The California Court of Appeal’s recent decision in FLIR Systems, Inc. v. Parrish, 2d Civil No. B209964, 2009 WL 1653103 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. June 15, 2009), affirming a $1.6 million attorney fee award to defendants upon a finding that the action was brought in bad faith, provides a useful and interesting discussion of various factors that may lead a court to conclude that a misappropriation case has been brought in bad faith. The decision highlights the importance of considering carefully whether to bring a misappropriation claim against former employees, particularly where there is little or no evidence of actual damage, or of actual misappropriation or threatened misappropriation.
In 2004, FLIR acquired the assets of Indigo, of which defendants Parrish and Fitzgibbons were officers. Indigo manufactures and sells microbolometers, devices used in connection with infrared cameras, night vision, and thermal imaging. After the sale, defendants continued to work for Indigo. About a year later, defendants decided to start a new company to mass produce bolometers. The new company was based on a business plan developed by Fitzgibbons several years before FLIR acquired Indigo. Before leaving Indigo, defendants advised FLIR and Indigo of their business plan and invited FLIR and Indigo to participate. FLIR rejected the offer.
In 2006, defendants began negotiations with Raytheon Company in accord with their business plan. Defendants assured FLIR and Indigo that they would not misappropriate Indigo’s trade secrets and that they would use an intellectual property filter similar to the one used at Indigo to prevent the misuse of trade secrets. In June 2006, FLIR and Indigo sued defendants on the theory that defendants could not mass produce low-cost microbolometers without misappropriating trade secrets. Upon learning of the lawsuit, Raytheon terminated business discussions with defendants, and one month after the suit was filed, defendants advised FLIR and Indigo that they would not go forward with their new business.
FLIR and Indigo, before trial, dismissed their damages claims and tried only the misappropriation of trade secrets and California Unfair Competition Act claims. On December 6-17, 2007, the case was tried. In a statement of decision issued in June 2008, the trial court found no misappropriation or threatened misappropriation of trade secrets. It was undisputed that defendants received no funding for their business plan, never started their new business, had no employees or customers, did not lease any facility or develop technology, and did not design, develop or sell any infrared products. The trial court ultimately denied permanent injunctive relief and awarded defendants $1,641,216.78 in attorney fees.
The California Uniform Trade Secrets Act allows for an award of reasonably attorney fees to the prevailing party where the claim was brought in bad faith. Civ. Code § 3426.4. The court ultimately held that FLIR and Indigo had essentially brought the action based on the doctrine of “inevitable disclosure,” as there was no evidence of misappropriation or threatened misappropriation, and the FLIR and Indigo witnesses were unaware of such evidence though they maintained suspicions that misappropriation would occur. Given that the “inevitable disclosure” doctrine has been definitively rejected in California, the Court found FLIR and Indigo to have brought and maintained the action in bad faith. The items the Court considered significant:
- The absence of any economic harm.
- The absence of any evidence of misappropriation or threatened misappropriation of trade secrets. Notably, there was evidence at trial that one of the defendants, Parrish, had downloaded technological data onto a hard drive before leaving Indigo, and that he destroyed the hard drive a few months before the lawsuit was filed. Although evidence that an employee has downloaded confidential information shortly before leaving his employer is typically significant to support a misappropriation claim, here, the evidence was discounted because defendants first learned of the download after the complaint was filed, so it was not a consideration for bringing suit, and the download was not a threatened misappropriation because there was no evidence that the contents of the hard drive, “if such contents existed, were improperly accessed, used, or copied before the drive was destroyed.”
- Evidence that FLIR and Indigo had an anticompetitive motive in filing the lawsuit. On this point, the court found significant the testimony of FLIR’s CEO, who testified that “we can’t tolerate a direct competitive threat by [Parrish] and [Fitzgibbons],” inferring that the CEO had no evidence of wrongdoing but was bothered that defendants planned to compete with FLIR in the future. The Court also found significant the fact that another FLIR officer had voted to file the lawsuit but had no personal knowledge that defendants had committed a wrongful act.
- Failure by FLIR and Indigo to identify what trade secrets would be subject to the permanent injunction. The Court found as “strong evidence of bad faith” FLIR and Indigo’s proposed injunction, which barred defendants from developing certain products for a 12-month period even if they did not use FLIR and Indigo’s technology or trade secrets.
- Imposition of unnecessary settlement conditions. When defendants notified FLIR and Indigo of their business plan, FLIR and Indigo responded with a demand for $75,000, a non-competition agreement, and agreement that defendants would not hire FLIR and Indigo’s employees, and agreement that they would not challenge Indigo’s patent applications. The Court found these restrictions to be unlawful restraints on trade.
- FLIR and Indigo’s experts at trial admitted there was no scientific methodology to predict trade secret misuse and agreed that no trade secrets were misappropriated.
The FLIR decision is a reminder to employers to be cautious when determining to bring a lawsuit against former employees for trade secret misappropriation. California courts may not tolerate the filing of misappropriation claims where it appears the employer is merely fearful or suspicious of wrongdoing. In such cases, the employer plaintiff risks not only a dismissal of its claims but the possibility of being sanctioned for bringing the action.