Stopping Illegal Acts by Current and Former Employees

March 19, 2012, by Steven Scully

As a business litigation lawyer in Silicon Valley, I have seen quite a few employee-related issues come up for businesses in San Jose and Santa Clara. For the purpose of this blog, I have combined issues of several clients into one hypothetical owner of a small Internet company. The owner discovered that one of her employees had started a competing online business and was attempting to staff the new business with her current employees. The owner was justifiably concerned as to whether her employee's acts were illegal, and whether she, as employer, had any recourse. This blog summarizes some of the litigation issues businesses face when employees take actions that violate California's unfair competition laws. Click here to read my previous blog on unfair competition by competitors.

The owner's biggest problem was the fact that her employees were being solicited to work elsewhere. Like many small business owners, this owner had worked hard to create a business staffed by well-trained employees who provided customers with excellent goods and services. The deliberate effort by the company's existing employee to pick up her other employees caused the owner undue stress and frustration.

The soliciting employee in this case was clearly in the wrong. Under California law, while working for a company, an employee cannot solicit fellow employees to leave that company and work for a competitor. To do so is a breach of a confidential relationship, a breach of an implied obligation, and possibly even a breach of fiduciary duty, depending on the soliciting employee's position. Where the employee is a fiduciary, liability for unfair competition may also extend to the hiring competitor if it knows of the employee's actions and benefits from them.

While the owner provided a top-notch online service with an established and growing customer base, she was also concerned about her employee's competing web site. California law permits an employee to make some preparations to establish a competing business while employed. However, the employer may have good cause to terminate the employee if the acts by that employee to establish the business are such that the employee cannot give his or her undivided loyalty to the employer. Once an employee ceases work, the employee may go into direct competition with his now-former employer.

It is also important to note that employers may also sue former employees who misappropriate their ex-employer's proprietary information or trade secrets. For example, businesses expend a great amount of time, effort, and money in developing customer lists. Such lists are often the most valuable asset a company a may have, and can qualify as both proprietary information and a protected trade secret. Under California law, an employee may not take an employer's protected customer address list and then begin directly soliciting the customers.

However, to qualify as protected information, the customer list should contain specific information not generally known to the public or competitors. This information might include names of contact personnel, history of previous dealings with the customer, price quotes provided to the customer, and other particular information. A company should also maintain its customer list in a confidential manner. The more rigorous a business attempts to maintain the secrecy of its customer list, e.g. informing employees of the confidential nature of the information, protecting the information with passwords, including notices that the information is proprietary, and other steps, the more likely the court will be to find that the customer list qualifies as proprietary information or a trade secret. A non-solicitation clause in an employment contract, restricting the employee from soliciting the employer's customers for a certain period of time after leaving, may bolster an employer's argument that the employee cannot lawfully use the customer list.

Trade secrets, of course, are not limited to customer lists, and include a wide variety of formats, such as business plans, bid specifications, software code, and other documents and information. Such documents and information should be proactively protected by businesses, in case an instance occurs where litigation arises due to an employee's misappropriation of trade secrets, or other acts of unfair competition.

Please contact Structure Law Group, LLP attorneys if you would like assistance in preparing an employee manual and/or employment contracts to protect your company against illegal employee acts.

Individuals, scenarios, and circumstances appearing in this blog have been changed to protect the confidentiality of Structure Law Group, LLP clients.