Hiring A Competitor’s Employee? Proceed With Caution!

For the first time since its enactment over four years ago, a federal court has interpreted a provision of the New Jersey Trade Secrets Act (the “Act”).  The decision, unfortunately, leaves New Jersey employers who are considering hiring a competitor’s employee on uncertain ground.

In Baxter Healthcare Corp. v. HQ Specialty Pharma Corp., Baxter, a pharmaceutical company, sued its competitor HQ for patent infringement, tortious interference with the non-competition provision of its former employee’s employment contract, and breach of the Act for misappropriation of its trade secrets.   The court refused to dismiss the claim under the Act, despite finding Baxter could not prove HQ knew the employee was subject to a non-compete agreement or had knowledge of the former employer’s trade secrets.

George Owoo worked as a scientist for Baxter before leaving to work for its competitor, HQ.  He was a specialist in esmolol premixed injectable bag drug delivery systems.  At the time it hired him, HQ was not a participant in that market.  However, HQ soon filed several patent applications, listing Owoo as the inventor, for new esmolol products that would compete with Baxter’s similar products.

Before hiring Owoo, HQ had interviewed him extensively to inquire about his experience at Baxter.  He repeatedly denied he had an employment contract with Baxter or any knowledge of Baxter’s trade secrets, insisting that his knowledge in the esmolol premixed injectable bag market was in the public domain.  Based upon his representations, HQ hired Owoo and put him to work on developing esmolol products.

To prove its interference with contract claim, Baxter needed to show that HQ had acted with “malice”, i.e., an intention to interfere with its former employee’s contractual obligations to Baxter.  Because there was no evidence HQ had any knowledge of the employment contract, and, to the contrary, had been repeatedly assured by Owoo he had no contract, the court ruled Baxter could not show HQ acted maliciously and, therefore, could not prove tortious interference.

By contrast, a claim under the Act requires neither an employment agreement nor knowledge of it by the new employer.  Baxter claimed HQ misappropriated Baxter’s trade secrets by using them without authorization to develop its own competing products.  The court stated HQ could be liable for breach of the Act if Baxter could show HQ had used Baxter’s trade secrets at a time when HQ either knew or should have known Owoo had acquired them through improper means.

The question before the court,therefore, was whether HQ knew or had reason to know that its new employee’s esmolol formulation for HQ was derived from his knowledge of Baxter’s trade secrets.  Significantly, the court found there was some evidence that suggested HQ knew of Owoo’s prior involvement in developing Baxter’s esmolol program.  Most troubling, the court found HQ’s interrogation about his work history at Baxter revealed a concern on HQ’s part that he might have been privy to Baxter’s trade secrets and might have been preparing to use them at HQ without Baxter’s authorization.  Thus, the very investigation by HQ that formed the basis for the court’s decision to dismiss the interference with contract claim became the key fact in the court’s conclusion not to dismiss Baxter’s Trade Secrets Act claim.

What can companies do in light of the Baxter decision to protect themselves from Act claims when they are considering hiring a competitor’s employee, who might have knowledge of its trade secrets?  The Baxter decision suggests that perhaps HQ was damned if it did and damned if it didn’t investigate.  Despite that HQ did investigate, and, in fact, at least in part, because it did investigate, the court refused to dismiss the Trade Secrets Act claim against it.  On the other hand, although not addressed by the court in Baxter, had HQ not investigated, the court almost certainly would have refused to dismiss the Trade Secrets Act claim, and perhaps the interference with contract claim, as well.  In other words, choosing not to investigate new employees’ backgrounds is not a wise strategy for avoiding future liability.

There are ways a new employer can enhance the benefit of its investigation in the hope of avoiding claims under the. Act.  First, HQ could have had its new employee sign a written statement following the investigation certifying that he (1) was not under any contractual obligations to Baxter, and (2) either had no knowledge of Baxter’s trade secrets, or, in any event, agrees not to use that knowledge in his new position.

Second, HQ accepted without attempting to verify Owoo’s claim that his information was in the public domain. Had it done so, it would have had a stronger argument to avoid liability under the Act.

Finally, employers can reduce exposure to liability by insulating their new employees from working in competition with their former employers.  That tactic might make the new employee less valuable to the new employer, so each employer will have to perform its own risk/reward analysis comparing the potential benefits of no restrictions on its new employee to the legal costs of an expensive lawsuit alleging violations of the Act.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the Hobson’s choice presented by the Baxter decision.  Companies considering hiring a competitor’s employee should proceed with caution, especially when the employee may know the competitor’s trade secrets.

Questions? Let Phil know.

 

Philip Kirchner is a shareholder in and former chair of Flaster/Greenberg P.C.’s Commercial Litigation Practice Group, a member of the Labor & Employment and Construction Litigation Practice Groups, and member of the Restaurant & Hospitality, Construction, Nonprofit & Charitable Organizations, Gaming and Alternative & Renewable Energy Industry Groups.

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