The most straightforward manner in which to prevent a former employee from jumping ship to one of your competitors is to have the employee sign a non-competition agreement. Absent a written agreement by an employee not to compete, however, are you out of luck if you want to stop an key employee with knowledge of sensitive corporate information from competing? The answer depends on what state you are in, and, more specifically, that state’s view of the inevitable disclosure doctrine.
The inevitable disclosure doctrine is an off-shoot of PepsiCo, Inc. v. Redmond (7th Cir. 1995), which upheld a preliminary injunction against a former Pepsi general manager that prevented him working for Quaker Oats (the manufacturer of Gatorade). What makes the case unique and important is that Redmond never had a non-compete with Pepsi. Instead, the court upheld the injunction because Redmond had detailed and comprehensive knowledge of Pepsi’s trade secrets, such that it was inevitable that he would disclose Pepsi’s trade secrets to Quaker Oats through his employment in a substantially similar position.
In the nearly 20 years since the PepsiCo decision, courts have debated the applicability of the inevitable disclosure doctrine to stop an employee, without a non-competition agreement but with knowledge of trade secrets, to work for a competitor in a similar capacity.
In sum, the issue boils down to whether your state’s trade-secrets law prohibits threatened misappropriation of trade secrets in addition to actual misappropriation.
Thus, in Lumenate Technologies, LP v. Integrated Data Storage, LLC (N.D. Ill. 11/11/13), the court permitted the plaintiff to make an inevitable disclosure argument based on the Illinois Trade Secrets Act’s prohibition against the threatened misappropriation of trade secrets.
Meanwhile, in Exal Corp. v. Roeslein & Associates, Inc. (N.D. Ohio 12/27/13), the court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim under Ohio’s trade secret act. The court pointed out that Ohio’s statute specifically prohibits “actual or threatened misappropriation,” a threat means something more than mere speculation. The former employer must put forth evidence of a demonstrable risk of misappropriation. In Exal, this showing was lacking.
The lesson from this post isn’t really the differences in the application of the inevitable disclosure doctrine. Instead, consider this post a lesson on the importance of written agreements. If you have a written non-competition agreement, you need not worry about threatened versus actual misappropriation. More specifically, if you have employees who are privy to sensitive information, or who otherwise present a serious risk of competition, require a non-competition agreement as a condition of their employment. Otherwise, you are taking a huge risk with your trade secrets and other confidential information.