The Latest in California Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Issues

Seyfarth Synopsis: On September 25 (yes, a Sunday), Governor Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1241. SB 1241, effective January 1, 2017, adds Section 925 to the Labor Code to restrain the ability of employers to require employees to litigate or arbitrate employment disputes (1) outside of California or (2) under the laws of another state. The only exception is where the employee was individually represented by a lawyer in negotiating an employment contract.

For companies that have headquarters outside of California and that employ people who work and reside in California, this assault on the freedom of contract is not welcome news.

Existing Law and the Genesis of SB 1241

Companies have long used forum-selection clauses and choice-of-law provisions in an effort to avoid California courts apply California law to employment disputes, especially those involving unfair competition. SB 1241 generally invalidates these provisions.

There often are legitimate reasons to have employment disputes decided where the company primarily does its business. Companies may prefer a court in their own state to decide which law (California’s or some other state’s) will govern a dispute. Under the common law, courts apply “substantial relationship” and “contrary to a fundamental policy of a state” tests to see if California law or some other law should govern a particular case.

Courts have long held that the freedom to contract favors the enforcement of forum-selection clauses. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 reinforced this rule in Atlantic Marine Constr. Co. Although not an employment case, Atlantic Marine broadly endorsed forum-selection clauses, stating that “courts should not unnecessarily disrupt the parties’ settled expectations” and that usually “ ‘the interest of justice’ is served by holding parties to their bargain.” Since that time, federal district courts in California have increasingly given more weight to forum-selection clauses.

What SB 1241 Provides

As we reported earlier, SB 1241 was among various employment-related bills that went to the Governor at the end of August 2016. SB 1241, the full text of which appears here, will be enacted as Labor Code section 925. It applies to employment contracts entered into, modified, or extended on or after January 1, 2017.

The key provision of Section 925 is its first section:

(a) An employer shall not require an employee who primarily resides and works in California, as a condition of employment, to agree to a provision that would do either of the following:

(1) Require the employee to adjudicate outside of California a claim arising in California.

(2) Deprive the employee of the substantive protection of California law with respect to a controversy arising in California.

A key exception to the application of Section 925 appears in subdivision (e):

(e) This section shall not apply to a contract with an employee who is in fact individually represented by legal counsel in negotiating the terms of an agreement to designate either the venue or forum in which a controversy arising from the employment contract may be adjudicated or the choice of law to be applied.

Thus, Section 925 generally forbids employers to require California employees to adjudicate claims outside of California or to submit to the laws of another state. An employee who successfully sues to void such offending provisions can recover reasonable attorney’s fees. Lab. Code § 925(e).

History of Labor Code Section 925

Section 925 represents a direct response to work-arounds that some employers have developed in attempts to dodge peculiar California law, such as California’s prohibition of covenants not to compete. (See Bus. & Prof. Code § 16600.)

Section 925 follows Governor Brown’s refusal to sign Assembly Bill 465. As we wrote earlier, AB 465 attempted to ban mandatory employment arbitration agreements. Governor Brown’s veto message explained that purported employment abuses “should be specified and solved by targeted legislation, not a blanket prohibition.” Section 925 is one such piece of targeted legislation, attacking contractual provisions that are hostile to California law, whether they appear in an arbitration clause or elsewhere within an employment agreement.

What Labor Code Section 925 Does and Does Not Do

Under prior law, a party seeking to enforce a forum-selection clause in an employment agreement already faced an uphill battle: it had to “prove that enforcement of the forum selection clause would not result in a significant diminution of rights.” Indeed, the Court of Appeal has refused to enforce an employer’s forum-selection clause and related choice-of-law clause because they violated California public policy on employee compensation. Section 925 changes the employer’s battle from difficult to hopeless: clauses that once were simply presumptively unenforceable will now be categorically unenforceable, except for clauses negotiated with an employee “individually represented by legal counsel.”

Although Section 925 apparently is a reaction to Governor Brown’s October 2015 veto of legislation that would have banned mandatory employment arbitration agreements, Section 925 applies to all employment contracts, regardless of whether they contain arbitration clauses. Section 925 affects arbitration clauses by ensuring that employment arbitrations with California residents generally will occur in California and apply California law. Arbitration clauses that contain forum-selection or choice-of-law provisions that offend Section 925 will be to that extent contrary to public policy, an outcome that would make enforcement of the overall arbitration agreement more difficult.

