Does your company have important trade secrets it wants to protect? If so, be sure to take affirmative steps to actually maintain the secrecy of these documents. That can help you if you need to take an ex-employee to court for trade secret violations, as a recent South Carolina case shows. In that case, employee Diego de Amezega worked for AirFacts, a revenue-accounting software developer for the airline and travel industry, from 2008 to 2015.
His employment agreement required him to return all company property, including documents, upon his departure. But on his last day on the job, he apparently emailed a spreadsheet containing proprietary information about the company’s database modeling to his personal email account. A month later, he allegedly used his AirFacts employee credentials to remotely log into the company’s system and download two flowcharts he created while he worked there. Meanwhile — despite having signed an agreement not to work for a competitor for at least a year after leaving the company — he took a job with the American Airlines refunds department less than three months after leaving AirFacts.
AirFacts took de Amezega to federal court, claiming he violated his employment agreement and misappropriated trade secrets. After a five-day trial, a judge ruled that his work with American wasn’t similar enough to be considered working for a competitor. The judge also found that the flowcharts he downloaded contained public information and were available to enough AirFacts employees, including de Amezega himself while he worked there, that they were not considered trade secrets.
But a federal appeals court reversed the decision with respect to the trade secrets violation. According to that court, the way de Amezega arranged the data in the flowcharts when he created them gave them an inherent value beyond what the public could see. But more importantly, the court noted that the company took significant steps to maintain the secrecy of the flowcharts, such as requiring all employees to sign confidentiality agreements, putting monitoring software on every computer to track employee access to the flowcharts and giving only certain employees access to the flowcharts in the first place.
If you have proprietary information that you want to make sure is treated as such in court, you absolutely should make an appointment with an employment attorney who has trade-secret expertise.