Protecting Trade Secrets During (and After) a Global Pandemic: Practical Tips for Employers

by Russell Beck and Hannah Joseph

Practice Tips

 

The evolution toward a cloud economy has made it easy and often profitable for employees to misappropriate valuable data from their employers. Indeed, pre-pandemic estimates suggested that over 50 percent of employees take – and most of them are willing to use – their employer’s information when leaving a company.[1]

Against this backdrop, COVID-19 unexpectedly caused the world to shut down in early 2020, resulting in mass layoffs, the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression, and a fundamental and perhaps permanent shift toward a predominately remote workforce.

Together, these factors have created a precarious environment for trade secrets, as well as customer relationships and other legitimate business interests. Employees working from home have more opportunity to convert company information and customers, and some, particularly those facing involuntary unemployment, may feel driven to do so. Moreover, the ongoing crisis has made preliminary injunctive relief (the judicial remedy most often used to protect trade secrets and other legitimate business interests) more elusive, as courts are typically less willing to restrain employees from competitive employment during economic downturns. See, e.g., All Stainless, Inc. v. Colby, 364 Mass. 773, 781 n.2 (1974).

Whether during or after the pandemic, it is vital for companies to have strong measures in place for protecting their trade secrets and other legitimate business interests, rather than to solely rely on after-the-fact litigation. Below are some practical tips for how to do so.

Tips for protecting trade secrets and other legitimate business interests during and after a global pandemic

Know your trade secrets. A remote workforce means that employees are developing, accessing, and using their employer’s trade secrets from home (and elsewhere). Accordingly, understanding the categories, sources, and life cycles of the company’s trade secrets, and the risks of exposure to which such information is most susceptible, is necessary for establishing and implementing policies and practices that are best suited to protect that information during and after the pandemic. Depending on the organization, the analysis will likely need to involve management, human resources, legal, corporate governance, sales, information technology, information management, research and development, manufacturing, and other relevant stakeholders.

Firm up policies and procedures. Once a company has categorized its trade secrets, both existing and under development, it must ensure that its policies and procedures are appropriately designed to protect the information against likely sources of risk. Such policies and procedures, which should be reviewed on a regular basis, are also critical to protecting other legitimate business interests, such as customer goodwill.

Among other things, employers should have policies that establish clear criteria, protocols, and expectations for the access, use, and disclosure of confidential information, including third-party information; working from home; the use of the employer’s devices, systems, and accounts (and, if applicable, the employer’s policies concerning monitoring such devices, systems, and accounts); the use of personal devices; the use of social media accounts, including as they relate to client communications; the use and protection of passwords; and the post-employment return of information and property. In addition, employers should have a policy that instructs employees to report incidents of unauthorized access, use, or disclosure of confidential information, and provides clear instructions for how to make such a report. This list is not comprehensive, and policies are not one-size-fits-all; they must be tailored to meet the unique needs of the employer and be reasonable in the context of the company’s needs, capabilities, and culture.[2]

Employers should also work closely with their remote employees to ensure that the employees’ at-home work environments are secured against both external threats and inadvertent disclosure. For example: home Wi-Fi routers should be secured with strong passwords; passwords, non-guessable meeting IDs, and other security settings should be used for video conference solutions like Zoom; confidential information should not be reviewed where others in the household may see or overhear it; and confidential information should not be left out in the open when the workspace is unattended. Employers should be prepared to run through a comprehensive checklist with their employees to make sure that employees are taking necessary precautions to protect their workspaces.

Finally, the unfortunate reality of increased furloughs and layoffs during the pandemic dictates that employers have a system in place for off-boarding employees remotely. The system should include, at the least, a mechanism for terminating exiting employees’ access to the employer’s information and information systems (including the remote wiping of company data from devices in the employee’s possession), for securing the full return of all equipment and confidential information, and for the employee to acknowledge their obligation to return (and not retain, use, or disclose) the employer’s confidential information (as well as to comply with their other post-employment contractual obligations).

Educate your employees. Policies and procedures are worthless, and can hurt more than help, if they are not disseminated, understood, and followed. This means that employers must, on an ongoing basis, educate their employees about company policies and practices. While in-person trainings are ill-advised in the era of social distancing, they may be easily replaced by online trainings, whether live or pre-recorded. Processes should be in place that require employees to not only read the policies and procedures, but also to acknowledge that they understand and agree to abide by them. Policies and procedures should provide an avenue for employees to ask questions and obtain answers that will be consistent throughout the company, either through legal or other channels. Employers are well-served by maintaining accurate records of policies and procedures and any amendments thereto, training dates, and employee acknowledgments. While training and acknowledgments will not necessarily prevent all willful misconduct, they may serve as a deterrent, help to limit incidents of inadvertent disclosure (or unauthorized solicitation) and, if litigation becomes necessary, help to establish the company’s reasonable efforts to protect its trade secrets and other legitimate business interests.