Section 925 does not affect employment agreements already in effect. By its terms, the law applies only to contracts entered into, modified, or extended on or after January 1, 2017.

Open Questions (or Things Left to Litigate)

Section 925 does not define what it means for an employee to “primarily reside[] and work[] in California.” Nor does it specify what qualifies as a “substantive protection of California law” that it seeks to protect.

Although the term “primarily” is vague, it often will not be difficult to determine whether an employee primarily resides and works in California. More difficult would be determining whether applying the law of another state would “[d]eprive the employee of the substantive protection of California law.” Some California courts have recognized that choice-of-law provisions are enforceable where the substantive law of the selected state provides the same or similar protections as California.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Protecting trade secrets from employee theft requires more than using an NDA when onboarding employees. If businesses want to protect confidential information, they need a cradle-to-grave approach, reiterating employee obligations regularly, including during exit interviews. (Yes, you need to do exit interviews!)

Headline stories in intellectual property theft tend to involve foreign hackers engaged in high-tech attacks to pilfer vast troves of data stored by big businesses or government entities, such as those involving Russian government hackers or the Chinese military. The losses are staggering. In 2009, McAfee estimated that cybercrime cost worldwide economies $1 Trillion. That number was cited by (a then-youthful) President Obama in his first speech on cybersecurity. Since that time, attacks by professionals and nation states have remained at the forefront of both news reports and the public perception. Since then, hack attacks have remained at the forefront of both news reports and the public perception.

But despite the disproportionate attention given to high value, high-tech attacks by outsiders, many U.S. businesses recognize that threats from the inside are just as costly as revealed by a 2014 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey. Nevertheless, “only 49%” of organizations surveyed had “a plan for responding to insider threats.”

Trade secrets are particularly susceptible to theft because they, by definition, consist of secret information with economic value. Company insiders often find that information too tempting to be leave behind when changing employers, or when seeking new employment. Therein lies the problem.

Trade secret theft by employees may not grab as many headlines as neo-Cold War espionage, but the data suggest that employees, not outsiders, pose the greatest threat of loss from trade secret theft. The good news is that a little proactivity by employers will go a long way toward keeping them out of the 49% who lack a plan to prevent leaks.

Of course, in California, obtaining protection is not all that simple. Non-compete agreements are, with very limited exceptions, a non-starter under Business and Professions Code § 16600, so you need special steps to keep your trade secret house in order. And because a California trade secret plaintiff (e.g., a former employer suing its former employee) likely must identify its trade secrets with reasonable particularity before commencing discovery, it pays to invest time on the front end to identify and inventory your trade secret information before litigation arises.

So, what can employers do?

Update Non-Disclosure Agreements to Comply With the DTSA, and See That Employees Know Why NDAs Are Important

Almost all employers (we hope) have confidential/non-disclosure and trade secret protection provisions in their employment agreements. But have these agreements been updated to comply with the recently enacted Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) and its important employee/whistleblower notification provisions? And what are employers doing to help ensure compliance with their agreements? Rolling out new agreements is relatively easy. Making sure they are effective takes some doing.

Remember, your organization will not even have trade secrets to protect unless it has made  “efforts reasonable under the circumstances” (under the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act) or has taken “reasonable measures” (under the DTSA) to maintain the secrecy of the information it claims to be a trade secret. Cal. Civ. Code § 3426.1(d); 18 U.S.C. § 1839(3)(A).

Implement Computer Use and Social Media Agreements and Policies

Most trade secret theft occurs via electronic device. Make sure your company has computer use and access policies and agreements that:

  • Set forth that company computers, network, related devices, and information stored therein belong to the company;
  • Indicate that access to company computers and networks are password-protected, with access authorized only for work-related purposes;
  • Make use of data storage/access hierarchies, with the most valuable information being accessible on only a need-to-know basis, with security access redundancies (housed in a highly secure database that requires unique user credentials distinct from the log-in credentials the employee uses to access a computer workstation);
  • Identify which devices are allowed in the workplace—BYOD practices have become popular, but also present challenges in regulating information flow and return. If employees use their own devices to perform work for the company, make clear that the company data on those devices belong to the company;
  • Notify employees that the company reserves the right to inspect devices used for work to ensure that no company data exist on the devices upon termination of employment;
  • Define whether cloud storage may be used by employees, under what terms, and what happens when employment ends;
  • Define whether external storage devices (e.g., thumb drives) are allowed and under what terms; and
  • Identify whether and how employees may use social media associated with their work—trade secrets must never be publicly disclosed, but beware of any overreach that would suppress employee communications protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

