When a top-level executive suddenly quits to take a job at a competing firm, the courts have the power to block the start of the new employment if the evidence shows that such an injunction is needed to prevent a likely misappropriation of trade secrets, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.
The ruling came in Bimbo Bakeries USA Inc. v. Botticella, in which the appellate court considered whether the manufacturer of Thomas’ brand English muffins was entitled to an injunction that barred one of its top-level executives from taking a new job with Hostess Inc.
Bimbo Bakeries won the first round in February when U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick enjoined Chris Botticella, a former senior vice president at Bimbo, from starting the new job on the ground that Botticella’s extensive knowledge of Bimbo’s trade secrets — including manufacturing secrets used to make the famous "nooks and crannies" in Thomas’ English muffins — made it substantially likely, if not inevitable, that he would disclose Bimbo’s secrets to Hostess.
The Third Circuit affirmed.
The case turned on Pennsylvania law, specifically the Pennsylvania Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“PUTSA”) and the "inevitable disclosure" doctrine established by Air Products and Chemicals v. Johnson, 442 A.2d 1114 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1982):
Essentially, Johnson and Liquid Air remonstrate that the trial court improperly reasoned from Allis-Chalmers, supra, Emery, supra, and Goodrich, supra, in holding that it was inevitable that Johnson would disclose information to Liquid Air. They contend that inevitability of disclosure is not the proper standard by which the trial court can determine that it was clear that an immediate and irreparable injury would result unless an injunction issued. While we do not adopt the reasoning of the trial court or its use of the term inevitable, we are unable to find that the trial court committed reversible error.
The lower court held that: "It would be impossible [for Johnson] to perform his managerial functions in on-site work without drawing on knowledge he possesses of Air Products’ confidential information." (Trial Court Opinion at page 18.) We are satisfied that this expression of its determination of the likelihood of disclosure was proper. The court reasoned that the duties which Johnson was to perform at Liquid Air would make it impossible for Johnson not to disclose trade secrets. This was precisely the reasoning of the court in Emery, supra, which we find persuasive. Both courts held it would be impossible for the employee to perform his duties at the new employer without disclosing trade secrets. Accordingly, we hold that the trial court acted reasonably when it issued a preliminary injunction. Valley Forge Historical Society v. Washington Memorial Chapel, supra; Boyd v. Cooper, supra; Jostan Aluminum Products Co., Inc. v. Mount Carmel Dist. Indus. Fund, supra.
The above from Air Products isn’t exactly a model of clarity, prompting the Third Circuit to engage in a bit of extrapolation:
With respect to the probability of disclosure required to warrant an injunction, the Superior Court stated at the outset of its analysis that Pennsylvania law permits the issuance of an injunction where a defendant’s new employment “is likely to result in the disclosure” of a former employer’s trade secrets. Id. at 1120 (emphasis added). The Court then determined that it was reasonable for the trial court to issue an injunction based on the inevitability that Johnson would disclose trade secrets, but the Superior Court explicitly chose “not [to] adopt the reasoning of the trial court or its use of the term inevitable.” Id. at 1124. Based on these statements it seems clear that the Superior Court believed that the trial court permissibly could have granted the injunction even if the disclosure of trade secrets was not inevitable.
The Superior Court subsequently stated that the “proper inquiry” in determining whether to grant an injunction to prevent the threatened disclosure of trade secrets is not whether a defendant inevitably will disclose a trade secret in the absence of injunctive relief, but instead whether “there is sufficient likelihood, or substantial threat, of defendant doing so in the future.” Den-Tal-Ez, 566 A.2d at 1232 (citing Air Prods., 442 A.2d at 1122-25; SI Handling Sys.,753 F.2d at 1263-64).
I’ll pass over the interesting, but highly technical, question about the precedential effect of Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007), which Botticella argued held required the former employer show, as a prerequisite to an injunction, that it "would be ‘virtually impossible’ for an employee to fulfill his responsibilities for a new employer without disclosing a former employer’s trade secrets." In short, the Third Circuit held that the "virtually impossible" language from Victaluic Co. was dicta, and so did not bind them.
There’s an underlying theme to the Third Circuit’s ruling, which, like Air Products before it, didn’t really lay down a rule but instead rejected the hard-and-fast rule suggested by the losing party. That underlying theme is: respect for District Courts’ ability to assess the need for entering injunctions, even injunctions that impose a significant hardship, like the injunction here.
Put another way, rather than set a high bar for District Courts — as a ruling which incorporated terms like "inevitable" or "virtually impossible" would have — the Third Circuit set no bar at all, and instead deferred to the judgment and determinations of the District Court.
It’s hard to argue with the logic of that; as much as we would like to set hard-and-fast rules to govern all situations, the simple truth is that every case is unique, and we have to leave some discretion in the system, have to have some trust in the trial judges, to make it work right.