Monthly Archives: May 2016

May 23, 2016

Limitations Period For Constructive-Discharge Claim Starts When Employee Gives Notice of Resignation

Dawson_MBy Micah Dawson

The Supreme Court made clear today that the filing period for a constructive-discharge claim begins to run when the employee gives notice of his or her resignation. In a 7-to-1 decision, the Court favored the five-circuit majority who recognized such timeline and rejected the Tenth Circuit’s reasoning that the clock begins to run on the date of the “last discriminatory act.” Green v. Brennan, 578 U.S. ___, (2016). Although the case involved a federal employee, the Court noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) treats federal and private sector employee limitations periods the same so this ruling should affect constructive-discharge claims against private employers as well.

Discriminatory Act That Triggers Limitations Clock 

In the case before the Court, Marvin Green, a postmaster in Colorado, claimed he was denied a promotion because of his race. A year after that matter was settled, Green filed an informal EEO charge with the Postal Service alleging that he was subjected to retaliation for his prior EEO activity due to his supervisor threatening, demeaning, and harassing him. After the Postal Service’s EEO Office completed its investigation of his allegations, he was informed he could file a formal charge, but he failed to do to.

A few months later, Green was investigated for multiple infractions, including improper handling of employee grievances, delaying the mail, and sexual harassment of a female employee. Green was placed on unpaid leave during the investigation. Federal agents quickly concluded that Green had not intentionally delayed mail, but neither Green nor his union representative was told. Instead, the Postal Service began negotiating with Green’s union representative to settle all the issues against Green, resulting in Green signing a settlement agreement in December 2009 that included giving up his postmaster position. On February 9, 2010, Green submitted his resignation which was to be effective March 31.

During that time, Green filed multiple charges with the Postal Service’s EEO Office. By regulation, federal employees must contact an equal employment opportunity officer in their agency within 45 days of “the date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory” before bringing suit under Title VII. Green’s allegations included that he had been constructively discharged by being forced to retire.

Green eventually sued the Postal Service in federal court in Denver. The district court dismissed Green’s constructive discharge claim, ruling that he had not contacted an EEO counselor about his constructive-discharge claim within 45 days of the date he signed the settlement agreement in December. On appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Green argued that the 45-day limitations period did not begin to run until he announced his resignation, even though that was months after the last alleged discriminatory act against him. The Tenth Circuit disagreed with Green, ruling that the clock began to run on the date of the “last discriminatory act” giving rise to the constructive discharge, as two other circuits have held.

Limitations Period Begins When Employee Gives Notice of Resignation 

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Green asserted that the statute of limitations began when he actually resigned due to constructive discharge, the act that gave rise to his cause of action, which was consistent with the rulings of numerous other Courts of Appeals. Interestingly, the Court agreed with the position taken by the Postal Service, which was different from the Tenth Circuit’s decision, ruling that the limitations period for a constructive-discharge claim begins to run when the employee gives notice of his resignation.

In an opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, the Court explained that “the ‘matter alleged to be discriminatory’ in a constructive-discharge claim necessarily includes the employee’s resignation.” The Court noted that to the “standard rule” governing statutes of limitations, the “limitations period commences when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.” It means that period begins when the plaintiff “can file suit and obtain relief.” In effect, a constructive-discharge claim is like a wrongful-discharge claim which accrues only after the employee is fired. With nothing in Title VII or its regulations to the contrary, the Court therefore found that the limitations period should not begin to run until after the discharge itself.

So precisely when does an employee resign for purposes of triggering the limitations period for a constructive-discharge claim? The Court ruled that the limitations period begins on the day the employee tells his employer of his resignation, not the employee’s actual last day of work.

The Court did not decide the factual question of when Green actually gave notice of his resignation to the Postal Service, sending the matter back to the Tenth Circuit to determine that fact.

