Alex Fields

Managing Associate

San Francisco


Read full biography at www.orrick.com

Alex Fields is a managing associate in the Intellectual Property group of Orrick's San Francisco office.

Alex represents individuals and corporate clients in various civil matters involving patent and copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, unfair competition, breach of contract, and wage disputes.

Posts by: Alex Fields

The California Supreme Court Clarifies Section 16600 as Applied to Business Contracts and Holds That an Independently Wrongful Act Is Necessary to Prove Interference With At-Will Contracts

The most powerful tool capable of invalidating competitive restraints under California law is Business and Professions Code section 16600.  That statute states that “[e]very contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade or business of any kind is to that extent void.”  California courts have historically used that statute to void non-compete and non-solicit provisions in agreements between employees and employers or buyers and sellers of a business.

The question presented to the California Supreme Court in Ixchel Pharma, LLC v. Biogen, Inc., was whether section 16600 voids restraints on business operations and commercial dealings between businesses in the same manner that it voids restraints on competition following the termination of employment or the sale of a business. The Court held that section 16600 does indeed apply to contractual restraints on businesses, but not in the same way as it applies to employment or sale-of-business agreements.  Instead, contractual restraints on business operations and commercial dealings between businesses should be evaluated using the same “rule of reason” standard that courts use to analyze alleged antitrust violations under the Cartwright Act.  In so holding, the Court harmonized section 16600’s application to commercial agreements with long-standing antitrust laws.

In a separate part of its opinion, the Court also held that a claim for tortious interference with an at-will business contract (i.e., one that can be terminated at any time) requires pleading and proving an independently wrongful act.  This brings the standard for interference with an at-will business contract more in line with a cause of action for tortious interference with prospective economic relations.

Case Background.  TSW initially reported on this case in August 2019, when the Ninth Circuit certified these issues to the California Supreme Court for consideration. The case arises from a unique set of circumstances in which the plaintiff (Ixchel) challenges a contractual restraint on business contained in a contract between the defendant (Biogen) and a third party (Forward).

The facts of this case are described in TSW’s earlier post.  As a brief recap, Plaintiff Ixchel filed a claim against Defendant Biogen alleging, among other things, interference with contract.  Ixchel alleged that it had a “collaboration agreement” with Forward to jointly develop a new drug.  That collaboration agreement stated that it could be terminated at any time by either party, i.e., it was essentially an “at-will” contract.  Ixchel further alleged that Biogen subsequently convinced Forward to enter into a separate agreement with Biogen in which Forward agreed to (1) terminate the collaboration agreement with Ixchel—which it had a right to do—and (2) refrain from entering into any other contracts for the development of the drug.

At the district court level, the court dismissed Ixchel’s interference with contract claim, holding that interference with an at-will contract required pleading an independently wrongful act.  Ixchel argued that the non-compete provision in Biogen’s contract with Forward violated section 16600 and, thus, constituted an independently wrongful act.  The court rejected this argument, finding that section 16600 did not apply to business agreements outside the employment context.

After the district court dismissed Ixchel’s claims, it appealed, and the Ninth Circuit certified two questions to the California Supreme Court:  (1) Is a plaintiff required to plead an independently wrongful act in order to state a claim for tortious interference with a contract that is terminable at will? (2) Does section 16600 of the California Business and Professions Code void a contract by which a business is restrained from engaging in a lawful trade or business with another business?

Tortious Interference with At-Will Contracts.  In answering the first question, the Court held that interference with an at-will contract requires more than interference with other contracts and, specifically, requires pleading and proving that the defendant engaged in an independently wrongful act.  The Court explained that a cause of action for tortious interference with contractual relations generally does not require the defendant’s conduct to be independently wrongful “apart from the interference with the contract itself.”  It noted, however, that in Reeves v. Hanlon, it held that interference with at-will employment contracts should require independent wrongfulness because (a) California public policy favors employee rights to compete with former employers, and (b) “at-will contracts do not involve the same ‘cemented economic relationship[s]’ as contracts of a definite term” since there is no legal assurance of future relations.

In its holding, the Court declined to limit Reeves to the employment context, reasoning that the “broader logic underlying [Reeves] is persuasive with respect to other spheres of economic relations” and that because parties to at-will contracts—like parties to a prospective economic relationship—have “no legal assurance of future economic relations,” the same interests are implicated even though parties to at-will contracts may have more concrete “expectations of a continued relationship.”  It therefore held that stating a cause of action for interference with an at-will contract requires an independently wrongful act, just like a cause of action for interference with prospective economic advantage.

