Michael D. Weil

Partner

San Francisco


Read full biography at www.orrick.com
Michael Weil, an Employment and Trade Secrets partner in the San Francisco office, represents clients in high-stakes trade secrets, employee mobility and employment litigation throughout the United States.

Michael's trade secrets engagements frequently arise from employee departures or commercial settings.  He has handled trade secrets and non-compete cases involving a variety of intellectual property, such as organic chemistry, genetic sequencing, chemistry lab processes, near field payment technology, client lists, shipping cost information, and many others.  As an employment lawyer, Michael also regularly handles matters involving independent contractor status, wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and compensation matters, including wage-and-hour class actions and representative actions under state and federal laws. Finally, Michael counsels clients on a wide variety of employment and related business issues. 

Posts by: Michael Weil

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.

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

T-R-NO: Nevada District Court Denies Motion for TRO Despite Evidence of Mass Download of Company Files and Steps Taken to Cover Tracks

Our readers have seen enough of our blog posts to be familiar with the classic ex-employee trade secrets theft scenario:  employee downloads confidential files to his personal computer; employee attempts to cover his tracks with deletions of those files; employee resigns from the company to work for a competitor. When such a classic case results in litigation, the plaintiff company typically succeeds in obtaining injunctive relief against the ex-employee. We posted about one successful preliminary injunction motion last year. A recent district court decision out of the District of Nevada, however, shows that a motion for TRO on seemingly slam-dunk facts is never guaranteed. This decision highlights two important takeaways for litigators: (1) if your client is facing imminent business harm, seek an injunction immediately; and (2) in the Ninth Circuit, there is no presumption of irreparable harm, even if the evidence shows trade secret misappropriation or a breach of the employee’s confidentiality agreement. READ MORE

#SecretTweets: Protecting Social Media as a Trade Secret?

Social media today connects people more than ever. It can be a means to bring together long-lost friends, new acquaintances, and love interests, or the public with celebrities, sports teams, new products, and companies—to name just a few. It can be an effective way to market images and products, as it has the potential to reach thousands instantly with the click of a button. With such public uses and goals, social media seems like an odd candidate for trade secret protection. Yet, that is precisely what BH Media Inc. is seeking to protect in its complaint, filed with the Western District of Virginia on August 6, 2018 against a former employee, Andy Bitter. 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

California Supreme Court Will Hear Arguments This Week in Defamation Case With Implications for Online Publishers, Trade Secrets Owners

On Tuesday, April 3, the California Supreme Court will hear arguments in Hassel v. Bird.  Case No. S235968.  While seemingly a defamation case, it has direct implications on trade secrets owners and the rights of internet publishers.

In that case, a lawyer, Dawn Hassell, sued her former client, Ava Bird, for defamation in California state court because of a negative Yelp review.  247 Cal. App. 4th 1336 (2016).  Bird never responded to the lawsuit, so the trial court entered a default judgment in Hassell’s favor. The court ordered Bird and Yelp to remove her the reviews, even though Yelp was not a party to the lawsuit.  Yelp appealed on numerous grounds, including that (1) the court denied Yelp due process because Yelp wasn’t a party; (2) the order was an improper prior restraint; and (3) Yelp had immunity under the Communications Decency Act.  The court of appeal rejected all of these arguments.

This fight between the rights of internet publishers and those allegedly aggrieved by third parties who post information or statements on the publishers’ websites is an ongoing battle.  While often fought in the defamation space, many of these disputes involve trade secrets owners who claim others, including former employees, posted trade secrets on an internet publisher’s site.  See, e.g., Glassdoor, Inc. v. Superior Court, 9 Cal. App. 5th 623 (2017).  The Hassell case will have direct impact on this ongoing battle.  If upheld, it will create a potential roadmap for trade secrets owners to take down offending content published on the internet.  For the internet publishers, it creates a serious headache because it allows plaintiffs to sidestep the publisher’s right to defend against an injunction.

Trade Secrets Watch will monitor the oral argument and report back.

Defining Trade Secrets: Texas Supreme Court May Soon Decide How Particular Trade Secrets Owners Must Be in Court

In every trade secrets case, the plaintiff faces the same fundamental dilemma:  In order to enforce their rights in court, they must identify (at least to some degree) the trade secrets at issue. Although California has adopted a reasonable particularity requirement by statute, how much detail plaintiffs must provide when identifying their trade secrets in litigation continues to vary state-by-state.  The answer is no clearer under federal law, as the Defend Trade Secrets Act is silent as to this issue.

Notwithstanding, the level of particularity required is an ongoing issue that courts continue to grapple with.  For example, Texas’s highest court may weigh in for the first time on the degree of specificity plaintiffs must provide when identifying trade secrets allegedly misappropriated under the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (TUTSA). READ MORE

EVEN BAMBI IS A TRADE SECRET: Eastern District Of Texas Finds That Lineage and Genetic Information of Deer Are Trade Secrets, Grants Preliminary Injunction

As surprising as it may be to city dwellers, the deer farming industry generates $3 billion per year for the U.S. economy. According to the North American Deer Farmers Association, “deer farming is one of the fastest growing industries in rural America.”  The corollary of the deer farming industry is a burgeoning deer breeding industry. As a court in the Eastern District of Texas recently noted, the “deer breeding industry is a potentially lucrative industry with single straws of buck semen selling for $5,000 to $20,000 on average, and ranging all the way up to $1 million to purchase the entire buck.” READ MORE

BREAKING: President Obama Signs Defend Trade Secrets Act Into Law

This afternoon, as anticipated, President Barack Obama signed the Defend Trade Secrets Act into law, wrapping up a lengthy bipartisan effort to bring trade secrets under federal system law. Some observed that the fact that President Obama chose to sign the bill into law publicly indicates the importance of the new law to the administration. READ MORE