British Firm’s Multi-Million Dollar Trade Secrets Verdict Upheld Against Illinois Construction Equipment Juggernaut – IL Fed Court

Refusing to set aside a $73-plus million jury verdict for a small British equipment manufacturer against construction giant Caterpillar, Inc., a Federal court recently examined the contours of the Illinois trade secrets statute and the scope of damages for trade secrets violations.

The plaintiff in Miller UK, Ltd. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 2017 WL 1196963 (N.D.Ill. 2017) manufactured a coupler device that streamlined the earthmoving and excavation process.  Plaintiff’s predecessor and Caterpillar entered into a 1999 supply contract where plaintiff furnished the coupler to Caterpillar who would, in turn, sell it under its own name through a network of dealers.

The plaintiff sued when Caterpillar terminated the agreement and began marketing its own coupler – the Center-Lock – which bore an uncanny resemblance to plaintiff’s coupler design.

After a multi-week trial, the jury found for the plaintiff on its trade secrets claim and for Caterpillar’s on its defamation counterclaim for $1 million – a paltry sum dwarfed by the plaintiff’s outsized damages verdict.

The Court first assessed whether the plaintiff’s three-dimensional computerized drawings deserved trade secrets protection.

The Illinois Trade Secrets Act (ITSA), 765 ILCS 1065/1, defines a trade secret as encompassing information, technical or non-technical data, a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, drawing, process, financial data, or list of actual or potential customers that (1) is sufficiently secret to derive economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and (2) is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy or confidentiality.

Misappropriation means “disclosure” or “use” of a trade secret by someone who lacks express or implied consent to do so and where he/she knows or should know that knowledge of the trade secret was acquired under circumstances giving rise to a duty to maintain its secrecy or limit its use.  Intentional conduct, howver, isn’t required: misappropriation can result from a defendant’s negligent or unintentional conduct.

Recoverable trade secret damages include actual loss caused by the misappropriation and unjust enrichment enjoyed by the misappropriator.  Where willful and malicious conduct is shown, the plaintiff can also recover punitive damages.  765 ILCS 1065/4.

In agreeing that the plaintiff’s coupler drawings were trade secrets, the Court noted plaintiff’s expansive use of confidentiality agreements when they furnished the drawings to Caterpillar and credited plaintiff’s trial testimony that the parties’ expectation was for the drawings to be kept secret.

The Court also upheld its trial rulings excluding certain evidence offered by Caterpillar.  One item of evidence rejected by the court as hearsay was a slide presentation prepared by Caterpillar to show how its coupler differed from plaintiff’s and didn’t utilize plaintiff’s confidential data.

Hearsay prevents a litigant from using out-of-court statements to prove the truth of the matter asserted.  An exception to the hearsay rule applies where an out-of-court statement (1) is consistent with a declarant’s trial testimony, (2) the party offering the statement did so to rebut an express or implied charge of recent fabrication or improper motive against the declarant, (3) the statement was made before the declarant had a motive for fabrication, and (4) the declarant testifies at trial and is subject to cross-examination.

Since the slide show was made as a direct response to plaintiff’s claim that Caterpillar used plaintiff’s confidential information, the statement (the slide show) was made after Caterpillar had a motive to fabricate the slide show.

The Court then affirmed the jury’s $1M verdict on Caterpillar’s defamation counter-claim based on plaintiff’s falsely implying that Caterpillar’s coupler failed standard safety tests in written and video submissions sent to Caterpillar’s equipment dealers.  The plaintiff’s letter and enclosed DVD showed a Caterpillar coupler bucket breaking apart and decapitating a life-size dummy. (Ouch!)  The obvious implication being that Caterpillar’s coupler is unsafe.

The Court agreed with the jury that the plaintiff’s conduct was actionable as per se defamation.  A quintessential defamation per se action is one alleging a plaintiff’s lack of ability or integrity in one’s business.  With per se defamation, damages are presumed – meaning, the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove mathematical (actual) monetary loss.

Instead, all that’s required is the damages assessed “not be considered substantial.”  Looking to an earlier case where the court awarded $1M for defamatory statements in tobacco litigation, the Court found that the jury’s verdict against the plaintiff coupler maker here was proper.

Afterwords:

The wide use of confidentiality agreements and evidence of oral pledges of secrecy can serve as sufficient evidence of an item’s confidential nature for purposes of trade secrets liability.  Trade secrets damages can include actual profits lost by a plaintiff, the amount the defendant (the party misappropriating the trade secrets) was unjustly enriched through the use of plaintiff’s trade secrets and, in some egregious cases, punitive damages.

The case also shows that a jury has wide latitude to fashion general damage awards in per se defamation suits.  This is especially so in cases involving deep-pocketed defendants.

 

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.