A recent case illustrates why (1) it is important for parties to abide by the confidentiality provisions of settlement agreements, and (2) people who learn confidential information should keep their social media mouths shut.
Plaintiff sued his former employer (a private school) for age discrimination and retaliation. The parties later settled the case and entered an agreement containing the following provision:
13. Confidentiality … [T]he plaintiff shall not either directly or indirectly, disclose, discuss or communicate to any entity or person, except his attorneys or other professional advisors or spouse any information whatsoever regarding the existence or terms of this Agreement … A breach … will result in disgorgement of the Plaintiffs portion of the settlement Payments.
After the parties signed the settlement agreement, plaintiff’s college-age daughter posted this on Facebook:
Mama and Papa Snay won the case against Gulliver. Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer. SUCK IT.
Defendant school district refused to pay a portion of the settlement payments ($80,000), claiming plaintiff’s disclosure of the settlement to his daughter violated the confidentiality provision. Plaintiff asked the trial court to enforce the settlement agreement, which it did. Defendant sought review with the Court of Appeal of Florida. On appeal, the court agreed with the school and reversed.
The court found that “before the ink was dry on the [settlement] agreement, and notwithstanding the clear language of section 13 mandating confidentiality, [plaintiff] violated the agreement by doing exactly what he had promised not to do.” And his daughter “then did precisely what the confidentiality agreement was designed to prevent, advertising . . . that plaintiff had been successful in his age discrimination and retaliation case against the school.”
Gulliver Schools, Inc. v. Snay, — So.3d —, 2014 WL 769030 (Fla.App. 3 Dist. Feb 26, 2014)
Photo credit Flickr user haikus under this Creative Common license.
IBM doesn’t let its employees use Siri, out of concern Apple may store and use sensitive IBM data. This decision on IBM’s part underscores an important business concern that companies of all sizes — not just behemoths like IBM — either have or should have.
Apple’s data usage policy that governs how it treats Siri inquiries says that Apple can use the information it collects to, among other things, improve the service. That’s a pretty broad grant of authority. Because the system that makes Siri available is so complex and multifaceted, Apple could reasonably justify extracting and using the information contained in just about any question people ask Siri. When that information comes from another major player in the competitive space, the implications of the appropriation of proprietary information become obvious.
IBM’s big concern is likely focused squarely on the protection of its trade secrets. State law provides the contours of trade secrets law, so the elements vary from state to state. But in general, a company can enforce its exclusive rights to possess and use information that (1) gives that company a competitive advantage, and (2) which is subject to efforts to keep secret. That latter part — keeping the information secret — is a big reason for nondisclosure agreements, password protected servers, and sensible restrictions on employee use of third party technologies (like social media and search tools like Siri).
Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney, representing businesses and individuals in a variety of situations, including matters dealing with the identification and protection of confidential business information.
Photo credit: Spec-ta-cles under this license.
Scooter Store, Inc. v. Spinlife.com, LLC, 2011 WL 2160462 (S.D. Ohio June 1, 2011)
The Scooter Store and a related company sued a competitor for trademark infringement and other causes of action for unfair competition based in part on the competitor’s purchase of keywords such as “scooter store” and “your scooter store” to trigger sponsored advertisements on the web. Defendant moved for summary judgment and also moved for a protective order that would prevent it from having to turn over information to plaintiffs concerning defendant’s purchase of the keywords. The court denied the motion for protective order.
Defendant argued that it should not have to turn over the information because plaintiffs’ trademark claims based on those keywords were without merit, as the words are generic terms for the goods and services plaintiffs provide. Defendant also asserted a need to protect the commercially sensitive nature of information about its keyword purchases.
The court rejected defendant’s arguments, ordering that the discovery be allowed. It held that “whether or not [p]laintiffs’ claims involving these terms survive summary judgment  has no bearing on whether the discovery [p]laintiffs seek is relevant, particularly viewed in light of a party’s broad rights to discovery under Rule 26.” As for protecting the sensitivity of the information, the court found that such interests could be protected through the process of designating the information confidential, and handled accordingly by the receiving party.
Reed Construction Data v. McGraw Hill Companies, No. 09-8578 (S.D.N.Y. September 14, 2010)
Court refuses to dismiss lawsuit in which plaintiff accused its competitor of paying others to subscribe to plaintiff’s proprietary database to get confidential information.
Plaintiff and defendant are fierce competitors that provide project news and information to the construction industry. (Really the parties are the only nationwide providers in this market space.) The companies sell subscriptions to their respective databases. Plaintiff requires its subscribers to sign a nondisclosure agreement, making them promise not to share information obtained from the database with others outside the subscriber’s company.
After plaintiff figured out that a copule of its subcribers worked for sham enterprises, it got wise to the notion that defendant had hired those subscribers to access the database. Plaintiff sued, claiming, among other things, misappropriation of confidential information under New York law.
Defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court denied the motion.
To state a claim for misappropriation of confidential information, plaintiff had to allege that defendant used plaintiff’s confidential information for the purpose of securing a competitive advantage. Defendant argued that a tort action for misappropriation was not proper because all that had happened was a use of information in violation of the nondisclosure agreements with the individuals allegedly hired by defendant to access plaintiff’s database.
The court rejected this argument for two reasons. First, plaintiff had not alleged that defendant was a party to the contract. So the liability could not be constrained to just breach of contract. Moreover, the court found, that the tortious conduct of misappropriation had a separate and additional existence apart from any contractual relationship, even if such a relationship did exist. The misappropriation sprang from circumstances extraneous to, and not constituting elements of, the subscription agreements with the parties defendant allegedly hired to access plaintiff’s information.
Ledbetter v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 2009 WL 1067018 (D.Colo. April 21, 2009)
A couple of electricians were severely burned when the electrical system they were working on in an Aurora, Colorado Wal-Mart shorted out. They sued Wal-Mart over their injuries. One of the plaintiffs’ wives brought a claim for loss of consortium.
During discovery, Wal-Mart sent subpoenas to Facebook, MySpace and Meetup.com seeking information about the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs filed a motion for protective order which would have prevented the social networking sites from providing the requested information. The plaintiffs claimed that the information should be protected by the physician-patient privilege or, as for the loss of consortium claim, the spousal privilege. The court denied the motion and allowed the subpoenas.
The court held that an earlier protective order entered in the case (to which the parties had agreed) protected the confidentiality of the information. And the plaintiffs had put the purported confidential facts, i.e., the extent of the injuries and the nature of the consortium, at issue by bringing the suit. Moreover, the information sought by the subpoenas was reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence and was relevant to the issues in the case.
It’s worth noting that the court might have had other reasons to deny the motion for protective order that it did not mention. A privilege of confidentiality is usually destroyed when it is disclosed to a third party. How could information on Facebook or MySpace still be secret? Unless Wal-Mart was only seeking private messages sent either between the spouses or one of the plaintiffs and a doctor, it would seem that most everything these sites would have would not be confidential in the first place.