Monitor your workforce. Trade secret misappropriation and other forms of employee misconduct do not usually happen in a vacuum. Oftentimes, there will be warning signs that an employee is unhappy (e.g., a lack of engagement, an attitude shift or sudden change in behavior, increased activity on LinkedIn[3]). Moreover, employees who take their employer’s information with the intention of using it at their next place of employment frequently commit multiple acts of taking in the days and weeks leading up to their termination. Similarly, employees who plan to solicit customers may begin well before termination. For those reasons, employers should consider monitoring their employees’ email activity as well as their activity on other information systems to determine whether the employees are accessing information that they do not have a business need to know or are accessing appropriate information, but with unusual frequency. Periodic monitoring may enable an employer to detect and address internal threats earlier, thereby obviating the need for judicial intervention. Before engaging in any kind of monitoring, employers should disseminate policies that put employees on notice that the employers’ devices, systems, and accounts belong solely to the employer and may be monitored on a periodic or ongoing basis.

Conclusion

While these steps are intended to help employers protect their legitimate business interests, they are not comprehensive and are not guaranteed to protect against every threat of disclosure and other forms of misconduct. When implemented correctly, however, they should substantially reduce overall risk. In addition, where litigation is necessary, an employer that has implemented the above steps will have ample evidence to show that it both identified its legitimate business interests to its employees and notified them of their legal obligations to protect such interests. This can dramatically improve an employer’s chances of prevailing in court.

[1] SeeWhat’s Yours is Mine: How Employees are Putting Your Intellectual Property at Risk,” White Paper by the Ponemon Institute and Symantec Corporation (2013), available at https://www.ciosummits.com/media/solution_spotlight/OnlineAssett_Symantec_WhatsYoursIsMine.pdf.

[2] For a comprehensive checklist of steps employers can take, see “A primer and checklist for protecting trade secrets and other legitimate business interests before, during, and after lockdown and stay-at-home orders,” available at https://www.faircompetitionlaw.com/2020/05/17/a-primer-and-checklist-for-protecting-trade-secrets-and-other-legitimate-business-interests-before-during-and-after-lockdown-and-stay-at-home-orders/.

[3] See, e.g., “13 Signs That Someone Is About to Quit, According to Research,” by Timothy M. Gardner and Peter W. Hom, Harvard Business Review (Oct. 20, 2016), available at https://hbr.org/2016/10/13-signs-that-someone-is-about-to-quit-according-to-research.

 

Russell Beck is a founding partner of Beck Reed Riden LLP. He has authored books on trade secrets and restrictive covenants, assisted the Obama Administration on a Call to Action on noncompetes and trade secrets, drafted much of the Massachusetts Noncompetition Agreement Act, and revised the Massachusetts Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Russell teaches Trade Secrets and Restrictive Covenants at the Boston University School of Law and is President Elect of the Boston Bar Foundation.

Hannah Joseph is senior counsel at Beck Reed Riden LLP and focuses her practice on trade secrets and restrictive covenants law. Hannah regularly publishes and speaks on the topics of intellectual property law and restrictive covenants, including at the American Intellectual Property Law Association, Boston Bar Association, and Practising Law Institute. In addition, Hannah co-teaches the course Trade Secrets and Restrictive Covenants at Boston University School of Law.


Distinguishing Employees’ “General Skill or Knowledge” From Protectable Trade Secrets Under Massachusetts Law

bombardsanteusanio

by Gregory S. Bombard and Adam M. Santeusanio

Legal Analysis

Trade secret claims often arise when a highly skilled employee leaves to work for a competitor. Under Massachusetts trade secret law, this fact pattern creates a tension between the employer’s interest in protecting its trade secrets and the employee’s competing interest in using his or her own general experience and abilities to foster a successful career. Though Massachusetts courts have long recognized this tension, the line between what constitutes a protectable trade secret as compared to an employee’s “general skill or knowledge” is not explicitly defined in Massachusetts case law. The inquiry is highly fact-based and does not easily lend itself to bright lines. This article examines the leading cases addressing the distinction between trade secrets and general skill or knowledge, and identifies the four factors courts most commonly use to draw the line.

