FTC Holds Workshop Examining Potential for Regulation of Non-Compete Agreements

After a busy year for non-compete regulation at the state level, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a public workshop last Thursday in Washington D.C. to examine the legal basis and economic support for a contemplated FTC rule restricting the use of non-compete clauses in employment agreements. A link to the FTC’s webpage with details about the workshop is located here: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/events-calendar/.

The workshop brought together experts from academia, organized labor and the private sector to discuss the impact of non-competes on the American workforce and overall economy. Multiple panels involved presentations of academic studies taking the position that non-competes negatively impact workers and the labor market. In particular, there appeared to be broad consensus among panel presenters that non-competes restrict worker mobility, limit the exchange of information, and cause a suppression of wages. One study estimated that an outright ban on non-competes clauses would cause wages of workers in the U.S. to increase, on average, by approximately 7%.

There was also discussion about the potentially positive impact of non-compete agreements for certain categories of employees, such as physicians and CEOS. In particular, one study found that physician groups that utilized non-competes saw doctors make significantly more patient referrals within the physician group and led to higher overall earnings. Moreover, the study found CEOs bound by non-compete clauses tend to be more accountable and typically receive higher compensation.

There was also significant discussion regarding the FTC’s authority to promulgate a rule regulating the use of non-compete agreements. Several participants noted that the FTC has broad statutory authority to regulate unfair competition. Non-competes could theoretically fall within the FTC’s authority pursuant to the FTC’s view that non-compete agreements are anti-competitive and an unfair restraint on the ability of employers to compete for labor.

Overall, workshop participants agreed that more empirical evidence is needed before there can be meaningful discussion about an outright ban of non-compete agreements. Other proposals for an FTC rule included setting a nationwide minimum earnings threshold for workers against whom a non-compete may be enforced and requiring employers to disclose the terms of a non-compete with an offer of employment (not after an offer has been accepted).

To aid its continuing analysis of non-competes, the FTC is seeking public comments on several questions aimed to determine how the Commission should focus its rulemaking efforts. Public comments are due by February 20, 2020. More information about submitting a public comment to the FTC can be found at the link above. Trade Secrets Watch will continue to monitor developments from the FTC.

Indirect Competition Enough to Enforce Non-Compete Against Former CEO in Pennsylvania

In the midst of nationwide efforts to reform the use of non-compete restrictions, a recent decision from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania illustrates the broad approach courts may take when enforcing restrictive covenants against high-level executives. READ MORE

In a Blockbuster Economic Espionage Act Prosecution, an Attempt by the Government to Hide the Ball?

An ongoing, headline-grabbing trade secret theft prosecution against a Chinese spy is also quietly presenting a, say, disquieting attempt by prosecutors to stretch the law on what it is required to plead and prove.  On the civil side, when a plaintiff sues for trade secret theft, there’s almost always a hotly contested point of proof on whether the alleged stolen material is really a trade secret.  It’s well-established, though, that when the government charges a defendant criminally with the inchoate forms of trade secret theft—attempt or conspiracy being the two spelled out under the Economic Espionage Act—the government has no burden to prove that the underlying information was actually a trade secret.  (Loyal readers will recall our recent post on United States v. O’Rourke, where the defendant tried to argue otherwise at sentencing.)  Now, in a brief filed just last week, the government seems to be taking this one step further and arguing that it has no duty even to identify the trade secrets at issue. READ MORE

From Corn-Gate to You-Stole-My-Trade-Secrets-Gate (Maybe): Defendant Beer Maker Moves to Add a Counterclaim for Trade Secrets Misappropriation in False Advertisement Litigation

MillerCoors (beer maker of Coors Light and Miller Lite) and Anheuser-Busch (“AB”) (competing beer maker of Bud Light) have been embroiled in a contentious federal district court litigation in the W.D. of Wisconsin since March 2019. MillerCoors filed a lawsuit against AB for false advertising and trademark dilution shortly after AB aired an ad during Super Bowl LIII saying that MillerCoors uses corn syrup during brewing. MillerCoors’ lawsuit alleges that this ad was part of a “false and misleading advertising campaign” designed to deceive consumers into thinking they will consume corn syrup if they drink Coors Light and Miller Lite, which MillerCoors denies. READ MORE

Court Upholds One Year in Prison for Theft of non-Trade Secrets

A federal district court judge in Chicago sentenced Robert O’Rourke, a former employee of iron bar manufacturer Dura-Bar, to one year and one day in prison last week for stealing trade secrets.  Well, not quite.  O’Rourke was convicted on February 25 of seven counts of stealing and attempting to steal trade secrets, but moved for a new trial.  In her October 11 order, Judge Andrea Wood denied the motion, holding that the trial evidence demonstrated O’Rourke’s intent to steal and use trade secrets—even if some of the proprietary information stolen did not actually constitute a trade secret. READ MORE

Professor’s Prosecution Shows Importance of Disclosing All Foreign Ties

In August 2019, federal prosecutors indicted Feng Tao, a Chinese scientist conducting research at the University of Kansas, on fraud charges. The indictment may not appear notable at first glance. But when viewed against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s escalating trade war and the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative,” the facts underlying this prosecution may tell a deeper story.

As part of its China Initiative—a program announced in November 2018 to combat state-sponsored intellectual property theft—the DOJ set out to develop an enforcement strategy concerning universities and research laboratories. These institutions are considered particularly vulnerable targets of Chinese espionage because of their status as recruiters of foreign talent and incubators of state-of-the-art technology. The FBI has since begun scrutinizing universities’ ties to China, reaching out to schools around the country to curb the threat of technology and trade secret theft posed by researchers tapped by the Chinese government. READ MORE

Pleading “Sufficient Particularity”: Technical Trade Secrets Require More

It’s common sense that, to protect a trade secret, the information must remain secret. However, when trade secret misappropriation claims arise and litigation ensues, the court and the parties involved need to understand at least the broad confines of the alleged trade secret. While the Federal pleading standard for a plaintiff’s complaint is the same regardless of what the trade secret may be—namely, that the plaintiff include sufficient particularity of the trade secret’s subject matter—what constitutes “sufficient particularity” will depend on the type of information alleged to be a trade secret. AlterG, Inc. v. Boost Treadmills LLC, a recent decision in the Northern District of California, highlighted this fact when the court found the plaintiff had adequately pleaded facts to describe one trade secret, but failed to do so for another. READ MORE

Key Trends from a Summer of Non-compete Reform

The start of September means that summer is unofficially over. However, the end of beach season also means that big changes to state non-compete laws are on the horizon.

In the past three months, Maryland,[1] Maine,[2] New Hampshire,[3] and Rhode Island[4] have all passed legislation directly aimed at curtailing the use of non-compete agreements. This flurry of activity reflects a growing national concern about the fairness of non-compete restrictions and their impact on the U.S. workforce. For tangible evidence of this increasing concern, look no further than the preambles of the new laws in Maine and Maryland, both of which declare non-compete agreements as “against public policy.”

READ MORE

Huawei Alleges “Selective Prosecution” by the DOJ

In January of this year, the DOJ indicted the Chinese telecom giant Huawei on counts of theft of trade secrets conspiracy, attempted theft of trade secrets, wire fraud, and obstruction of justice. On August 1, Huawei moved to dismiss the indictment for “selective prosecution.” Huawei contends that it is the “target of the politically motivated decision, at the highest levels of the U.S. government, to pursue the selective prosecution of Chinese companies and nationals for the alleged misappropriation of intellectual property.” In essence, it argues that the DOJ unconstitutionally seeks to punish Huawei because it is a large, successful Chinese company, not because of illegal behavior by the company or its agents. READ MORE