Significance of Decision for Employers

The practical effect of the Court’s ruling is to extend the period in which an employee may allege a constructive discharge beyond the limitations period for the underlying discriminatory acts that gave rise to the resignation. Hypothetically, employees who resign may be able to bootstrap any alleged discriminatory act during the course of their employment to their decision to abandon employment. In his dissent, Justice Thomas further opined that a discrimination victim may extend the limitations period indefinitely simply by waiting to resign. Yet the Court believed such concerns to be overblown, doubting that a victim of employment discrimination would continue to work under intolerable conditions only to extend the limitations period for a constructive-discharge claim. Nonetheless, even if the applicable Title VII limitation period (typically 180 or 300 days for private employers) for the underlying discrimination has passed, an employee may still have a timely claim for constructive discharge under the Court’s rule.

Time will tell if Justice Thomas’s concerns were more realistic that his colleagues believed.

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May 20, 2016

Employers Who Prevail In A Title VII Case May Seek Attorneys’ Fees Even Without A Ruling On The Merits

Lane_DBy Dora Lane

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Title VII defendant is not required to obtain a favorable judgment on the merits of the underlying discrimination case to be eligible to recover its attorneys’ fees. The decision means that employers who are able to dispose of Title VII claims for non-merits reasons, such as a dismissal on statute-of-limitations grounds, lack of subject matter jurisdiction, failure of the EEOC to conciliate, or something similar, may ask a court to award the attorneys’ fees incurred in contesting the claims (assuming, of course, it satisfies the remaining requirements for an attorneys’ fees award). Refusing to decide whether the EEOC must pay the $4 million attorney fee award at issue, the Court sent the case back to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to consider an alternative theory proposed by the EEOC. CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC, 578 U.S. ___ (2016).

Trucking Company Gets Sexual Harassment Claims Dismissed 

In the case before the Court, a new female driver at a large trucking company, CRST Van Expedited, Inc., filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC alleging that she was sexually harassed by two male trainers during her 28-day over-the-road training trip. After a lengthy investigation and unsuccessful conciliation, the EEOC filed suit alleging sexual harassment on behalf of the driver and other allegedly similarly situated female employees. During discovery, the EEOC identified over 250 other women who had supposedly been harassed.

Years of legal battles ensued, during which the district court ultimately dismissed all of the EEOC’s claims for various reasons, including expiration of the statute of limitations, lack of severity or pervasiveness of the alleged harassment, employees’ failure to complain timely, CRST’s prompt and effective response to harassment complaints, and discovery sanctions for the EEOC refusing to produce certain women for depositions. Upon dismissing the lawsuit, the court ruled that CRST was a prevailing party and invited them to apply for attorneys’ fees. CRST did, and the court awarded CRST over $4 million in fees.

The EEOC appealed (twice) and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, among other things, reversed the award of attorneys’ fees. Bound by previous decisions in its circuit, the Court of Appeals held that before a defendant could be deemed to have prevailed for purposes of recovering attorneys’ fees, the defendant had to obtain a favorable judicial determination on the merits of the case. The Eighth Circuit then determined that CRST had not prevailed on the claims brought on behalf of 67 women because their claims were dismissed due to the EEOC’s failure to investigate and conciliate, which was not a ruling on the merits. As a result, the Eighth Circuit ruled that CRST was not entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees on those claims. CRST appealed to the Unites States Supreme Court.

Defendant As “Prevailing Party” 

Title VII provides that a court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party. Accordingly, before deciding whether to award attorneys’ fees in any given case, a court must determine whether the party seeking fees has, in fact, prevailed. That determination is relatively clear when a plaintiff proves his or her discrimination case and a favorable judgment or court order is entered in the plaintiff’s favor. But there has been no clear definition on how courts should determine whether a defendant has prevailed, especially when the complaint is dismissed for procedural deficiencies or on jurisdictional grounds.

In rejecting the Eighth Circuit’s requirement that “prevailing party” status depends on a ruling on the merits, the Court stated that “[c]ommon sense undermines the notion that a defendant cannot ‘prevail’ unless the relevant disposition is on the merits.” Instead, the Court held that a defendant fulfills its primary objective whenever it can rebuff the plaintiff’s case, irrespective of the precise reason for the court’s decision. Looking to the congressional intent for Title VII’s fee-shifting provision, the Court ruled that a defendant may “prevail” even when the court’s final judgment in not on the merits.

