Recent Fee Shifting Cases Caution Against Diving into Non-Compete/Trade Secret Litigation Where the Facts Supporting a Violation are Unknown or Questionable

By:  Mark E. Furlane

Two recent cases highlight the down side of running into court with guns blazing but without the horses to prevail, or at least without the facts sufficient to survive the bad faith standard of the Uniform Trade Secret Act.  In Sasco v Rosendin Electric, Inc., 143 Cal.Rptr.3d 828 (July 11, 2012), the Appellate Court affirmed the lower court’s judgment of $ 484,943.46 in attorneys’ fees and costs pursuant to California’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act, observing:

Speculation that the individual employees must have taken trade secrets from SASCO based on their decision to change employers does not constitute evidence of misappropriation.  Nor does speculation that Rosendin’s success in obtaining the Verizon Tustin contract was based on the theft of trade secrets constitute evidence of misappropriation.…..Having reviewed the parties’ respective papers, the court found there was no evidence of trade secret misappropriation.

In Loparex, LLC v. MPI Release, LLC, 2012 WL 3065428 (S.D. Ind., July 27, 2012) the District Court was even more direct in awarding the prevailing party, MPI,  $475,000 in attorneys fees and nearly $29,000 in costs under the Illinois Uniform Trade Secret Act.  The Court found that Loparex pursued the trade secret misappropriation claims in “bad faith.”  The Court also determined there was no evidence that the employees had misappropriated any trade secrets in its diversion of a former Loparex customer.  The Court went on to award fees against Loparex’s former lead counsel as well, under 28 U.S.C § 1927, for bad faith prosecution of the case.

These cases do not mean that attorneys’ fees will be shifted where a plaintiff can show that trade secrets are at issue and the plaintiff has a good faith factual basis to conclude that those trade secrets were being misappropriated or there was a threatened misappropriation.  The plaintiff bringing a trade secrets action does not get assessed the other party’s attorneys fees by losing, but only when the plaintiff loses and a claim of misappropriation is made in bad faith.  In these two cases, there was no reasonable basis for bringing the claims, let alone continuing to pursue the litigation after it was clear to everyone that the plaintiffs’ claims were meritless.

In addition to a statutory basis for attorneys fees under the Uniform Trade Secrets Acts adopted in many states, there are  other statutory fee shifting statutes that may apply.  For instance, Montana’s Declaratory Judgment Act, § 27–8–313, may provide a statutory basis for awarding attorneys’ fees as supplemental relief if such an award is determined to be necessary and proper.  See, e.g., Mungas v. Great Falls Clinic, LLP. 354 Mont. 50, 221 P.3d 1230 (2009)(fees not awarded because the facts not deemed to warrant it).  More frequently, however, fee shifting awards come from a well drafted employment agreement.  Ohio Learning Centers, LLC v. Sylvan Learning, Inc.,  2012 WL 1067668 (D. Md., March 27, 2012).  The Sylvan Court quoted the relevant contract language:

[I]n the event either [SLI] or [OLC] institutes a suit or action to enforce any term or provision of [the License] Agreement, the most prevailing party in the suit or action, or on appeal, shall be entitled to recover from the losing party a reasonable attorney fee to be set by the trial or appellate court in addition to costs or disbursements provided by law.

At the summary judgment phase the Court found the fee award premature because “ at this stage in the litigation it is not yet clear that the Defendants will be ‘the most prevailing party’ in this case.”  Note that the Court is enforcing the parties’ agreement as written.  The Court also noted that the fee-shifting provision in the License Agreement only provides for an award of “reasonable” fees.  And since evidence of the reasonableness of the fees had not yet been submitted by the putative prevailing party, the Court stated that it could not conduct the requisite analysis.

The take away:  make sure you have the horses before filing suit, or at least be reasonably assured you will have those horses harnessed by the time the smoke of your rush to court clears.

Are Partners Protected by the Provisions of FEHA and/or Title VII?

By: Pascal Benyamini

According to the California Court of Appeal, a partner in a partnership is protected under the provisions of the California Fair Employment Housing Act  (“FEHA”)  if the partner complains that the partnership is retaliating against the partner because the partner complained about unlawful discrimination or harassment by the partnership against employees of the partnership.  In Fitzsimons v. California Emergency Physicians Medical Group, the California Court of Appeal drew a distinction between a partner alleging discrimination, harassment or retaliation by the partnership against the partner versus the partner complaining that the partnership is retaliating against the partner because the partner complained about unlawful discrimination or harassment by the partnership against employees of the partnership. Say that again?

Here’s what happened in the Fitzsimons case.  The plaintiff (a woman partner in the medical practice) claimed that she was retaliated against for reporting that certain male officers and agents of the partnership had sexually harassed female employees.  So, the issue was not whether the plaintiff could sue the partnership for sexual harassment against herself as an employee, but whether plaintiff could sue the partnership as a non-employee based on retaliation for complaining that employees of the partnership were sexually harassed.  The Court held that under the FEHA, the partner can maintain such an action, even though the partner is not deemed an employee of the partnership.

The Court drew a distinction between the provisions of Title VII and the FEHA by highlighting that Title VII and the FEHA differ significantly.  The Court explained that Title VII prohibits employers from retaliating against employees or applicants for employment, whereas the FEHA prohibits employers from retaliating against any person who opposes or challenges unlawful employment practices, such as discrimination or harassment.  In Fitzsimons, the plaintiff was regarded  as “any person” who opposed harassment of female employees by the officers and agents of the partnership.

