;

May 2017: DOL’s motion for summary judgment granted;

June 2017: LLC Member appeals.

The Analysis

The main issue on appeal was whether the DOL gave proper notice of the 2015 Hearing. It did not.

Under the law, lack of jurisdiction may be raised at any time; even past the 35-day window to challenge an agency’s decision under the Illinois Administrative Review Law, 735 ILCS 5/3-103.

Section 50 of the LLC Act provides that an LLC must be served (1) via its registered agent or (2) the Secretary of State under limited circumstances.

Secretary of State service on an LLC is proper where (1) the LLC fails to appoint or maintain a registered agent in Illinois; (2) the LLC’s registered agent cannot be found with reasonable diligence at either the LLC’s registered office or its principal place of business; OR (3) when the LLC has been dissolved, the conditions of (1) and (2) above exist, and suit is brought within 5 years after issuance of a certificate of dissolution or filing of a judgment of dissolution. 805 ILCS 180/1-50(a), (b)(1-3).

Here, the DOL mailed notice of the 2015 Hearing to the wrong party: it only notified the LLC Member. It did not serve the notice on the LLC’s registered agent or through the Secretary of State. As a result, the LLC was not properly served in the underlying wage proceeding.

The DOL argued that since the LLC Member was also sued as an individual “employer” under Sections 2 and 13 of the Act, service of the 2015 Hearing on the LLC Member was valid.

The Court disagreed. Under Sections 2 and 13 of the Act, an employer can be liable for its own violations and acts committed by its agents and corporate officers or agents can be liable where they “knowingly permit” an employer to violate the Act.

Corporate officers who have “operational control” of a business are deemed employers under the Act. However, an individual’s status as a lone member of an entity – like the LLC Member – is not enough to subject the member to personal liability.

Instead, there must be evidence the member permitted the corporate employer to violate the Act by not paying the compensation due the employee. Otherwise, the Court held, every company decision-maker would be liable for a company’s failure to pay an employee’s wages. [⁋⁋ 49-50]

And since the DOL hearing officer never made any specific findings that the LLC Member knowingly permitted the security company to violate the Act, there wasn’t enough evidence to sustain the trial court’s summary judgment for the DOL. [⁋ 51]

Afterwords:

Wilson starkly illustrates that the LLC Act’s service of process strictures have teeth. If a litigant fails to serve an LLC’s registered agent or the Secretary of State, any judgment stemming from the invalid service is a nullity.

In hindsight, the DOL probably should have produced evidence at the 2015 Hearing that the LLC Member (a) had operational control over the security firm; and (b) personally participated in the firm’s decision not to pay the underlying claimant’s wages. Had it done so, it may have been able to salvage its case and show that p.o. box service on the LLC Member was sufficient to subject her to the DOL’s jurisdiction.