Build a Culture of Confidentiality—Make Sure Employees Know What The Company Regards as Confidential and Then Remind Them Routinely

Employees need to understand what information your company considers confidential.  Educating employees on this subject should start at the beginning of employment, continue  throughout employment,  and recur at the end of employment. Tools that can help in this regard include:

  • Onboarding procedures to emphasize the importance of company confidential information;
  • Including in NDAs an express representation that the employee does not possess and will not use while in your employ confidential information belonging to any former employer or other third party;
  • Using yearly (or more frequent) brief interactive e-modules emphasizing the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of company information;
  • Requiring that the employee sit for an exit interview; and
  • Requiring that the employee certify in writing, during exit interviews, that they have returned all company information and property (the employee may provide property on the spot or make statements about what will be returned—you should inventory all such indicated property and information).

Properly Exiting Employees—Particularly for High Risk Employees—Matters!

Not all employees present the same risk of loss. Generally, the loftier an employee is in the corporate hierarchy the greater the threat that that employee will expose company confidential information. The following recommendations are for mid-to-high risk departing employees:

  • The person conducting the exit interview must be prepared—use a checklist;
  • “Preparedness” for higher-risk employees will include (1) identifying, before the exit interview, the trade secret and confidential information the employee routinely accessed and used during employment, (2) reviewing for unusual activity the departing employee’s computer and work activities (including card key facility access data, where available) in the days and weeks leading up to their exit, (3) using an exit certification as noted above, and (4) inquiring where the employee is going and what position the employee will hold;
  • Where initial investigation warrants, discreetly interview company-friendly co-workers of the departing employee to identify potentially suspicious conduct;
  • Immediately shut down the departing employee’s access to company computers, networks, and other data repositories (e.g., cloud or other off-site storage). Cutting off access to company computer and data may be warranted before exiting the employee, depending on the perceived risk of data theft;
  • Send a reminder-of-obligations letter to the now former employee, reciting ongoing obligations to the company and attaching, where useful, a copy of the NDA the employee has signed;
  • Consider notifying the new employer, but tread carefully here to avoid overstepping or providing a basis to be accused of interfering with the employment relationship between your former employee and the new employer; and
  • Depending on the threat level you perceive, consider having a departing employees’ emails preserved and their electronic devices forensically imaged.

With best practices in place, protecting your company’s trade secrets should be more like routine, but vigilant maintenance, than preparing to do cyber battle with foreign states. Organizations understandably focus on creating the next “big thing,” increasing sales, and building investor value, but slowing down enough to be purposeful in protecting intellectual property is a must.

Edited by Michael A. Wahlander.

By Robert Milligan and Joshua Salinas

As companies face increasing competitive and financial pressures, management is understandably consumed with running the day-to-day operations of the business and working to achieve business objectives and maximize the bottom line. As a result, it is not uncommon for companies to find themselves in situations where important assets are overlooked or taken for granted. Yet, those same assets can be lost or compromised in a moment through what is often benign neglect.

Authoritative sources estimate that companies lose hundreds of millions of dollars (if not billions) as a result of trade secret theft. At the same time, companies sometimes find themselves, through poor controls, exposed when they inadvertently obtain others’ trade secrets.

In the rush to deliver results, some companies take shortcuts in the hiring and departure process that often leave them exposed to claims for trade secret misappropriation, aiding and abetting breaches of loyalty, and intentional interference with contractual relationships or business expectancies with customers or employees.

California’s strong public policy against certain employee noncompetition agreements and post-termination restrictions on employee mobility means strong trade secret protections are essential for California employers to protect against the unlawful use or disclosure of valuable company information and related competitive issues when key employees join competitors. Accordingly, while non-competes may be void in California, prudent companies conducting business in California will ensure that their trade secret protection practices are state of the art, including their onboarding and offboarding process.

In this second video of a two-part series (see part one here), we illustrate some best practices when interviewing a competitor’s employees, as well as handling your own employees’ departures, regarding the protection of trade secrets and other confidential information in California.  During the video, a prospective candidate offers to share during his employment interview his current employer’s trade secrets regarding sensitive business and customer information for the Southern California market. You will also see how the employer handles the exit interview of that employee.