Moral of the story: just because a partner is not regarded as an employee of the partnership, the partner still can sue the partnership for retaliation under the FEHA.  The case is attached here: Fitzsimons v. California Emergency Physicians Medical Group.

Lawrence Del Rossi and Joshua Rinschler Publish Article on an ‘Awkward Theory’ of Personal Liability for Supervisory Employees Under the NJLAD

Associates Lawrence J. Del Rossi and Joshua D. Rinschler’s article, Aiding and Abetting Your Own Conduct – An ‘awkward theory’ of personal liability for supervisory employees under the N.J. Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), was published in the July 16, 2012 edition of the New Jersey Law Journal.  Their article takes a look at what is becoming a common practice in wrongful discharge cases brought under the NJLAD where terminated employees are not only suing their employer, but also naming as an individual defendant the supervisor who made the decision to terminate.  Their complete article appears below.

Aiding and Abetting Your Own Conduct – New Jersey Law Journal – Larry Del Rossi and Joshua Rinschler – 7-16-12

 

 

Is Your Electronic Information Protected from Employees Under the CFAA? Maybe So, Maybe Not…

By: Mark E. Furlane

In WEC Carolina Energy Solutions LLC v. Miller, 2012 WL 3039213 (4th Cir) decided July 26, 2012, the Fourth Circuit sided with the Ninth Circuit in deciding that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”) does not apply to employees and former employees who were authorized to access the employer’s electronic information.  The decision stands in contrast to the position taken by the Seventh Circuit in Int’l Airport Ctrs., LLC v. Citrin, 440 F.3d 418, 420–21 (7th Cir.2006).  The Fourth Circuit rejects the interpretation of the CFAA taken by the Seventh Circuit, which interprets the CFAA much more broadly.  The Seventh Circuit concludes that an employee’s misappropriation of electronic information from his employer is a breach of the employee’s duty of loyalty that immediately terminates his agency relationship and with it his authority to access the laptop, because the only basis of his authority had been that relationship.

WEC Carolina Energy Solutions Inc. argued that its former employee violated the CFAA’s ban on access “without authorization” by taking files from his work computer to a rival company.  The employer had argued in the District Court that by misappropriating the information, Miller voided his agreement with the company, and, therefore, he was no longer permitted to access his computer under the CFAA.  The District court rejected that interpretation of the CFAA and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.  In so ruling the Court “ adopt[s] a narrow reading of the terms “without authorization” and “exceeds authorized access” and hold[s] that they apply only when an individual accesses a computer without permission or obtains or alters information on a computer beyond that which he is authorized to access.”

The Fourth Circuit, like the Ninth and Seventh Circuits, found the crux of the issue presented to be “the scope of ‘without authorization’ and ‘exceeds authorized access,’” but the Fourth Circuit finds the Ninth Circuit argument in United States v. Nosal, 676 F.3d 854, 863 (9th Cir.2012) (en banc), the better interpretation of “authorization” as being “that an employee is authorized to access a computer when his employer approves or sanctions his admission to that computer.  Thus, he accesses a computer ‘without authorization’ when he gains admission to a computer without approval.  Similarly, we conclude that an employee ‘exceeds authorized access’ when he has approval to access a computer, but uses his access to obtain or alter information that falls outside the bounds of his approved access.  Notably, neither of these definitions extends to the improper use of information validly accessed.  (citations omitted.)”  Unlike the Ninth Circuit, however, which was willing to find that a CFAA violation could be established where an employee exceeded his authority under a company access policy, the Fourth Circuit ruling is even more restrictive than the Ninth Circuit’s view.  The Fourth Circuit “adopt[s] a narrow reading of the terms ‘without authorization’ and ‘exceeds authorized access’ and hold that they apply only when an individual accesses a computer without permission or obtains or alters information on a computer beyond that which he is authorized to access.”

Given that the CFAA has both criminal and civil liability the Fourth Circuit chose to strictly construe the language.  Even “under the Nosal panel’s approach, because [the employee] obtained information ‘in a manner’ that was not authorized (i.e., by downloading it to a personal computer), he nevertheless would be liable under the CFAA. See § 1030(a)(2)(C).  Believing that Congress did not clearly intend to criminalize such behavior, we decline to interpret ‘so’ as ‘in that manner.’”  The bottom line—the Fourth Circuit approach, “reject[s] an interpretation of the CFAA that imposes liability on employees who violate a use policy, choosing instead to limit such liability to individuals who access computers without authorization or who obtain or alter information beyond the bounds of their authorized access.”

While the lines of the split in Circuits has become more defined with WEC Carolina Energy Solutions LLC, predicting what the Supreme Court will do with that split is another story.  My money is on Judge Posner’s interpretation in International Airport Centers, partly because he is a brilliant jurist and I practice in the Seventh Circuit, but mostly because that is the interpretation that expands an employer’s arsenal of protections against cheating employees.  However, until the fat lady [U.S. Supreme Court] sings employers should continue to draft and implement a computer access and use policy for its employees that assumes that a well drafted policy violated by an employee can be enforced under the CFAA, so long as the employer can demonstrate $5,000 in damages to the employer resulted from the employee’s actions.