Steakhouse Trade Secrets at Peter Luger

Most businesses have some kind of trade secrets, but many don’t realize it. Even when running a seemingly simple business, companies need to be aware of how they are protecting their proprietary information. Recently, food blog Eater.com wrote about how New York’s venerable Peter Luger Steakhouse prepares its porterhouse. This article shows that trade secrets can show up in unexpected places, like a famous steakhouse’s basement.

The article starts with a quote:

“There are very few secrets in a steakhouse,” says third generation Peter Luger Steakhouse proprietor Jody Storch. “It’s really just about buying the best product that’s out there and simply preparing it.”

But later on, Storch reveals that Peter Luger’s porterhouse is at least a little proprietary:

If there is a “secret” to the Luger porterhouse, it’s in the dry-aging. In the basement of Peter Luger is a long dry-aging room, but Storch cannot reveal details like how cold the temperature is in there, or what the humidity level is, or how long the aging process takes.

Peter Luger’s dry-aging process could be a trade secret. But only if it reasonably protects the information. Based on this article, it certainly seems that Peter Luger is focused on preventing disclosure of its proprietary process. Hopefully, it only shares this information with those who need it to do their jobs, all of whom signed confidentiality agreements.

All businesses, even simple ones, should ask (1) what proprietary information do we have, and (2) how are we protecting it? The answers can be critical to preventing unwanted disclosure and mitigating the damage of any such disclosure.

And if you make it to Peter Luger, order a slice or two of the bacon.

Trade Secrets and Public Records

Companies performing municipal or government work face unique challenges when they need to share their confidential or proprietary information with public agencies. These companies must be wary of state public records laws and the Freedom of Information Act. A recent case, All Aboard Florida — Operations, LLC v. State of Florida, et al., filed in Leon County, Florida, illustrates this.

All Aboard Florida is attempting to develop passenger rail service between Miami and Orlando. It is doing so in partnership with various governmental entities. Recently, Orlando developer Matthew Falconer served various Florida agencies with requests under Florida’s Public Records Act for various documents relating to All Aboard Florida’s efforts.

According to the complaint, these agencies told All Aboard Florida that they intended to provide Falconer with All Aboard Florida’s Florida Ridership and Revenue Study. In response, All Aboard Florida filed this complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, seeking protection under Florida’s Trade Secrets Act. According to All Aboard Florida, this study is a trade secret:

The Ridership Study analyzes expected market share for AAF’s service, including the effects of various pricing and travel time scenarios on AAF ridership. As such, the Ridership Study is an extremely sensitive and commercially valuable document, the disclosure of which to the public could place AAF at an unfair competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis airlines and other transportation alternatives.

Under Florida’s Public Records Act, trade secrets are exempt from disclosure.

When All Aboard Florida provided this study to the government, it marked each page as proprietary and confidential. For companies facing this situation who have no choice but to provide proprietary information to a government agency, I would recommend going one step further: Label each page of any proprietary document as “Trade Secret Information Protected From Disclosure By Section 815.045, Florida Statutes” (or the relevant statute in the state at issue).

The goal is to make it as simple as possible for the government employees responding to a public-records request to recognize that the document at issue should not be disclosed.

 

Slightly Off Topic: Major Opinion Changes the Standard for Unfair Trade Practices Claims in Florida

I’m going to take a brief detour from trade-secrets issues today, and instead wander in to the world of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA). This statute, like many state consumer-protection laws, prohibits unfair trade practices, among other things.

Prior to this week, Florida courts have defined an unfair trade practice as one that is immoral, unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous, or substantially injurious to consumers. (The definition of consumer includes just about all individuals and business entities.) This broad standard allowed FDUTPA to serve as the Swiss Army Knife of claims, since it could apply to diverse types of bad acts. For example, I obtained a judgment for violating FDUTPA where my client’s former independent contractor started a competing business using my client’s proprietary information. (So there’s at least some connection between FDUTPA and trade secrets, since FDUTPA claims could be brought in a misappropriation action.)

But this week, in Porsche Cars North America, Inc. v. Peter Diamond, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal changed the standard. Now, an unfair trade practice is one that causes injury to a consumer that (1) must be substantial, (2) must not be outweighed by any countervailing benefits to consumers or competition that the practice produces, and (3) must be an injury that the consumers could not reasonably have avoided.

This revised definition, and the third prong in particular, will make it more difficult to bring unfair-trade-practice claims.

