‘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.

No Commercial Disparagement Or Non-Compete Equals Denial Of Injunction – IL Court

In Xylem Dewatering Solutions, Inc. v. Szablewski, 2014 IL App (5th) 140080-U,  the plaintiff corporation sued some of its ex-employees after they joined a competitor and started raiding plaintiff’s office staff.

The trial court denied plaintiff’s request for an injunction and then it appealed.

Result: Trial court’s order upheld. Plaintiff loses.

Reasons: To get a preliminary injunction, a plaintiff must establish (1) a clearly ascertained right in need of protection; (2) irreparable injury; (3) no adequate remedy at law; and (4) a likelihood of success on the merits.

The plaintiff must establish a “fair question” on each of the four elements. A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy that is only granted in extreme, emergency settings. (¶¶ 20-21).

Irreparable harm can result from commercial disparagement of a plaintiff’s product but the plaintiff must show the defendant repeatedly made false or misleading statements of fact regarding the plaintiff’s goods and services to establish irreparable harm.  Statements of opinion (“their services suck!”, e.g.) don’t qualify as commercial disparagement. 

Here, the Court found that there were no repeated factual statements made by the defendants.  In addition, all statements that were attributed to the defendants were purely interpretive: they weren’t factual enough to be actionable.  (¶¶ 23-24).

In finding that the plaintiff lacked a protectable interest in its employees or customers, the court pointed out that neither individual defendant signed a non-compete and didn’t violate any fiduciary duties to the employer.

In Illinois, absent a non-compete, an employee is free both to compete with a former employer and to outfit a competing business so long as he doesn’t do so before his employment terminates.  And while a corporate officer owes heightened fiduciary duties not to exploit his position for personal gain, the ex-employee defendants were not corporate officers. (¶ 26).

Plaintiff also failed to establish a protectable interest in its pricing and bid information.  The Illinois Trade Secrets Act, 765 ILCS 1065/1 et seq. (“ITSA”) extends trade secret protection to “information” that is (1) sufficiently secret to derive economic value, from not being generally known to others who can obtain economic value from its use, and (2) that is the subject of reasonable efforts to maintain the information’s secrecy (i.e., “kept under lock and key”)

Information that is generally known in an industry – even if not to the public at large – isn’t a trade secret. Also, information that can be readily copied without a significant outlay of time, effort or expense is not a trade secret. 

The pricing data the plaintiff was trying to protect was several years old and the defendants testified that the bidding information was well known (and therefore not secret) in the pumping industry.  In combination, these factors weighed against a finding of trade secret protection for the pricing and bidding information. (¶¶ 29-31).

Afterwords:

(1) Stale data likely won’t qualify for trade secret status – no matter how arcane the information;

(2) If information is well known or can be easily accessed within an industry, it won’t be given trade secret protection;

(3) Noncompete agreements can serve vital purposes.  If a business fails to have its workers sign them, the business risks having no recourse if an ex-employee joins a competitor and later raids the former employer’s personnel.

Preliminary Injunctions and The Illinois Trade Secrets Act

Trade secrets cases provide fertile grounds for preliminary injunctions and temporary restraining orders.  Here are the black-letter basics:

– A preliminary injunction plaintiff must show: (1) irreparable harm, (2) likelihood of success on the merits, (3) the harm the plaintiff would suffer if the injunction is denied is greater than the harm inflicted on the defendants and (4) the injunction is in the public interest;

– To win a trade secrets case, the plaintiff must establish (1) that the information at issue is a trade secret, and (2) that the information was misappropriated and used in the defendant’s business;

– A trade secret is broadly defined as “information” that is (a) sufficiently secret to derive monetary value from not being generally known to others (who can obtain monetary value from its use); and (b) subject of efforts to maintain the information’s secrecy or confidentiality. See Illinois Trade Secrets Act, 760 ILCS 1065/2 (the ITSA);

– Six common-law trade secrets factors include

(1) extent to which the information is known outside of plaintiff’s business,

(2) extent to which the information is known by employees and others involved in plaintiff’s business;

(3) extent of measures taken by plaintiff to guard the information’s secrecy;

(4) value of the information to the plaintiff’s business and its competitors;

(5) the amount of time, effort and money expended by the plaintiff in developing the information; and

(6) the ease or difficulty with which the information could be properly acquired or duplicated by others;

– Misappropriation means acquisition or discovery by improper means or use of the secret;

– There is a presumption of irreparable harm in trade secrets misappropriation cases;

– Irreparable injury means harm that is difficult to quantify;

– The purpose of a preliminary injunction (in the trade secrets context) is not to punish; but to eliminate a litigant’s unfair advantage over another.