Fees Expended in Frivolous, Unreasonable, or Groundless Litigation

The Court noted that under Title VII’s fee-shifting provision, prevailing defendants may seek attorneys’ fees whenever the plaintiff’s claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless. The Court recognized that defendants spend significant attorney time and expenses contesting frivolous and unreasonable claims that result in their favor, whether on the merits or not, and that a request for an award of fees in such cases is appropriate.  

Good News For Employers

The Court’s decision is good news for employers defending Title VII claims because it makes clear that a defendant may ask for attorneys’ fees when it gets a favorable judicial result for reasons not on the merits, where the defendant can show that the plaintiff’s claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless. That clarification may help deter the EEOC and individual plaintiffs from filing or continuing to litigate groundless claims.

That said, we may not have seen the final word on application of the Title VII fee-shifting provision as the Court sent the CRST case back to the Eighth Circuit to consider a new argument put forth by the EEOC, namely that a defendant must obtain a preclusive judgment in order to be the “prevailing party.” We’ll keep tabs on this case and let you know of any further developments.

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May 18, 2016

New Overtime Rule: $47,476 Annual Salary Required For White Collar Exemptions

Biggs_JBy Jude Biggs

Exempt white collar workers must be paid an annual salary of at least $47,476 under the Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) just-released final overtime rule. That salary threshold is more than twice the current salary requirement for the white collar exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Highly compensated employees must be paid at least $134,004 per year (increased from $100,000) to meet that exemption. The new rule is effective December 1, 2016, so employers have about six months to decide what to do with current exempt white collar workers who do not meet the new thresholds.

Salary Level Will Automatically Adjust Every Three Years

In a change from its proposed rule, the DOL will now automatically update the salary levels once every three years. Originally proposed as an annual update, the final rule will raise the standard threshold to the 40th percentile of full-time salaried workers in the lowest-wage Census region. The first adjustment will be posted August 1, 2019, 150 days in advance of its effective date on January 1, 2020.

Duties Tests Are Unchanged

Since 2004, the duties tests for the white collar exemptions have not included a limit on the amount of time that an employee can spend on nonexempt duties before the exemption is lost. Believing that a rise in the salary level will provide an initial bright-line test for the exemptions, the DOL refrained from changing the duties tests.

Nondiscretionary Bonuses, Incentive Payments, and Commissions

In the past, the DOL has not included nondiscretionary bonuses, incentive pay, or commissions when determining whether an employee’s salary meets the white collar exemption threshold; it looked only at actual salary or fee payments made to employees. In its final rule, the DOL will allow up to 10 percent of the salary threshold for non-highly compensated employees to be met by non-discretionary bonuses, incentive pay, or commissions. Note that these types of payments must be made on at least a quarterly basis to be included as “salary.” The DOL stated that this new policy was included in response to “robust comments” received from the business community which use these forms of pay as part of overall compensation packages for managerial and other exempt employees.

Next Steps

Over the next six months, you need to decide how to address previously exempt employees who no longer meet the salary thresholds. In order to meet the December 1 effective date, use the following checklist of steps to keep your pay practices compliant.

  • Examine your payroll records to determine which employees are potentially affected by the changes in the white collar exemptions.
  • Review the tasks performed by each white collar exempt employee to determine whether each meets the duties test under an applicable exemption.
  • If an employee does not meet the duties tests, you must treat them as non-exempt, regardless of salary.
  • Review if you are paying exempt employees on a salary basis, meaning they get paid their salary without reduction due to variations in the quantity or quality of work.
  • If an employee otherwise meets an exemption but is not currently paid at or above the new salary levels, decide whether to raise their salary to meet the new threshold or convert them to non-exempt and pay them time and one-half for all hours worked over 40 per week.
  • For any employees no longer treated as exempt, inform and train the employee, supervisors, and payroll administrators on proper timekeeping and overtime obligations. If appropriate, make sure such employees work as little overtime as possible, to hold down costs.
  • Consider whether the base rate of pay for such employees can be adjusted, so that with overtime pay, the employees earn about the same as before.
  • For employees who meet the exemption, implement procedures to update salary levels every three years to keep up with the DOL’s automatic adjustments.