When watching the video below, consider the following:

  • How does the interviewer avoid the applicant’s disclosure of  trade secret and other confidential information and focus the candidate on general skills and knowledge?
  • How does the prospective employer condition its offer of employment?
  • How does the current employer try to protect its trade secret and other confidential information with departing employees?
  • What type of policies and procedures do the current employer and prospective employer put in place to better protect themselves?

Click below to discover some of the best practices illustrated in the video and in general to protect trade secrets.

Continue Reading Best Practices for Interviewing Competitors’ Employees and Dealing with Departing Employees

By Robert Milligan and Joshua Salinas

California is a unique jurisdiction because of its public policy against certain employee noncompetition agreements and post-termination restrictions on employee mobility. This general prohibition against noncompetes with employees  leaves trade secret laws as the primary mechanism for employers with California based employees to protect against the unlawful use or disclosure of valuable company information and related competitive issues when key employees join competitors.

Yet many employers fall short in protecting trade secrets through the inadequate handling of employee departures.  Moreover, many companies fail to understand the potential liability that may arise with the unlawful acquisition of a competitor’s trade secrets when interviewing and onboarding a competitor’s employees.

In this first video of a two-part series, we illustrate some bad practices when interviewing a competitor’s employees, as well as handling your own employees’ departures, regarding the protection of trade secrets and other confidential information.  During the video, a prospective candidate offers to share during his employment interview his current employer’s trade secrets regarding sensitive business and customer information for the Southern California market.

When watching the video below, consider the following:

  • What concerns do you have about anything the interviewer did?
  • What concerns about what the prospective employee did?
  • How about the current employer?
  • What type of policies and procedures could both the current employer and prospective employer put in place to better protect themselves?

Click below to discover some of the bad practices illustrated in the video. Continue Reading Bad Practices for Interviewing Competitors’ Employees and Dealing with Departing Employees

By Robert Milligan, Jessica Mendelson, and Joshua Salinas

Prudent employers are often looking for areas in their business where valuable company data may not be adequately protected.

Enter the growing prevalence of third party online data storage for professional and personal use in the workplace, coupled with the increasing accessibility provided by employers to access company data remotely. 

While the benefits of cloud computing are well documented, the growth of third party online data storage has facilitated the ability for rogue employees to take valuable trade secrets and other proprietary company files, in the matter of minutes,  if not seconds.

There are have been several high profile cases in California recently addressing the alleged theft of company data by employees through the use of third party online data storage.

To address this technology and threat to companies, employers must be vigilant to ensure that they have robust agreements and policies with their employees as well as other sound trade secret protections, including employee training and IT security, to protect their valuable trade secrets and company data before they are compromised and stolen. This is particularly important in California because California law can provide limited protection for employers—compared to other jurisdictions—because of its general prohibition of non-compete agreements and growing trade secret preemption or supersession doctrine.

As we have previously discussed, one of the notorious employment laws separating California from other states is its long-standing and draconian prohibition of employee non-compete agreements. Additionally, some recent California decisions have significantly limited an employer’s ability to pursue certain claims and remedies based upon the theft of mere confidential or proprietary information by rogue employees.  Employers may have limited recourse under California law if the stolen data does not rise to the level of a trade secret at least under a tort theory of recovery.  

Further, a recent article in The Recorder entitled “Trade Secrets Spat Center on Cloud,” observed that the existence of cloud computing services within the workplace makes it “harder for companies to distinguish true data breaches from false alarms.”

Given these challenges, employers should implement policies and agreements to restrict or clarify the use of cloud computing services for storing and sharing company data by employees. Some employers may prefer to simply block all access to such cloud computing services and document the same in their policies and agreements. Also employers should provide education and training regarding the company’s policy regarding employee use of cloud storage services.

Additionally, certain key steps should also be taken to protect against the theft of trade secrets and confidential information by departing employees with this new threat in mind: Continue Reading Cloudy With A Chance of Trade Secret Theft

Company information that is sensitive, but may not rise to the level of a trade secret is protectable in California, isn’t it? 

Not necessarily.  Some recent California decisions have significantly limited an employer’s ability to pursue certain claims and remedies based upon the theft of mere confidential or proprietary information by rogue employees. 