As a result of this decision, there is now a district split on this issue. It will be interesting to see if this case gets appealed, and if so, whether the Florida Supreme Court settles the issue.

Do Noncompetes Stifle or Encourage Innovation? Should you care?

The New York Times published an article yesterday discussing the increased use of noncompete agreements in nontraditional industries. The article starts by talking about a 19-year-old college student who had a job offer to work as a summer-camp counselor withdrawn as a result of a noncompete agreement she signed at another camp:

Colette Buser couldn’t understand why a summer camp withdrew its offer for her to work there this year.

After all, the 19-year-old college student had worked as a counselor the three previous summers at a nearby Linx-branded camp in Wellesley, Mass. But the company balked at hiring her because it feared that Linx would sue to enforce a noncompete clause tucked into Ms. Buser’s 2013 summer employment contract.

The article also talks about a lawn-maintenance person, an entry-level social-media marketer,  and a hairdresser, all of whom had to sign restrictive covenants.

As more and more employers require restrictive covenants, there has been increased push-back. Against the backdrop of Massachusetts’ proposed ban on noncompetes, the article goes on to discuss arguments for and against employee restrictive covenants. Some argue that noncompetes stifle innovation:

“Noncompetes are a dampener on innovation and economic development,” said Paul Maeder, co-founder and general partner of Highland Capital Partners, a venture capital firm with offices in both Boston and Silicon Valley. “They result in a lot of stillbirths of entrepreneurship — someone who wants to start a company, but can’t because of a noncompete.”

Employers argue that the opposite is true:

“Noncompetes reduce the potential for poaching,” said Mr. Hazen, whose company makes scratch lottery tickets and special packaging. “We consider them an important way to protect our business. As an entrepreneur who invests a lot of money in equipment, in intellectual property and in people, I’m worried about losing these people we’ve invested in.”

There has always been a dispute about restrictive covenants’ effect on macro-level economic health. From my perspective, I am more concerned about using restrictive covenants to my clients’ benefit, as opposed to resolving this dispute; the policy implications of restrictive-covenant law are irrelevant to companies trying to protect their proprietary information. But the article leaves out a real-world benefit: increased certainty for employers and employees.

When permitted to use restrictive covenants, employers and employees have a better understanding of what will happen when the employer/employee relationship terminates. Employers can more comfortably share proprietary information with their employees, knowing that the restrictive covenants protect the employers’ interests. And employees know the precise limitations on their future employment, which can better inform their employment-related decisions.

Regardless, as I’ve discussed over and over, companies seeking to protect their proprietary information need to consider whether to require restrictive covenants. As long as the applicable jurisdiction permits them, restrictive covenants are often a company’s most powerful weapon to prevent unwanted disclosure.

Is Facebook Buying a Massive Trade-Secrets-Theft Liability?

Big trade-secret news last week. Oculus VR, Inc., the virtual-reality company Facebook is acquiring for $2 billion. was sued by Zenimax Media Inc. for trade-secrets misappropriation. Zenimax owns popular video-game titles such as Doom and Wolfenstein. A copy of the complaint is linked below.

Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus received widespread media coverage. This lawsuit, which will likely seek billions in damages, should draw extensive media interest.

According to the complaint, when Oculus’s founder (Palmer Luckey, named as a defendant) was developing Oculus’s VR headset called “Rift,” Zenimax provided Luckey with Zenimax’s proprietary information. This information allowed Oculus to transform Rift from a primitive, non-functional prototype into a viable platform justifying Facebook’s billions. After that, the Zenimax employees involved left to work for Oculus.

There are always two sides to every story, and so far we’ve only heard from Zenimax. But the complaint paints a pretty egregious picture of trade-secret theft. One example: After leaving Zenimax, where he had signed an agreement providing that any intellectual property he created for Zenimax belonged to Zenimax, to join Oculus, John Carmack tweeted: “When you are in a hurry, and you know you wrote the exact needed code (well!) at a previous job, reimplementation grates.”

While Zenimax appears to have a strong case, I see some potential issues. Most importantly, Zenimax did not have Oculus sign a nondisclosure agreement until after Zenimax had provided Oculus with at least some of its proprietary information. Oculus will likely argue that Zenimax did not reasonably protect this information, since it shared it with a third-party without requiring a confidentiality agreement.

This leads to the biggest takeaway thus far for companies looking to protect their proprietary information: Never share this agreement with anyone, for any purpose, unless that person/entity executes a nondisclosure agreement.