I. The Legal Framework

Massachusetts law protects trade secret information, which is defined by statute as “a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, process, business strategy, customer list, invention, or scientific, technical, financial or customer data that (i) at the time of the alleged misappropriation, provided economic advantage, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by, others who might obtain economic advantage from its acquisition, disclosure or use; and (ii) at the time of the alleged misappropriation was the subject of efforts that were reasonable under the circumstances . . . to protect against it being acquired, disclosed or used.”[i]

Although a company must safeguard the secrecy of purported trade secrets in order to seek legal protection for them, the company must, of course, disclose such secrets to at least some of its employees for use in the company’s business. That disclosure creates a legally-implied duty by the employee to maintain the confidentiality of the trade secrets. In addition, employees are often subject to contractual nondisclosure covenants, which survive the termination of employment.

However, Massachusetts courts recognize an important limitation on trade secret protection: a departing employee may continue to use his “general skill or knowledge acquired during the course of the employment” following his departure.[iii] This doctrine, which has been the law in Massachusetts since at least 1912,[iv] provides that an employer may not claim trade secret protection over an employee’s general skill or knowledge regardless of whether the employee developed it prior to or during his employment. By limiting the types of information that an employer can protect as trade secrets, the general skill or knowledge rule “effectuates the public interest in labor mobility, promotes the employee’s freedom to practice a profession, and [promotes] freedom of competition.”[v] The rule applies both when a former employer sues a former employee for misappropriation of the former employer’s trade secrets,[vi] and when an employer seeks to enforce post-employment restrictive covenants, like noncompetition agreements.[vii]

The facts of Intertek Testing Servs. NA, Inc. v. Curtis-Strauss LLC provides an example of how the doctrine plays out in practice. Intertek was a product inspection, testing and certification company that sued several of its former salespeople for having misappropriated “secret” information about “the quality of the relationship that certain customers had with Intertek,” including whether those relationships were “good,” “bad,” or “in-between.” Judge Gants, then sitting in the Business Litigation Session, granted summary judgment in favor of the salespeople, ruling that the strength of an employer’s relationship with a particular customer “certainly falls into the category of general knowledge acquired during the course of employment.” Speaking to the rule’s policy goal of promoting labor mobility, Judge Gants observed that “if this general information were deemed secret or confidential, then no salesman could ever work for a competitor, because every salesman inevitably knows this information and could not help but use it in some fashion.”[viii]

II. Distinguishing Trade Secrets from General Skill or Knowledge

Although the general skill or knowledge doctrine is widely cited in Massachusetts case law, no court has articulated a test for distinguishing between protectable trade secrets and nonprotectable general skill or knowledge. In the cases applying the doctrine, however, the courts most commonly consider the following four factors: (1) whether an employee had significant experience or expertise prior to starting their employment; (2) whether an employee assisted in the development of the alleged trade secret; (3) whether the alleged trade secrets were actually put to use or were merely inchoate “concepts” or “goals”; and (4) whether the alleged misappropriation involved the removal of documents or merely the contents of the employee’s memory. None of the four factors standing alone is dispositive.

     A. The Employee’s Prior Experience or Expertise

Massachusetts courts are more likely to find that an alleged secret falls within an employee’s general skill and knowledge if the employee had significant experience, expertise, or education in the field before starting his employment. This factor is based on the policy that “the loss to the individual and the economic loss to society are both greatest when a highly trained and specialized person is prevented from employing his special abilities.”[ix]

For example, in Dynamics Research Corp v. Analytic Sciences Corp., an employer claimed its former employee misappropriated a system for managing data and providing feedback during the development of weapons systems for government contracts. Prior to his employment, the employee had been decorated by the Air Force for his management ability and had worked as a manager of an MIT laboratory. In fact, the employer hired him “in part because he [already] understood its management system concept.” The Appeals Court ruled that the alleged secret fell within the employee’s general skill and knowledge, observing he had come to the job “with knowledge and skill in the plaintiff’s area of operation” and “much of the [alleged trade secret] was known to the defendant prior to his employment.”[x] Conversely, in Junker v. Plummer, the employer’s claimed secret was a novel machine for “combining shoe cloth,” and the former employees “had never seen a combining machine” before their employment.[xi] There, the SJC ruled that the machine’s functionality was not part of the employees’ general skill or knowledge and was instead a protectable trade secret of their former employer.