Defendants (often individual former employees) who are sued in California for stealing a company’s data are increasingly using the trade secret preemption doctrine to seek dismissal of non-trade secret claims, which are often pled alongside trade secret misappropriation claims, that allegedly fall within the scope of the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“CUTSA”).

Non-trade secret claims advanced by the employer typically include:

  • conversion
  • interference with contract
  • interference with prospective economic advantage
  • breach of fiduciary duty
  • unjust enrichment
  • fraud
  • statutory claims brought under Bus. & Prof. Code section 17200.   

These claims are typically made because they are often easier to prove than the elements of trade secret misappropriation.

While trade secret preemption does not displace breach of contract claims, it can significantly limit the claims and remedies that companies may seek when their confidential or proprietary information is stolen.

 Differences Among the States:

Other States: The breadth and scope of trade secret preemption varies from state to state. While some states have held that preemption eliminates alternative causes of action for misuse or theft of confidential, proprietary or trade secret information, other states allow common law claims to be brought for the theft of confidential or proprietary information alone or along with trade secret misappropriation claims.

California state courts:  In California, CUTSA generally preempts causes of action that rely on the same “nucleus of facts” as a trade secret misappropriation claim. A recent California Court of Appeal decision reaffirmed that CUTSA provides the exclusive civil remedy for conduct falling within its terms, so as to supersede other civil remedies based upon misappropriation of a trade secret. Accordingly, California state courts typically do not allow both trade secret and non-trade secret claims to be brought for the theft of company information.

Continue Reading Growing California Trade Secret Preemption Doctrine May Thwart Efforts To Combat Employee Data Theft

How does a California employer prevent its business from walking out the door along with a departing employee?  In most jurisdictions, the employer could have the employees sign a non-compete agreement.  Not in California. 

One of the notorious employment laws that separates California from other states is its long-standing prohibition of employee non-compete agreements. California’s strong public policy against non-competes not only affects local employers, but it often complicates efforts of multi-state employers to utilize uniform restrictive covenants–such as non-competes and non-solicitation provisions–with its employees.  Here is a brief recap:

Non-Competition Agreements:

Most States:  Most states enforce agreements where employees agree not to compete with their former employer for a reasonable period after employment, within a reasonable geographical area.

California:  In California, even narrowly drawn restraints are contractually invalid, unless they fall within the specific statutory exceptions, such as agreements in connection with the sale of a business.

Customer non-solicitation provisions:

California:  California significantly limits the use of customer non-solicitation provisions and will likely prevent enforcement of a contract clause purporting to ban a former employee from soliciting former customers to transfer their business away from the former employer to the employee’s new business. 

Employee non-solicitation provisions:  

California:  The California ban on non-compete agreements can extend to “no hire” agreements between two businesses.  While some California courts still enforce non-solicitation of employees provisions, “no hire” agreements are not enforceable.

No “blue-penciling”

Many States:  Many states permit the modification or “blue-penciling” of overly broad restrictive covenants to make them enforceable.

California:  California courts typically do not allow “blue-penciling” in the employment context.  Instead, they refuse to enforce agreements, even if the parties have agreed to “save” the clause to the extent enforceable.

Is there a trade secrets exception?

Some California courts have stated that certain non-competition clauses are enforceable if they are necessary to protect trade secrets, while others have cast doubt on whether a trade secret exception exists.  To date, there has not been a detailed analysis of the nature of the trade secrets exception, if any, and what an employer must show to support its application.  Caution is thus the watchword in relying on a trade secrets exception.  If it turns out there is no genuine trade secret, nonsolicitation clauses are likely to be unenforceable.  Plus, the inclusion of such a provision may open up the employer to liability under California’s unfair business practice statute.

Without the backstop of non-compete agreements, what is the California employer to do to ensure that its trade secret information is adequately protected? 

Workplace Solutions

California employers must be vigilant to ensure that their employees don’t share their valuable information with competitors.  

Best practices include:

  • Robust confidentiality and invention assignment agreements.
  • Effective entrance and exit interview protocols.
  • Employee education programs that create a culture of confidentiality whereby employees understand the value of protecting company data.
  • Effective trade secret protection measures that take into account new technologies and threats, including cyber threats and social media/cloud computer issues.

Please see our recorded webinar on Trade Secret Protection Best Practices: Hiring Competitors’ Employees and Protecting the Company When Competitors Hire Yours for more details on how to put your company in the best position.