Is Customer Information a Trade Secret? Not So Fast!
November 02, 2017
Under what circumstances do customer information and business operations constitute “trade secrets” that may be enjoined from use by a former employee ? A recent decision by Justice Elizabeth H. Emerson on this issue serves as a stark reminder that a preliminary injunction requires “clear and convincing” proof that the information is truly a secret.
In Devos, Ltd v. United Returns, Inc., recently-troubled pharmaceutical-return company Devos sought to enjoin its former employees from operating a competitor, United Returns, pursuant to business tort law and non-compete/solicitation provisions contained in the former employees’ employment contracts. In August 2015, Devos obtained a temporary restraining order and sought a preliminary injunction, which United Returns subsequently moved to vacate.
The court denied the preliminary injunction and vacated the temporary restraints. After finding that the non-compete provisions included in the restrictive covenants were overly broad, the court found that the restrictive covenants were unnecessary, as well. As for Devos’ business tort claims involving misappropriation of trade secrets, the court found that “clear and convincing evidence” of a trade secret was lacking. In particular, the court rejected Devos’ contention that its customer information and business operations were “trade secrets” that United Returns had unfairly exploited to obtain competitive advantages. Crucially, there was no evidence that Devos had taken measures to protect its customer lists from disclosure; in fact, United Returns submitted evidence that the names of Devos’ customers were publicly available and well known within the industry.
Nor did the manner in which Devos conducted its business constitute a “trade secret.” United Returns introduced evidence that Devos’ systems and processes were used throughout the pharmaceutical-return industry, and “an employee’s recollection of information pertaining to the specific needs and business habits of particular customers is not confidential.” Thus, the court reaffirmed and applied the elements of “secrecy”: (1) substantial exclusivity of knowledge of the process or compilation of information and (2) the employment of precautionary measures to preserve such exclusive knowledge by limiting legitimate access by others.
Devos’ failure to meet its evidentiary burden demonstrates how important it is for employers to restrict access to important customer records. But even where efforts have been made to maintain the secrecy of customers’ information, a former employee still cannot be prevented from using that information if it could be easily obtained from publicly available sources. For example, in Sasqua Group v. Courtney, the Eastern District of New York dismissed a misappropriation action because the plaintiff’s allegedly “confidential” customer information database could have been duplicated through simple (though lengthy) internet searches. By contrast, in Freedom Calls Foundation v. Bukstel, the Eastern District of New York held that it would be very difficult to duplicate the plaintiff’s efforts in compiling its list of non-profit donors and clients because their personal contact information was not publicly known outside of the industry.
Merely because a well-trained former employee has successfully competed does not prove that confidential information was misappropriated–all the more reason to take care when drafting non-compete provisions. Absent such an effective provision, Devos serves as a cautionary tale that institutional knowledge sometimes must jump a high hurdle before it can be protected as a trade secret.