     B. The Employee’s Personal Participation in Developing the Secret

Massachusetts courts are more likely to find that an alleged secret falls within an employee’s general skill and knowledge if the employee directly participated in developing the alleged secret. The rationale behind this factor is that if the employee personally contributed towards the alleged secret’s creation or development, then the alleged secret may consist, at least in part, of the skill, knowledge, and experience that the employee brought to bear on the project.

Thus, in Chomerics, Inc. v. Ehrreich, the employee had been “personally actively involved in all of the inventions and discoveries made” by the employer in developing the alleged secret.[xii] Indeed, the employer’s “effort in this field was pioneered largely through [the defendant employee’s] inventions and research,” and the research into conductive plastics was “peculiarly his . . . almost private domain.” The Appeals Court ruled that the information fell within the employee’s general skill or knowledge as a scientist, despite the fact that the employer took reasonable measures to safeguard the information as a trade secret, including requiring the defendant to keep his laboratory notebooks locked up. Similarly, in New Method Die & Cut-Out Co. v. Milton Bradley Co., the employee “took part to a substantial extent in developing the [allegedly secret] process” for manufacturing cardboard toys, bringing to bear “his faculties, skill and experience.”[xiii] The SJC held that the process for manufacturing cardboard toys did not constitute a protectable trade secret, but rather was “the product of [the employee’s] knowledge,” which he developed in the course of his work for his former employer.

     C. The Employer’s Unfinished Concepts and Goals

Massachusetts courts are more likely to find that information is within an employee’s general skill or knowledge where the alleged secret is merely an unfinished “concept” or “goal,” as opposed to information that has been reduced to practice in the form of a functioning devise, machine, or system. For example, in Chomerics, Inc. v. Ehrreich, the employer sought to develop electrically conductive plastics using “metal particles embedded in a plastic matrix.”[xiv] During his employment, the employee worked on a project to develop an electrically conductive gasket that contained less than 10 percent silver particles. The employee eventually quit and began working for a competitor, which soon thereafter patented an electrically conductive gasket that used less than 10 percent silver. The Appeals Court ruled that the use of a certain amount of silver represented only a “concept,” and that “when [the defendant] left [the plaintiff’s employ] he took with him nothing but possibilities and goals which had hitherto proved impossible to bring to fruition.” The Appeals Court ruled those “possibilities and goals” were part of the employee’s general skill or knowledge, not a protectable trade secret of the former employer.

By comparison, in Junker, the machine for combining shoe cloth was fully operational, in use in the employer’s manufacturing facility in “actual and substantial production.”[xv] Several of the plaintiff’s employees quit, started working for a competitor, and duplicated the machine, up to which point “there was none other faintly resembling it in use anywhere.” The SJC ruled that the machine was a protectable trade secret belonging to the employer.

     D. Employees’ Memory and Nondocumentary Information

Massachusetts courts are more likely to find that an alleged trade secret falls within an employee’s general skill and knowledge if the employee allegedly used information from his memory, without taking away documents or electronically stored information. The SJC has, in several cases, “considered it significant that the former employee did or did not take actual lists or papers belonging to his former employer.”[xvi] For example, in American Window Cleaning Co. of Springfield v. Cohen, the plaintiff alleged that its former employees had misappropriated secret information regarding its customers. The SJC ruled the former employees had not breached their duty of confidentiality to their former employer because “[r]emembered information” regarding certain of the employer’s customers was “not confidential” and “a discharged employee, without the use of a list belonging to his former employer, may solicit the latter’s customers.”[xvii]

Similarly, in New Method Die & Cut-Out Co., the SJC ruled that an allegedly secret method for manufacturing cardboard toys was within the defendant employee’s general skill or knowledge, noting that “the defendant . . . when he left the employment of the plaintiff . . . took no documentary manufacturing data, cost figures, or customers’ lists and no drawing which were a part of the plaintiff’s files or were final drawings which had been used by the [plaintiff] for the manufacture of toys.”[xviii]

By contrast, in Pacific Packaging Products v. Barenboim, the plaintiff employer alleged that five of its former employees removed, among other things, sales history reports, cost books, invoices, and spreadsheets containing the employer’s information about particular customer accounts, all in order to form a competing company using the plaintiff’s customer base. In granting the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction against the defendants’ use of the information, Judge Billings ruled “[m]y focus herein is almost exclusively on documentary information” alleged to have been misappropriated because “while it is theoretically possible to make the showing that a former employee used his memory to compete unfairly with the former employer, it is not―particularly where business, not technical, information is concerned―an easy task.”[xix]

III.       Conclusion

Distinguishing trade secrets from general skill and knowledge is not a precise science and requires a fact-specific analysis. While Massachusetts courts have not articulated a specific set of rules to apply in making the distinction, the four factors discussed above provide an outline of the key considerations Massachusetts courts have used to decide whether certain information was within a departing employee’s general skill or knowledge.