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May 17, 2016

Religious Freedom Regarding ACA Contraceptive Mandate Still In Limbo

Collis_SBy Steven Collis

On May 16, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court offered only limited guidance on the challenges to the religious “accommodation” procedure under the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) contraceptive mandate. Numerous faith-based institutions had challenged the mandate and the procedural requirements for seeking an exemption on religious grounds as violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment of the federal Constitution. In an unusual (but not unprecedented) move, the Court relied on confirmations from both sides that an alternative solution may resolve this dispute, and remanded the cases back to the Third, Fifth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits to allow the parties to work it out. Zubik v. Burwell578 U.S. ___ (2016).

Religious Objection Form At Issue

Under the ACA, organizations providing health insurance to their employees must cover certain FDA-approved contraceptives as part of their health plans. Federal regulations, however, permit organizations to object to providing contraceptives on religious grounds. To avoid recourse for failing to provide mandated contraceptive coverage, such organizations must provide a form, either to their insurer or to the federal government, stating their religious objection.

Numerous faith-based nonprofit organizations, including the Little Sisters of the Poor Home For the Aged in Denver, argue that the ACA’s procedures require them to be complicit in providing services that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs. In various federal courts throughout the country, these religious institutions filed lawsuits challenging the legality of having to submit the religious objection form. After various appellate courts weighed in, the cases were consolidated for the Supreme Court to decide.

Court Sought Alternate Solutions

In late March, the Court asked both sides to come up with new proposals on how the female employees of these nonprofit organizations could receive cost-free contraceptive coverage without burdening the organizations’ religious  freedoms. After reviewing the parties’ submissions, the Court concluded that both sides confirmed there was a feasible option to provide contraceptive coverage through the organizations’ insurance companies without any objection notice from the religious parties.

In its per curiam opinion, the Court vacated the judgments and remanded the cases back to the respective appellate courts to allow the parties “an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.” The Court stated that the parties should be given “sufficient time to resolve any outstanding issues between them.”

The Court, including the concurrence by Justice Sotomayor joined by Justice Ginsburg, emphasized that it was not ruling on the merits of the case and that the lower courts should not read anything into the Court’s opinion as leaning one way or the other. As it relates to the nonprofits in this case, the Court stated that the government has notice that they object on religious grounds so no further notice is required going forward. It also emphasized that the government should not fine or penalize the nonprofits.

What It Means

The Supreme Court’s failure to decide the legal issues surrounding the ACA’s contraceptive mandate and the religious “accommodation” means that numerous federal appeals courts will individually address whether the parties can come up with a mutually satisfactory resolution of the cases. It is unclear whether any of the courts will have to decide the legal issues (again). In any event, the very real possibility is that one or more cases could end up before the Supreme Court in a later session.

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May 16, 2016

FCRA Lawsuit Sent Back To Ninth Circuit For Further Analysis on Standing to Sue

Lane_DBy Dora Lane

A bare procedural violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is not sufficient to permit an individual to sue for a willful FCRA violation, ruled the U.S. Supreme Court today. But, if the alleged procedural violation entails a risk of real harm, the plaintiff may have a concrete injury sufficient to have standing to sue. In a 6-to-2 decision, the Court sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit for further analysis of the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III standing. Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 578 U.S. ___ (2016).

People Search Engine Allegedly Produced False Information 

Spokeo, Inc. operates a website that provides users with information about other people, including contact data, marital status, age, occupation, economic health, hobbies, shopping habits, musical preferences, and wealth level. It collects that information from various sources including phone books, real estate listings, and social networks.

According to Thomas Robins' allegations, he found that Spokeo’s website published false information about him. It stated that he was married, in his fifties, had children, held a job, was relatively affluent, and had a graduate degree – none of which was accurate. Robins sought to file a class action against Spokeo, asking to recover the $1,000 in damages allowed by the FCRA for each willful violation of the statute. The potential class could include millions of people.

