New Law Creates Federal Trade Secrets Cause of Action

New Law Creates Federal Trade Secrets Cause of Action

On May 11, 2016, President Obama signed into law the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA), which provides a federal cause of action for trade secret misappropriation. Prior to the DTSA, plaintiffs seeking to enforce trade secrets rights relied exclusively on state law; most states have adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA).

With limited exceptions, the rights granted under the DTSA are the same as under the UTSA. The basis for liability is the same. The damages are the same. Both the UTSA and the DTSA permits the recovery of enhanced double damages and attorneys’ fees for willful misappropriation of trade secrets.

One difference is that the DTSA provides immunity to whistleblowers who disclose trade secrets to law enforcement officials, or to an attorney, for the sole purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law. The DTSA provides immunity to parties who disclose a trade secret in a lawsuit, if the disclosure is made in a filing made under seal. The DTSA also requires employers to provide notice of this immunity in a contract or agreement with an employee that governs the use of trade secrets. Employers who fail to provide such notice are barred from recovering enhanced damages and attorneys’ fees.

Note to practitioners: employers who are concerned about the potential for trade secret misappropriation will want to update their policy manuals, employment contracts, or other employment materials to give the notice required by the DTSA if they want to take advantage of the possibilities for recovering enhanced damages and attorneys’ fees.

Another difference is that the DTSA forecloses the possibility of injunctive relief based on the inevitable disclosure doctrine. The DTSA requires evidence of threatened misappropriation before an injunction will issue. This differs from the law in many states, which authorize injunctive relief where use or disclosure of trade secrets is inevitable even if not yet proved.

Unlike the UTSA, the DTSA provides for ex parte civil seizure in extraordinary circumstances. Courts can issue seizure orders where the party against whom the seizure would be ordered misappropriated or conspired to misappropriate the trade secret at issue and is in possession of the trade secret. Such orders are appropriate where an injunction is insufficient because the party against whom the injunction order would be issued would not comply with the order.

The Bottom Line—Trade Secret Plaintiffs Can go to Federal Court if They Want

The differences between the DTSA and the UTSA will only matter in rare cases, with one exception: the right to bring suit in federal court. The DTSA ensures that every plaintiff who wants to bring a trade secrets claim in federal court can do so. But if there is no other basis for federal court jurisdiction (such as diversity of citizenship), a plaintiff can file in state court and avoid removal to federal court simply by pleading a state law trade secrets claim without reliance on the DTSA. This option to proceed in federal court now provides an important advantage for plaintiffs in trade secrets cases.

 

 

 

Supreme Court Holds That Rule 68 Offer of Judgment Does Not Make Class Action Moot

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, with Justice Thomas providing the sixth vote, held that an unaccepted offer of judgment under Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in a case seeking class certification under Rule 23 does not render the case moot, even though the defendant’s offer of judgment would have provided the named plaintiff in the case all the relief to which he would have been entitled even if he won the case. A link to the decision in Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez is available here. The decision is significant as the latest in a series of disputes between corporate defendants and class action plaintiffs about when federal courts can grant class action relief. In general, corporate defendants seek to limit class action relief for persons claiming injury and class action plaintiffs seek greater access to the courts and the possibility of large damages awards.

The plaintiff in this case brought the case claiming that he had received a text message from the defendant that violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), a federal statute that limits the ability of companies to send unsolicited text messages. The defendant sent the text messages as a contractor for the United States Navy. The messages were designed to promote Navy recruiting.

The TCPA provides for actual damages or statutory damages of $500 per violation, whichever is greater, plus treble damages for willful and knowing violations as well as injunctive relief. The defendant made an offer of judgment under Rule 68 that if accepted would have provided the plaintiff with $1,503 (treble statutory damages plus three dollars) as well as injunctive relief. The plaintiff did not accept the offer, even though it provided all of the relief to which he would have been entitled if the case went all the way through trial and he won.

The defendant then sought to dismiss the case as moot under Article III of the Constitution, which provides that federal courts can only hear actual “cases or controversies.” Prior to yesterday’s decision, the federal circuit courts were split on the issue of whether an offer of judgment to a named plaintiff that provided all of the relief available renders the case subject to dismissal as moot.

Justice Ginsburg wrote the decision for the majority joined by Justices Kagan, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kennedy, with Justice Thomas concurring in the result but writing his own opinion setting forth a different rationale for the result. In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg noted that contract principles govern offers of judgment under Rule 68, and that any unaccepted offer to enter into a contract has no legal effect. Her opinion also rejected a secondary argument made by the defendant that as a contractor to the Navy it was entitled to the sovereign immunity of the federal government on the grounds that the Navy’s contract with the defendant required compliance with the TCPA and sovereign immunity did not apply because the defendant allegedly exceeded its authority under the contract.

The decision is unquestionably an important victory for class action plaintiffs, as corporate defendants have for years been using Rule 68 offers of judgment to pick off named plaintiffs and render their cases moot, meaning that the substance of their claims on behalf of classes of other similarly situated persons never got to be heard. But the extent of the victory will remain unknown until the Supreme Court hands down its decision in two other important class action cases now pending before it. In Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, the Court will decide whether a plaintiff who cannot show any actual harm from an alleged federal statutory violation nevertheless has standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution to sue for statutory damages in federal court.  In Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, the Court will consider whether the trial court should have certified a Rule 23 class action and a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action for claims alleging that Tyson Foods had not paid its employees for all time spent donning and doffing protective gear. Decisions in Spokeo and Tyson Foods are expected before June. For now, its round one, at least this term, for class action plaintiffs.