Parties alleging state law trade secret misappropriation often feel compelled to identify a specific state statute as the basis for their claim, but that identification is unnecessary in the Delaware courts. The Delaware Court of Chancery has recently made clear that a claimant asserting a state law trade secret misappropriation claim need not identify the specific state law or statute that was allegedly violated.
Enforcement of noncompete agreements is typically governed by state law, so knowing which state’s law applies is an important question both for drafting and enforcement purposes. Knowing what law will apply is particularly relevant if any of the parties are located in states which disfavor or even refuse to enforce noncompete agreements (think California). A recent decision from the Delaware Superior Court may add clarification whether businesses can utilize choice-of-law provisions to increase the enforceability of their noncompete agreements.
A Delaware choice-of-law provision provides that, if litigation arises over the terms of a contract, that the law to be applied to the contract will be Delaware contract law (as opposed to the law of the state where the employer or employee is located). Delaware follows the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts § 187 which provides that if the contracting parties designate a certain state’s laws to apply:
(2) The law of the state chosen by the parties to govern their contractual rights and duties will be applied, even if the particular issue is one which the parties could not have resolved by an explicit provision in their agreement directed to that issue, unless either:
When litigation involving the same dispute and parties has been commenced in two different venues, many courts adhere to the “first-filed rule” which provides that the litigation should be confined to the forum in which it is first commenced. This often results in a race to the courthouse by litigants seeking to have the dispute heard in their preferred choice of venue.
Delaware courts, as a general matter, have followed this common law rule and allow judges broad discretion to grant a stay when there is a prior action pending in another state and involving the same parties and issues. There is, however, one important exception to this rule.
In cases where contracting parties have expressly agreed to a legally enforceable forum selection clause, the Delaware Supreme Court has held that courts must honor the parties’ contract and enforce the clause, even if, absent any forum selection clause, the first-filed rule might otherwise require a different result. As a result, a party’s effort to avoid a Delaware forum selection clause by commencing suit in a different state can be defeated if the proper steps are taken. A recent proceeding in case pending in the Delaware Court of Chancery provides guidance.
The Delaware Court of Chancery is nationally respected for its consistent and conscientious decisions in cases involving complex business issues. As a result, many legal practitioners recommend that contracting parties include a forum selection clause requiring that any disputes arising from a given contract be heard by a court of competent jurisdiction in the State of Delaware, including the Court of Chancery. A recent case in the Delaware Court of Chancery provides insight into the effective enforcement of a forum-selection clause.
In the daintily-named case of ASDC Holdings, LLC v. The Richard J. Malouf 2008 All Smiles Grantor Retained Annuity Trust, two parties entered into an agreement regarding the sale of equity in a Texas business. The agreement contained both an arbitration and a Delaware forum-selection clause which provided that any actions “with respect to any claim or cause of action arising under or relating to this Agreement” must be brought in a Delaware state or federal court with jurisdiction.
After the deal was executed, both parties became unhappy and sought legal relief: Plaintiff initiated an arbitration proceeding, and Defendant brought suit in a Texas court. Plaintiff thereafter filed papers in the Delaware Court of Chancery, seeking a preliminary injunction to prohibit the Texas action from moving forward in violation of the forum-selection clause.
Vice Chancellor Chandler recently stayed, sua sponte, an action commenced in Delaware’s Court of Chancery by a company seeking a declaratory judgment against a former employee. The decision reiterates the importance of bargaining for consent to the jurisdiction of Delaware’s Court of Chancery in any contract.
Online Resources Corp. sought a declaration regarding the meaning of a severance agreement with a former employee. The employee, however, commenced an action against Online Resources Corp. in a Virginia trial court, alleging that the company breached the agreement and wrongfully terminated him. Online Resources Corp. sought to have the Virginia action dismissed because of the pending Delaware Court of Chancery Action, and because the claims raised by the employee in his Virginia action arose from the same facts and circumstances as those set forth in the company’s Delaware Court of Chancery action.
The subject of Vice Chancellor Chandler’s opinion was whether the employee’s motion to dismiss the company’s Delaware action should be granted. After fully briefing the issue for the Virginia court, that court rejected Online Resources Corp. arguments and sua sponte stayed the case indefinitely in favor of allowing the case to proceed in Virginia.
Much of the non-compete litigation occurs in Delaware because the parties (usually the former employee and his/her former employer) have consented to the jurisdiction of Delaware courts in the underlying contract. But in many of these cases, obtaining personal jurisdiction over third parties such as the former employee’s new employer may pose difficulties. If there’s evidence of a conspiracy between the defendants, however, one consideration is using the Conspiracy Theory to establish personal jurisdiction over the non-resident defendant.