[i] Massachusetts adopted a version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”), effective October 1, 2018.  See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93, §§ 42-42G.  Other UTSA jurisdictions distinguish trade secrets from general skill or knowledge.  See, e.g., American Red Cross v. Palm Beach Blood Bank, Inc., 143 F.3d 1407, 1410 (11th Cir. 1998) (applying Florida law).

[ii] Jet Spray Cooler, Inc. v. Crampton, 361 Mass. 835, 840 (1972) (citing Restatement of Torts § 757, cmt. b.).

[iii] Junker v. Plummer, 320 Mass. 76, 79 (1946).

[iv] American Stay Co. v. Delaney, 211 Mass. 229, 231-32 (1912).

[v] CVD, Inc. v. Raytheon Co., 769 F.2d 842, 852 (1st Cir. 1985) (applying Mass. law).

[vi] See, e.g., Dynamics Research Corp. v. Analytic Sciences Corp., 9 Mass. App. Ct. 254, 267 (1980).

[vii] See, e.g., EMC Corp. v. Loafman, No. 2012-3115-F, 2012 WL 3620374 (Mass. Super. Ct. 2012) (Wilkins, J.) (“Nor does general knowledge acquired on the job justify a non-compete.”) (citing Dynamics Research Corp. v. Analytic Sciences Corp., 9 Mass. App. Ct. 254, 267 (1980)).

[viii] Intertek Testing Servs. NA, Inc. v. Curtis-Strauss LLC, No. 98903F, 2000 WL 1473126, at *8 (Mass. Super. Ct. Aug. 8, 2000) (Gants, J.).

[ix] Dynamics Research Corp., 9 Mass. App. Ct. at 268 (quoting Harlan M. Blake, Employee Agreements Not to Compete, 73 Harv. L. Rev. 625, 684-85 (1960)); see also Harvard Apparatus, Inc. v. Cowen, 130 F. Supp. 2d 161, 175 n.31 (D. Mass. 2001) (applying Mass. law) (“The issue of whether the information lies within the employee’s general skill or knowledge depends, in part, upon the amount of knowledge and skill the employee had in the relevant area at the start of his employment.”).

[x] Dynamics Research Corp., 9 Mass. App. Ct. at 268; see also New Method Die & Cut-Out Co. v. Milton Bradley Co., 289 Mass. 277, 281-82 (1935) (finding no protectable secret where “much of the [allegedly secret] process was familiar to [the employee] from his [prior] experience”).

[xi] Junker v. Plummer, 320 Mass. 76, 79 (1946).

[xii] Chomerics, Inc. v. Ehrreich, 12 Mass. App. Ct. 1, 4 (1981).

[xiii] New Method Die & Cut-Out Co., 289 Mass. at 282.

[xiv] Chomerics, 12 Mass. App. Ct. at 4.

[xv] Junker, 320 Mass. at 77.

[xvi] Jet Spray Cooler, Inc. v. Crampton, 361 Mass. 835, 840 (1972) (citing cases). Like the other factors, however, this factor is not dispositive. The SJC ruled in Jet Spray Cooler that “the fact that no list or paper was taken does not prevent the former employee from being enjoined if the information which he gained through his employment and retained in his memory is confidential in nature.” Id.

[xvii] Am. Window Cleaning Co. of Springfield v. Cohen, 343 Mass. 195, 199 (1961).

[xviii] New Method Die & Cut-Out Co., 289 Mass. at 280.

[xix] Pac. Packaging Prod., Inc. v. Barenboim, No. MICV2009-04320, 2010 WL 11068538, at *1 (Mass. Super. Ct. Apr. 20, 2010) (Billings, J.).  To avoid an injunction on that basis, the defendants represented to the court they had completely divested themselves of the paper and electronic versions of the plaintiff’s information.  The court later found that representation to be a fraud on the court because the defendants had not in fact turned over the information; the court entered a default on the defendants’ counterclaims and awarded fees and costs in excess of $1 million to the plaintiff.

Gregory S. Bombard, a trial lawyer at Duane Morris, focuses his practice on trade secret litigation, business torts, and other complex commercial disputes. He represents pharmaceutical, manufacturing and technology companies in state and federal courts and arbitration proceedings throughout the United States.

Adam M. Santeusanio is a trial lawyer at Duane Morris. His practice focuses on intellectual property and commercial litigation.