Court of Appeal Upholds Attorney's Fees Award in Bad Faith Trade Secrets Litigation

If you sue a former employee for violating the Trade Secrets Act, you have to have a case. That means you have, at minimum, (1) a bona fide trade secret and (2) evidence of actual or threatened "misappropriation" of the trade secret. If you are missing evidence of one or more elements, and you're just suing a competitor, it can be an expensive mistake. That's what FLIR Systems, Inc. found out when it sued former employees who were trying to set up a competing business.

Here are the facts from the opinion:

Indigo manufactures and sells microbolometers. A microbolometer is a device used in connection with infrared cameras, night vision, and thermal imaging. A significant portion of Indigo's technology was created by respondent William Parrish. FLIR manufactures and sells infrared cameras, night vision, and thermal imaging systems that use microbolometers. In 2004, FLIR purchased Indigo for approximately $185 million, acquiring Indigo's patents, technology, and intellectual property. Parish and Fitzgibbons were shareholders and officers of Indigo before the company was sold.
After the sale, they continued working at Indigo.

In 2005, respondents decided to start a new company to mass produce bolometers
and gave notice that they would quit Indigo on or about January 6, 2006. The new company was based on a business plan (Thermicon) developed by Fitzgibbons in 1998 and 1999 when he was self-employed.

Before leaving Indigo, respondents discussed allowing appellants to participate in
Thermicon. Respondents proposed outsourcing bolometer production to a third party. The production startup time would be quick, assuming respondents could acquire technology licenses and intellectual property from a third party. Respondents offered FLIR a non-controlling interest in Thermicon. FLIR rejected the offer and wished respondents success in the new endeavor.

In early 2006, respondents entered into negotiations with Raytheon Company to acquire licensing, technology, and manufacturing facilities for Thermicon. Respondents assured appellants they would not misappropriate Indigo's trade secrets and that the new company would use an intellectual property filter similar to the one used at Indigo to prevent the misuse of trade secrets.

Fearful that the new business would undermine FLIR's market, appellants sued for
injunctive relief and damages on June 15, 2006. The action was premised on the theory that respondents could not mass produce low-cost microbolometers based on the Thermicon time line without misappropriating trade secrets.

Upon learning of the lawsuit, Raytheon Company terminated business discussions with respondents. On August 15, 2006, respondents advised appellants that they
were not going forward with the new business.

But FLIR sought an injunction against its former employees precluding them from setting up a new business in which they would engage in the same business as FLIR. The trial court found, and the Court of Appeal agreed, the injunction claim at least implicitly was based on the theory that former employees would "inevitably" use or disclose trade secrets in setting up a new venture. Unfortunately for FLIR, the inevitable disclosure doctrine is not recognized in California.

So, this case is about whether attorney's fees should be awarded in favor of the former employees. The fees were over $1 million, with over $200k more in costs.

In trade secret cases, the defendant can recover fees if the court in its discretion finds the plaintiff prosecuted a claim in bad faith. The standard for bad faith requires proof of two elements: "(1) objective speciousness of the claim, and (2) subjective bad faith in bringing or maintaining the action, i.e., for an improper purpose. "

Here, the "objective speciousness" was premising the action on the inevitable disclosure doctrine. the "subjective bad faith" was established by evidence that FLIR brought the claim to stop a potential competitor from opening up shop. The court of appeal discussed a number of additional factors that supported bad faith, including a settlement demand with irrelevant conditions, the failure to dismiss the claim once it was obvious it lacked merit, and a number of other facts that should be guidance for the bar.

The case is FLIR Systems, Inc. v. Parrish and the opinion is here.