When is a microscope not needed? When the problem one is looking at is big as an elephant, not small as an amoeba.
Nion, an electron microscope manufacturer, contracted with Gatan, a spectrometer manufacturer, to use Gatan’s spectrometers in Nion’s microscopes. The contract contained both confidentiality and non-compete clauses. When Gatan learned that Nion had sold other parties microscopes that used Nion’s own spectrometer, Gatan sued, claiming that Nion had breached the non-compete (but not the confidentiality) provision of the contract. In ruling on Nion’s motion to dismiss, the court found that the non-competition provision was void and that Gatan’s claim that the provision was necessary to protect its trade secrets was without merit. Gatan, Inc. v. Nion Company, 2016 WL 1243477 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 30, 2016).
Gatan proffered some interesting arguments in opposition to Nion’s motion (kind of like your mother said it was “interesting” when you cut your own hair at the age of 5 using some rusty scissors that you found in the neighbor’s yard). Though Gatan’s complaint captioned a trade secret claim, it never used the word “misappropriate” anywhere in its complaint. Gatan also asserted that the covenant not to compete in its contract with Nion protected Gatan’s trade secrets. But the non-compete covenant said nothing whatsoever about trade secrets.
In making its arguments, it appears that Gatan was shooting for the so-called “trade secrets exception” to California Business and Professions Code 16600 (prohibiting covenants not to compete), but unfortunately had somewhat of a misfire. Still, the court’s order contains some notable analysis.
First, the court acknowledges that there is a trade secret exception to California’s prohibition on covenants not to compete. As we have discussed in earlier blogs, here and here, California courts are split on whether there is a trade secret exception to BPC 16600. Some, like those cited in the Gatan order, believe that an exception exists. Others, like Ret. Grp. v. Galante, 176 Cal. App. 4th 1226 (2009), deny (in dicta) that such an exception does or even needs to exist. Unfortunately, the Gatan court did not advance this discussion.
So lesson #1 from Gatan: If one is going to invoke the “trade secrets exception” to BPC 16600, then the covenant not to compete better expressly make reference to the alleged “trade secrets.” Companies cannot, as Gatan did, simply point to a theoretical exception to the rule as a way to enforce what some would argue is a facially void clause. As the court wrote, “under any reading of the Agreement …, [the non-compete clause] cannot be considered ‘necessary’ to protect Gatan’s trade secrets”—the court found that the agreement’s separate confidential information provision sufficiently did this.
Second, Gatan cites to Golden v. California Emergency Physicians Med. Grp., 782 F.3d 1083 (9th Cir. 2015), for the proposition that BPC 16600 applies in the business-to-business context as much as in the employer-to-employee context, on the ground that the section “does not specifically target covenants not to compete between employees and their employers.” (See our blog on Golden here.) Other courts have held similarly. See, e.g., Jan Marini Skin Research, Inc. v. Allure Cosmetic USA, Inc., 2007 WL 1508686, at *13 (Cal. Ct. App. May 24, 2007), as modified on denial of reh’g (June 25, 2007) (unpublished) (“While many cases applying section 16600 arise in the context of an employer-employee relationship, the statute also applies to other contracts, such as manufacture or distributorship agreements between businesses or individuals.”); Richmond Techs., Inc. v. Aumtech Bus. Sols., 2011 WL 2607158, at *17 (N.D. Cal. July 1, 2011).
Perhaps time will tell if Golden and Gatan accurately predict the breadth of BPC 16600. In the meantime, one thing appears clear: if one seeks to enforce a covenant not to compete on the basis that the covenant is needed to protect trade secrets, the covenant better at least mention the term “trade secrets” at least before Judge Hamilton in the Northern District of California.