It’s also interesting that a company as sophisticated as Zenimax would allow its employees to provide significant proprietary information to a third party without first working out, and documenting, how it would be compensated. Later on, the two companies tried to negotiate a compensation agreement, to no avail.

Finally, any company that doubts the risks employees present to its proprietary information should look at the responses to the Carmack tweet I discussed above, which has 95 “favorites.” Sample response: “that’s what USB sticks are for…”

I will monitor this case and write about its developments.

Zenimax Complaint

 

In Defense of the Defend Trade Secrets Act

In my last post, I discussed the recently proposed, bipartisan Defend Trade Secrets Act that would create a federal cause of action for trade-secret misappropriation. I wrote favorably about the statute’s mechanism allowing a judge to enter an ex parte order to preserve evidence. Since then, I’ve discussed this provision with several people who have concerns about it. This post responds to these criticisms.

To start, I want to explain why this provision is so important. Trade-secret theft is overwhelmingly accomplished by electronic means, such as through email, downloading to portable media, or via remote access to IT systems. Companies suspecting trade-secret theft can often determine where and how the information was stolen. For example, forensic techniques can identify that certain documents were saved to a flash drive on a specific date.

The Defend Trade Secrets Act permits the company, armed with this information, to seek an order requiring seizure or preservation of the media/computer/etc to which the information was downloaded. As a result, critical evidence that could otherwise easily be destroyed would be preserved. Without a statutory provision specifically authorizing this remedy, most litigants find it very difficult to convince a judge to enter this type of order.

I’ve heard concerns about the risk that judges will improvidently grant ex parte seizure orders brought in bad faith by unscrupulous litigants, potentially causing significant unjustified damage to defendants. This risk, while real, is present any time a judge hears an ex parte motion for temporary restraining order. The overwhelming majority of judges are reluctant to enter an ex parte injunction unless absolutely necessary. And this statute contains requirements that make it materially more difficult to get a seizure order as compared to a TRO.

In particular, the Defend Trade Secrets Act borrows from the Trademark Act’s procedure for seizing goods containing counterfeit trademarks. These requirements go beyond the typical TRO prerequisites. For example, the movant must show evidence that the item to be seized will be in a certain location. The court must also take measures to protect the defendant from publicity regarding the seizure. Further, the order directing seizure remains sealed until the defendant has an opportunity to contest it at a hearing that must occur within 15 days of entering the ex parte order. And as a final example, the statute provides for damages, including punitive damages, if the defendant is damaged by the wrongful entry of a seizure order.

These protections go a long way to minimize the likelihood that orders are improperly entered. In the end, the benefit of avoiding destruction of evidence—which happens all too frequently—outweighs the risk of unwarranted orders, particularly given the statute’s protections.

Thoughts About the Defend Trade Secrets Act

Last week, Senators Hatch and Coons introduced bipartisan legislation, called the Defend Trade Secrets Act, that would create a federal private right of action for trade-secrets theft. This act adds to the Economic Espionage Act, which was passed in 1996 and made trade-secret theft a crime. Copies of the Defend Trade Secrets Act and the Economic Espionage Act are linked below.

While I’m still thinking through some of these issues, my first reaction to this law is a strongly positive one. Companies would benefit from having a national standard for trade-secret misappropriation. Today, while most states have adopted the Uniform Trade Secret Act (UTSA), there are state-by-state variations in the statutory text and interpretation. Also, this law would allow companies to litigate in federal court, where cases often proceed more quickly than in state court.

The act also acknowledges the e-discovery issues that frequently arise in trade-secret litigation by allowing for the ex parte entry of an order to preserve evidence, specifically allowing an order compelling “a copy of an electronic storage medium that contains the trade secret.” Today, it can be difficult to obtain such an order, with plaintiffs forced to resort to conventional injunction proceedings in front of state-court judges, who may not be as familiar with e-discovery issues.

The Defend Trade Secrets Act has a five-year statute of limitations, as opposed to the three years in the UTSA. Given that misappropriation is commonly done through surreptitious means, five years is more reasonable.

This proposed law is not perfect—for example, I would like to see a broader definition of “improper means” instead of just adopting the UTSA’s definition—but overall, this law would be a step forward for companies trying to protect their trade secrets. Hopefully, this bipartisan effort will have more success than other recent attempts to create a federal civil action for trade-secrets misappropriation.