Ninth Circuit Reversed on Whether Actual Harm Needed for Willful FCRA Violations

The trial court focused on Robins’ allegations of harm, which were “that he has been unsuccessful in seeking employment, and that he is concerned that the inaccuracies in his report will affect his ability to obtain credit, employment, insurance, and the like.” It dismissed his complaint without prejudice, ruling he lacked standing to sue Spokeo because he had not alleged “any actual or imminent harm.” Despite filing an amended complaint in which he more fully described the inaccuracies in the information on Spokeo’s website, the district court ruled that Robins had failed to plead an injury-in-fact and that any injuries pled were not traceable to Spokeo’s alleged violations.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Spokeo had argued that Robins could not sue under the FCRA without showing actual harm, but the Ninth Circuit found that the FCRA does not require a showing of actual harm when a plaintiff sues for willful violations. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit held that a plaintiff can suffer a violation of the statutory right without suffering actual damages.

Injury-In-Fact Requires Concrete and Particularized Harm

The Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision, stating that the appellate court had failed to consider both aspects of the injury-in-fact requirement for standing to sue, namely that the plaintiff suffered an invasion of a legally protected interest that is both concrete and particularized, rather than hypothetical. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, stated that the Ninth Circuit focused on the “particularized” aspect of Robins’ injury – in other words, that he had been affected in a personal and individual way – but failed to consider whether his injury was “concrete.” The Court emphasized that Article III standing requires a concrete injury, even in the context of a statutory violation.

The Court pointed out, however, that a concrete injury does not have to be tangible. An intangible harm may constitute an injury-in-fact and Congress can identify and elevate intangible harms to give rise to a case or controversy sufficient for standing to sue. A risk of real harm may satisfy the concreteness requirement.

As it relates to Robins’ allegations of Spokeo’s willful FCRA violations, the Court wrote that although Congress clearly sought to prevent the dissemination of false information by adopting the safeguards in the FCRA, Robins could not satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement for standing simply by alleging a bare procedural violation of the FCRA. The Court noted that a violation of one of the FCRA’s procedural requirements, such as providing an incorrect zip code, may not result in harm. The Court, without taking a position on whether the Ninth Circuit’s ultimate conclusion was correct, sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit to further analyze whether Robins’ particular procedural violations, as alleged, involve a degree of risk sufficient to meet the concreteness requirement.

Effect of Ruling

By remanding this case back to the appellate court, the Supreme Court may have muddied the waters for defendants who face a statutory violation of the FCRA (or other federal statutes). Although it is good news that a bare statutory violation without concrete harm will not be sufficient to confer standing to sue, the analysis of the injury-in-fact requirement will likely mean that most cases will not be dismissed early in the proceeding, say on a motion to dismiss. That will raise the cost of defending such cases. Today’s opinion also leaves the door open for Robins’ class action case to proceed, should the Ninth Circuit find that the plaintiffs’ face the risk of real harm from false information in Spokeo’s people search database. We will continue to follow the case as the liability for statutory violations of the FCRA in a class action is huge.

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May 11, 2016

Colorado Pregnancy Accommodation Bill Passes

By Micah Dawson

The Colorado legislature passed House Bill 16-1438 requiring Colorado employers to engage in an interactive process to assess potential reasonable accommodations for applicants and employees for conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth. The bill, expected to be signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper, will ensure that employers engage in the interactive process, provide reasonable accommodations to eligible individuals, prohibit retaliation against employees and applicants that request or use a pregnancy-related accommodation, and provide notice of employee rights under this law. Once signed by the Governor, the new law will go into effect on August 10, 2016.

Pregnancy-Related Workplace Accommodations

This law will add a new section, section 24-34-402.3, to the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, making it an unfair employment practice for you to fail to provide a reasonable accommodation for an applicant for employment, or an employee, for health conditions related to pregnancy or physical recovery from childbirth, absent an undue hardship on your business. You also may not deny employment opportunities based on the need to make a pregnancy-related reasonable accommodation.

Interactive Accommodation Process 

You will need to engage in a “timely, good-faith, and interactive process” with the applicant or employee to determine effective reasonable accommodations.

