Employment LawScene Alert: Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016: Employers Must Include New Whistleblower Immunity Notice in Confidentiality or Non-Disclosure Agreements

On May 11, 2016, President Obama signed into law the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (“DTSA”) which amends the Economic Espionage Act (18 U.S.C. § 1831, et seq.).

The DTSA creates a private cause of action for trade secret misappropriation under federal law and opens a direct avenue for trade secret cases to proceed in federal court. While making it easier for employers to bring suits for trade secret misappropriation in federal court, the DTSA does not replace or preempt state trade secrets laws such as the Wisconsin Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“WUTSA”) (Wis. Stat. § 134.90 et seq.). This means that an employer who believes that one of its trade secrets may have been misappropriated may proceed under either the DTSA or the WUTSA, or both, to enjoin the misappropriation of a trade secret and remedy the harm.

The DTSA has a similar definition of “trade secrets” that is found in the WUTSA. Like the WUTSA, the DTSA defines the term “trade secret” to include all forms and types of financial, business, scientific, technical, economic, or engineering information where reasonable measures are taken to keep such information secret and the information derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to the public. The DTSA also defines the term “misappropriation” relative to the theft of a trade secret identically to the way it is defined by the WUTSA.

While appearing similar, the DTSA, however, differs significantly from the WUTSA on two fronts. First, the DTSA, unlike the WUTSA, permits an owner of a trade secret to obtain an ex parte seizure order providing for the seizure of property necessary to prevent the further dissemination or use of a misappropriated trade secret. Similar seizure remedies are found in the Copyright Act and the Lanham Act. Such an order could include, for example, an order seizing an employee’s computers or smartphone or even an order seizing an employee’s new employer’s computers if evidence exists that the misappropriated trade secret was transferred and disseminated by a former employee to his/her new employer. This ex parte seizure remedy is only available under extraordinary circumstances. Realizing that such a powerful remedy could be subject to abuse, Congress included a provision within the DTSA that permits a person who is subject to a wrongful or excessive seizure to recover civil damages.

Second, the DTSA has a whistleblower protection provision that is not found in the various Uniform Trade Secrets Acts enacted by various states, like in Wisconsin under the WUTSA. Specifically, the DTSA amends 18 U.S.C. § 1833(b) to provide criminal and civil immunity under any federal or state trade secret law for the disclosure of a trade secret that either is made: (i) 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 (ii) is made in a complaint or other document filed in a lawsuit or other proceeding, if such filing is made under seal.

Overlaying this immunity protection under the DTSA is also a notice requirement. Specifically, starting May 12, 2016 employers must give employees, contractors, and consultants notice of this potential immunity in any contract or agreement that governs or protects the use of a trade secret or other confidential information entered into or amended after this date. The DSTA requires that this whistleblower immunity notice be expressly provided in a contract protecting trade secrets or should at least contain a notice provision that cross-references a policy that contains the employer’s whistleblower reporting policy for a suspected violation of law. Failure to provide this notice, however, does not invalidate the enforceability of the agreement or preclude an employer from bringing a claim under the DTSA. Rather, failure to provide the required whistleblower immunity notice simply precludes an employer from recovering exemplary damages or attorneys’ fees under the DTSA.

To comply with the new whistleblower immunity notice requirement under the DTSA, all employers must include this notice in any contract protecting the use of trade secrets or confidential information entered into or modified on or after the effective date of the DTSA (May 12, 2016) involving any employee or any non-employee individual performing work as a contractor or consultant for the employer. Employers are not required to amend existing contracts. Employers should take immediate action to incorporate the DTSA’s new required whistleblower immunity notice in all new or modified confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements entered into on or after May 12, 2016.

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