On December 21, 2015, an Illinois jury awarded Miller UK Ltd. $73.6 million against Caterpillar Inc. Miller supplied couplers for Caterpillar’s equipment, and the jury concluded that Caterpillar used its leverage as Miller’s largest customer to demand access to information that Caterpillar then used to manufacturer its own version of the coupler. As a result of the alleged theft, Miller claimed it had to terminate roughly seventy-five percent of its workforce, close an office, and scale back a new business venture. This lawsuit was not between an employer and an employee, but it holds important lessons for employers that operate in industries and environments with valuable trade secrets.
1. Audit Non-Disclosure Agreements
Trade secrets laws across the country provide a layer of protection for misappropriated trade secrets. Non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements can often provide additional protection, by catching disclosures that would not be covered by trade secrets laws.
In the New Year, audit company records to confirm that any company or person who has access to the company’s trade secrets and proprietary information has signed a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement. If any of these parties did not sign an agreement during the contracting process, get an agreement in place immediately.
2. Review Materials
In the New Year, review the company’s handbooks, policies, offer letters, and employment agreements to ensure that they prohibit theft and misappropriation of trade secrets and proprietary information from third parties (and not just the company).
Not only will this hopefully prevent employees from engaging in misconduct for which the company could be held liable (i.e. engaging in misappropriation), it could help the company avoid being held liable for any misconduct that does occur.
3. Audit Restrictive Covenants
To the extent that your company has trade secrets and proprietary information that can be protected through restrictive covenants under applicable law, in the New Year, audit the company’s agreements with employees to ensure that all employees who have access to that information have signed the required restrictive covenants. If an employee has not signed an agreement, identify what legal consideration will be required to obtain enforceable restrictive covenants. For those employees who have signed restrictive covenants, confirm that the company has signed (if required) and that the company records consist of both the employee’s signature and the body of the agreement that the employee signed. Finally, review the company’s form restrictive covenants to ensure that they have kept up with the growth and development of the company (i.e. that they protect all of the company’s trade secrets and proprietary information) and with the latest developments in the law.
In the New Year, resolve to follow the three steps above at least once per year. As the verdict demonstrates, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Following a regular maintenance schedule is the best way for a company to minimize the risks associated with trade secrets and proprietary information.