A California federal district court has recently given employers a small victory against former employees who misappropriate trade secrets and assert whistleblower immunity or the litigation privilege as after-the-fact defenses. The federal district court for the Eastern District of California recently rejected, for a second time, a defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion to strike a trade secret lawsuit brought against him by his former employer. Notably, the court rejected the defendant former employee’s whistleblower and litigation privilege defenses as inapplicable, thereby allowing the beer company’s trade secret action to proceed.
On March 1, 2013, the beer company sued the former employee for, among other things, trade secret misappropriation and breach of nondisclosure agreements. The former employee subsequently filed a motion to dismiss and strike the Complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP statute. Specifically, the former employee argued that the Complaint was an attempt to punish him for purportedly exercising his constitutional rights of petition and free speech in connection with a consumer class action litigation that he filed against the company exactly one week before.
The federal district court denied the former employee’s anti-SLAPP motion and concluded that the company’s claims did not arise out of the former employees protected litigation activity. The former employee appealed.
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court and remanded back so the district court could consider the next prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis, the plaintiff’s probability of prevailing on its claims.
Upon its second review of the former employee’s anti-SLAPP motion, the federal district court concluded that the company had demonstrated a likelihood of prevailing on its trade secret misappropriation and breach of contract claims. The court then turned to and rejected the former employee’s substantive legal defenses of public policy, whistleblower immunity, and the litigation privilege.
First, the court rejected the former employee’s argument that confidentiality agreements are unenforceable as a matter of public policy. The court refused to adopt such a sweeping rule that would render confidentiality agreements unenforceable that would allow former employees to disclose trade secret or confidential information.
Second, the court acknowledged that California provides protection to whistleblowers but only when the employee discloses reasonably based suspicious of illegal activity to a governmental agency. The court concluded that such protections did not apply to employees who disclose information to their attorneys in order to further a class action against an employer.
Lastly, the court rejected the former employee’s argument that the misappropriation of documents in furtherance of anticipated litigation was protected under the litigation privilege. The court reasoned that the litigation privilege does not protect against illegal activity that causes damage and to protect such threats is inconsistent with the purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute.
It would be interesting to see the court’s analysis and decision, however, had the alleged misappropriation occurred after the enactment of the new Defendant Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”), which appears to provide broader whistleblower protections. The court in this case highlighted that California’s whistleblower statute protected only disclosures to government agencies and not a defendant’s attorneys. The DTSA, however, protects individuals from criminal and civil liability under any federal or state trade secret law for the disclosure of a trade secret that: (a) is made (i) in confidence to a federal, state, or local government official, either directly or indirectly, or to an attorney; and (ii) solely for the purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law; or (b) is made in a complaint or other document that is filed under seal in a lawsuit or other proceeding. (For additional information on the DTSA and its implications regarding whistleblowers, please see our DTSA Guide.)
Nonetheless, this case confirms that employees do not have an unfettered right to surreptitiously take documents from the workplace for their own use in litigation or otherwise. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit has rejected the concept of “blanket” protection for whistleblowers for violation of confidentiality agreements and misappropriation of confidential documents. See Cafasso v. General Dynamics C4 Systems, Inc., 637 F.3d 1047 (9th Cir. 2011).
With the likely broader whistleblower protections under the recently enacted DTSA, however, employers that utilize agreements and policies to protect trade secrets and other confidential information should ensure such documents have been updated to comply with the DTSA and its important employee and whistleblower notification provisions.