Section 16600 as Applied to Business Contracts.  In answering the second question, the Court started by observing that the parties did not appear to dispute that section 16600 applies to “business contracts” or that none of the statutory exceptions to section 16600 (e.g., sale of a business or dissolution of a partnership or LLC) applied to the facts of the case.  Rather, the true dispute was about the standard a court should apply when analyzing a contractual restraint on business operations and commercial dealings between businesses.

After examining the legislative and judicial history surrounding section 16600 and its Civil Code predecessor, the Court distinguished two categories of agreements that may contain restraints on trade:  (1) contractual restraints in employment or sale of business agreements, and (2) contractual restraints on business operations and commercial dealings between businesses.  With respect to the latter, the Court held that section 16600 should be read in accordance with the Cartwright Act to incorporate the same “rule of reason” that applies in an antitrust analysis.  Accordingly, courts evaluating such business restraints under section 16600 must ask whether the restraint “promotes or suppresses competition” considering the “circumstances, details, and logic of a restraint.”  With respect to the former category of agreements (employment and sale-of-business), the Court reaffirmed its decision in Edwards and other existing opinions that do not apply a reasonableness standard and instead strictly construe section 16600 in the employment or sale-of-business context to void any restriction on an individual’s ability to engage in a lawful profession, trade, or business if that restriction does not otherwise meet a recognized exception.

Does the Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine Apply Under the DTSA? It Depends on the State.

The Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) went into effect in May 2016. Since then, federal courts have largely adhered to existing law in their respective states to determine whether the inevitable disclosure doctrine applies to DTSA claims. This article provides a sampling of existing opinions that have either permitted or rejected the inevitable disclosure doctrine under DTSA claims, broken down by state.[1]  READ MORE

Protecting IP in a COVID-19 Remote-Work-World

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers offered remote work options. Now employers all over the world are encouraging or requiring their employees to work remote from home. This means employees are accessing, maintaining, and sharing proprietary information outside of the office more frequently than ever before, thereby increasing the risk of employee and third-party IP theft. 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

FOIA Exemption 4 Tightens the Spigot on Public Disclosure of Bottled Water Sourcing Records

The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) grants the public a powerful right of access to records in the possession of federal agencies.  However, this right of access is subject to nine distinct exemptions.  As demonstrated by D.C. District Court Judge Trevor N. McFadden’s opinion in Story of Stuff Project v. United States Forest Service, it is relatively easy for the federal government to withhold records under Exemption 4 which protects “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person” which are “privileged or confidential.”  5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4). READ MORE

OPEN SECRETS: Can Business Methods Based on Blockchain Technology Constitute Trade Secrets?

Several months ago, we reported on the potential to protect trade secrets by encrypting information using blockchain technology.  Then, earlier this month, we reported on an order out of the Southern District of California involving “CryptoKitties,” a decentralized application (or “DApp”) built on the Ethereum blockchain (using the ERC721 protocol) that allows users to securely buy, sell, trade, and breed genetically unique virtual cats.

While the potential to protect trade secrets using blockchain technology is clear, the reasoning in the CryptoKitties order raises questions regarding whether blockchain technology could constitute a trade secret in and of itself or when combined with other concepts or business methods pursuant to Federal and California law.

READ MORE

Revised Trade Secrets Disclosures May Be Costly

In some cases, there may be a severe cost – even a monetary cost – for plaintiffs who seek to materially amend their trade secrets disclosure following discovery.  This is what happened to the plaintiff, Swarmify, in its lawsuit against Cloudflare, now pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

As we reported previously, on February 27, 2018, the court in this case denied Swarmify’s motion for a preliminary injunction for failure to show irreparable harm.  At that time, the court commented that Swarmify’s trade secrets disclosure, produced pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure Section 2019.210, was severely overbroad and “ever-shifting,” which the court characterized as a “blatant abuse of the system.” READ MORE

Accounts Frozen: DOJ Alleges Seven Defendants Conspired To Misappropriate Trade Secrets

Competition from Chinese companies shows no signs of slowing. Likewise, allegations of trade secret theft against Chinese companies are increasingly common. In this case, the U.S. Department of Justice linked allegations of trade secret theft with wire transfers from a Chinese company in order to freeze bank accounts and real property held by several defendants charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets. READ MORE