Examples of reasonable accommodations include but are not limited to:

  • more frequent or longer breaks
  • more frequent restroom, food and water breaks
  • obtaining or modifying equipment or seating
  • temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position, if available (with return to the current position after pregnancy)
  • light duty, if available
  • job restructuring
  • limiting lifting
  • assistance with manual labor, or
  • modified work schedules.

In engaging in this process, you need to be sure to document your good-faith efforts to identify and make reasonable accommodations because doing so can negate punitive damages if an individual sues you for failure to make a pregnancy-related accommodation. You may require that the employee or applicant provide a note from her health care provider stating the need for a reasonable accommodation.

No Forced Accommodations or Leave 

Under the new law, you may not force an applicant or employee affected by pregnancy-related conditions to accept an accommodation that she has not requested, or that is unnecessary to perform the essential function of her job. Similarly, you may not require a pregnant employee to take leave if there is another reasonable accommodation that may be provided. As stated in the legislative declaration for the bill, the intent is to keep pregnant women employed and generating income so forcing pregnant women to take time off during or after their pregnancy generally is not permitted.

Analyzing Undue Hardship Of Accommodations 

Reasonable accommodations may be denied if they impose an undue hardship on your business. That requires an analysis of the following factors in order to decide whether the accommodation would require significant difficulty or expense:

  • the nature and cost of the accommodation
  • the overall financial resources of the employer
  • the overall size of the employer’s business with respect to the number of employees and the number, type, and location of the available facilities, and
  • the accommodation’s effect on expenses and resources or its impact on the operations of the employer.

Broad Definition of “Adverse Action” in Retaliation Prohibition 

The new law prohibits you from taking adverse action against an employee who requests or uses a reasonable accommodation for a pregnancy-related condition. An adverse action is defined very broadly as “an action where a reasonable employee would have found the action materially adverse, such that it might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” This approach harkens to the NLRB’s use of a “chilling effect” on employee rights as a basis for unfair labor charges. By not limiting an adverse action to concrete actions, such as a termination, demotion, pay reduction, or similar actions, the broad definition opens the door to a wide range of employer responses that could be deemed retaliation.

Notifying Employees of Their Rights

If signed into law, you will have until December 8, 2016 (120 days from the effective date) to provide current employees with written notice of their rights under this provision. Thereafter, you also must provide written notice of the right to be free from discriminatory or unfair employment practices under this law to every new hire at the start of their employment. You also have to post the written notice in a conspicuous place at your business in an area accessible to employees.

What To Do Now 

With enactment almost certain, prepare now to comply with this new pregnancy accommodation requirement. A checklist of action items includes:

  • Review and update job descriptions to designate essential functions of each job.
  • Update your accommodation policies and handbook to include pregnancy-related accommodations and information on how employees may request such an accommodation.
  • Train your supervisors, managers, and human resources department on the new accommodation requirements and the anti-retaliation provision.
  • Prepare written notifications of employee rights to send to current employees no later than December 8, 2016.
  • Include the written notification of rights in your onboarding materials so that after December 8, 2016, all new hires receive the notice.
  • Post the written notification of rights in a conspicuous place accessible to employees, such as your lunch room bulletin boards, intranet, or wherever other required employment law posters are posted.

May 4, 2016

New Federal Trade Secret Act: What Employers Need to Know

Wiletsky_MBy Mark Wiletsky

In a rare bipartisan effort, Congress passed the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) that will allow an owner of a trade secret to bring a misappropriation action in federal court. For the first time, companies seeking to protect their trade secrets will be able to file civil lawsuits for misappropriation under the federal Economic Espionage Act. The new law will apply to trade secrets related to a product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law very soon.

Protection of Trade Secrets

Many companies rely on a secret formula, process, or technique for their success. Consider, where would Coca-Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken be without their secret recipes? Under current law, companies seeking to sue for misappropriation of a trade secret must rely on each state’s trade secret law and pursue their lawsuits in state court. Prosecutors may file criminal actions under the federal Economic Espionage Act for theft of trade secrets, but that statute did not provide a mechanism for filing a private federal civil suit – until now.