When determining if it has personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant, a Delaware court conducts a two-part analysis. First, it considers whether the defendant’s conduct satisfies the state’s long-arm statute. Second, it considers whether the exercise of personal jurisdiction would violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. The Conspiracy Theory is used to satisfy the long-arm statute when one defendant has engaged in conduct within the State that satisfies the long-arm statute, but the other defendant has not. In other words, the Conspiracy Theory is used to impute one defendant’s conduct to the other, thereby obtaining jurisdiction over both.
The standard for establishing personal jurisdiction using this theory not easy. A plaintiff must demonstrate that: (1) a conspiracy existed; (2) the defendant was a member of that conspiracy; (3) a substantial act or substantial effect in furtherance of the conspiracy occurred in the forum state; (4) the defendant knew or had reason to know of the act in the forum state or that acts outside the forum state would have an effect in the forum state; and (5) the act in, or effect on, the forum state was a direct and foreseeable result of the conduct in furtherance of the conspiracy.
Any party wishing to litigate a dispute in Delaware involving a non-resident defendant must establish that the court has personal jurisdiction. If jurisdiction is challenged, the court will apply a two part analysis in determining whether there is basis for personal jurisdiction. First, the Court considers whether there is a basis for jurisdiction under Delaware’s long-arm statute, 10 Del. C. § 3104. Next, the court must determine whether there are minimum contacts sufficient to satisfy the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
For enforcement actions against non-residents with non-compete agreements, the personal jurisdiction requirement is usually met when the agreement contains a provision consenting to the jurisdiction of the Delaware courts. It is important to ensure that the language of the agreement unambiguously confers exclusive jurisdiction to the courts of Delaware in order to avoid a battle over venue. A case from the Court of Chancery illustrates why.
In Mobile Diagnostic Group Holdings, LLC v. Suer, 972 A.2d 799 (Del. Ch. 2009), the Court of Chancery dismissed an action to enforce a noncompete agreement after finding it had no personal jurisdiction over the defendant, a resident of California. In that case, the plaintiffs had negotiated a non-competition provision with one of its sales executives as part of a purchase agreement.
A mass exodus of employees from a company often results in the employees joining a competitor or starting up a competing business. Often the employees do not leave empty handed, and involve a concerted effort to use the company’s confidential or proprietary information to obtain an unfair competitive advantage. Such acts may give rise to a common law claim of civil conspiracy.
To be successful on a civil conspiracy claim, a plaintiff must usuallys show that two or more persons engaged in an unlawful act done in furtherance of the conspiracy and some form of actual damages. The court will require that there be some underlying wrongful act, such as a tort or a statutory violation. In Delaware, a breach of contract is not an underlying wrong that can give rise to a civil conspiracy claim.
One of the advantages of a civil conspiracy claim is it provides recourse against parties who may not have participated in the initial wrongful act, but nonetheless participated in the conspiracy. This is significant since each conspirator is jointly and severally liable for the acts of co-conspirators committed in furtherance of the conspiracy.
Civil conspiracy claims have led to the award of injunctive relief in the Court of Chancery. Most recently, in Zrii, LLC v. Wellness Acquisition Group, Inc., the Court of Chancery awarded a preliminary injunction against various individuals after finding a their former employer had a reasonable likelihood of success in proving the existence of an unlawful act in furtherance of the alleged conspiracy.
Injunctive relief is normally awarded when the court finds there is no adequate remedy at law. In enforcement actions involving noncompetes, injunctions are usually sought since damages are often difficult, if not impossible, to caculate.
Damages for misappropriation of trade secrets, on the other hand, are often based on lost profits and in many cases can be sufficiently quantified to be awarded. A recent case illustrates that the Court of Chancery may look to novel damage theories to forego the necessity of an injunction.
Agilent Technologies brought suit against three former employees alleging the group had misappropriated its trade secrets. The parties competed in the business of producing high performance liquid chromatography columns used to separate and analyze complex mixtures of gasses, liquids and dissolved substances.
Releases are a common element of any settlement agreement between parties, including employers and employees. In the case of general releases, however, care must be exercised that the parties do not inadvertently relinquish unintended rights. A recent case from the Court of Chancery illustrates this point when a company apparently unintentionally waived its rights to enforce a noncompete agreement.
Christopher Schaffer was a major stockholder and Executive Vice President of a company acquired by CorVel Enterprise Comp, Inc. On the same day that the stock purchase agreement was signed, Schaffer, for additional consideration, also executed a noncompetition agreement which prohibited him from competing with CorVel for a five year period.
A dispute subsequently arose between Schaffer and CorVel regarding an earn out payment under the stock purchase agreement. That dispute was resolved in February 2009 through a settlement agreement providing Schaffer with a payment of $800,000. Significantly, both parties executed general releases of all claims as part of the settlement.