Economic Espionage Act

Defend Trade Secrets Act

What Can the Donald Sterling Episode Teach Us About Protecting Trade Secrets?

Even if you hate sports, you have surely heard about the NBA banning LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life for his racist comments. The comments came to light after a recording of a telephone conversation between Sterling and his “girlfriend” was made public. We can all agree that Sterling’s comments were reprehensible. But for our purposes, what does this episode teach us about protecting trade secrets?

We’ve reached a point where virtually every person is walking around with technology in their pocket that allows them to record, photograph, videotape, or otherwise document everything around them at any given moment. The widespread use of iPhones and other smartphones has profound implications on many aspects of society. For Sterling, this led to the disclosure of what he thought was a private conversation. For companies trying to protect their proprietary information, they need to be even more vigilant about keeping this information secret.

As I’ve discussed before, only share proprietary information with those who need it to do their jobs. Don’t allow visitors access to areas where proprietary information is stored. Use IT solutions to restrict and password-protect critical proprietary information. And make sure (through training and contractual obligations) that employees know not to discuss this information with any third parties. After all, you never know when the other person may be recording the conversation.

 

 

Novel Legal Strategy Deflates Employer’s Trade-Secrets Case

Recently, in Putters v. Rmax Operating, LLC, 2014 WL 1466902 (N.D. Ga. April 15, 2014) (opinion linked below), the court dismissed a counterclaim for trade-secrets misappropriation, brought in response to a declaratory judgment action filed by the defendant’s former employee. When I first read this opinion, I thought that the defendant did not move fast enough, thereby allowing the plaintiff to select the forum. When I dug further, however, I found out I was wrong.

In this case, the defendant is a Texas company that manufacturers insulation materials. The plaintiff worked for the defendant for 26 years in Georgia as a sales manager, and had access to the defendant’s confidential information. After the plaintiff left the defendant to work for a competitor, the defendant discovered that the plaintiff “had downloaded documents containing proprietary and confidential information to an external hard drive.”

While not clear from this opinion, the complaint gives the back story. A copy is linked below. The defendant originally filed suit in Texas state court and obtained an ex parte temporary restraining order prohibiting the plaintiff from working for his new employer.

After that, the plaintiff made an interesting legal maneuver. He filed this lawsuit in Georgia state court, seeking a declaration that he is permitted to continue working for his new employer, and an injunction prohibiting the defendant from prosecuting the Texas action, since Texas courts did not have personal jurisdiction over him.

This maneuver worked. The case (after being removed to federal court) is proceeding in Georgia federal court, where the court dismissed the defendant’s counterclaim and denied the defendant’s request for a TRO.

Normally, when a defendant believes that there is no personal jurisdiction over him, he will simply litigate that issue in front of the court where the plaintiff filed the lawsuit. Here, the employee took an entirely different course and successfully redirected the litigation to a different forum. And he was able to get the case in front of a judge with much more favorable views of his case.

Takeaway: Companies should be wary of personal-jurisdiction issues when filing trade-secrets lawsuits. The last thing you want is to be bogged down in a personal jurisdiction fight before the court will even hear a temporary injunction motion. Or, even worse, you could end up like the employer in this case, who spent time and money getting a TRO, only to be whisked away to a Georgia court with a very different view of the employer’s arguments.

Also, had this company simply had its employees sign restrictive covenants (including a venue and jurisdiction clause), they would be in a far better legal position.

Order

Complaint

“Trade Secret Perfume”

Recently, I was in New York. The dry winter air in the Northeast is always a shock to my system, since I’m used to the South Florida humidity. So I bought some lip balm. Upon reading the ingredients, I was intrigued to see this:

photo (6)

“Trade secret perfume.” Aside from creative marketing, does labeling an ingredient as a “trade secret” offer any legal benefits?

Formulas and recipes can be trade secrets. But of course, just labeling something as a trade secret does not make it so. Now if the lip balm company also takes other precautions—such as only disclosing the perfume formula to those employees who need the formula to do their jobs, and requiring that those employees sign confidentiality agreements—the “trade secret” label could be used to strengthen the argument that the formula is actually a trade secret.

This is similar to a document confidentiality policy. Labeling documents containing proprietary information as “confidential” can bolster a claim that the information is a trade secret, when the information is otherwise reasonably protected. But a label is never enough alone. As always, the key to protecting trade secrets starts with requiring that employees with access sign confidentiality agreements.