The DTSA amends the Economic Espionage Act to permit private parties to bring a civil lawsuit in federal court alleging trade secret misappropriation. It provides certain remedies, including injunctions, damages, and an unusual provision allowing for the civil seizure of property in extraordinary circumstances. Although the DTSA does not replace state trade secret laws, it offers an additional enforcement venue for the protection of trade secrets.

DTSA Provides Access To Federal Courts, Injunctions, Damages, and Seizure of Property 

Employers need to understand the primary components of the DTSA in order to take advantage of this new avenue to protect valuable proprietary information. First, the DTSA opens the doors of federal courthouses to those alleging an actual or threatened trade secret misappropriation. As with other areas of employment law where there is an overlap of state and federal law, plaintiffs may choose whether to bring a misappropriation claim in state or federal court, depending on which law offers the most protection, more favorable discovery and motion practice, and greater damages. Federal protection for trade secrets should lead to a more consistent approach on what is protected as a “trade secret,” what constitutes a misappropriation, and what remedies are available. More predictable discovery and motion practice under federal court rules should help streamline costs while offering more uniformity in litigation across jurisdictions.

Second, the DTSA tries to balance the need to bolster protection of valuable trade secrets against the right of employee mobility by allowing for injunctions, but only in limited circumstances. Employers can seek an injunction to prevent actual or threatened misappropriation of a trade secret by an employee on terms that the court deems reasonable, as long as it does not prevent a person from entering into an employment relationship or circumvent state laws regarding restraints on employment, such as state non-compete laws. An injunction will not be granted based “merely on the information the person knows” but instead, must be based on evidence of threatened misappropriation.

Third, federal courts may award damages caused by the misappropriation of a trade secret, to include damages for actual loss, for any unjust enrichment not addressed in the damages for actual loss, or the imposition of a reasonable royalty for the misappropriator’s unauthorized disclosure or use of the trade secret. For a willful and malicious misappropriation, federal courts may award double damages and reasonable attorney’s fees. Courts also may award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party if a claim of misappropriation is made in bad faith, or a motion to terminate an injunction is made or opposed in bad faith.

In a unique provision, the DTSA allows the right to seek a civil seizure of property, but only in extraordinary circumstances. In such cases, a court may order the seizure of property when necessary to prevent the use or dissemination of the trade secret. If, however, the seizure is wrongful or excessive, the DTSA allows the individual whose property has been seized to sue for damages suffered as a result of the unlawful seizure. My colleague, Teague Donahey, provided an excellent summary of the DTSA and its seizure provisions in a recent article.

Safe Harbor For Whistleblower Disclosure of Trade Secrets

The DTSA offers safe harbor to individuals who disclose trade secrets to the government to investigate potentially illegal activity. Whistleblowers are granted civil and criminal immunity if they disclose a trade secret in confidence to a federal, state, or local government official, or to an attorney, solely for the purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law, or as part of a lawsuit or other proceeding when the disclosure is made under seal.

The new law also protects limited disclosure of trade secrets when an employee files a retaliation claim based on reporting a suspected violation of law against an employer. The employee must make such disclosures under seal and must not disclose the trade secret except pursuant to court order. Note that an “employee” is defined under the whistleblower immunity provision to include “any individual performing work as a contractor or consultant for an employer,” a broader definition than most other employment laws.

This immunity for use of trade secret information in an anti-retaliation lawsuit must be included in any contract or agreement that governs the use of trade secrets and other confidential information. Alternatively, employers may provide a cross-reference to a policy document that is provided to the employee that specifies the employer’s reporting policy for a suspected violation of law. Failure to comply with the notice requirement will result in the employer losing the ability to recover double damages and attorneys’ fees against the employee that might otherwise be available.

What You Should Do Now

If you use confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements that are designed to protect company trade secrets, review and revise future agreements to incorporate the DTSA’s whistleblower immunity notice. You’ll also want to consider expanding the venue language in your agreements to be sure you don’t exclude pursuing enforcement of the agreement in federal court.

If faced with a potential misappropriation of trade secrets, discuss with your legal counsel whether your state’s trade secret law or the new federal law (assuming it is signed into law) would provide the best enforcement mechanism. The DTSA provides an important avenue for increased protection of trade secrets but in some circumstances, state court may remain your best option.

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