What Did You Say Your Trade Secrets Were?

by Lee Gesmer on March 27, 2006

Trade Secrets, Procedure. Warning: if you’re seeking discovery in a trade secret case in the Suffolk Business Litigation Session make sure that you have (a) provided the court with a detailed description of your trade secrets, and (b) filed a protective order that strictly complies with the Uniform Rules of of Impoundment.

For a recent decision making these points, written by Judge Allan Van Gestel in the Suffolk Business Litigation Session, click [here]. The decision, Tourtellotte Solutions, Inc. v. Tradestone Software, Inc., was featured on the front page of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly last October. In a nutshell, the plaintiff asked for expedited discovery (in other words, the right to take discovery on a schedule faster than allowed in the ordinary course by the rules of civil procedure), so that the plaintiff could obtain evidence necessary to bring a preliminary injunction against the defendant. The plaintiff’s basic claim was that the defendant had engaged in “software misappropriation,” a term that Judge Van Gestel stated “sounds very much like trade secret misappropriation.”

The judge denied the motion, stating: “a detailed description of what is claimed to be a trade secret must be provided and a protective order of some sort needs to be worked out.”

Neither conclusion is surprising in the least. Many decisions in trade secret cases have held that the plaintiff must identify its trade secrets with particularity. The courts recognize that to permit the plaintiff to launch a “fishing expedition” into the defendant’s technology before identifying its trade secrets is fundamentally unfair. California has even codified this rule by state statute. What is surprising is when (as we have seen from time-to-time), a court does not compel a plaintiff to describe its trade secrets with particularity before commencing discovery.

On the subject of an acceptable protective order, Judge Van Gestel was offended that the protective order proposed by the plaintiff did not comply with the Uniform Rules of Impoundment, which require that a “sealed” filing (in other words, a filing in a sealed envelope that is segregated from the case file that is available to the public) be preceded by a motion and an affidavit explaining why the court should deviate from the standard procedure of making all documents filed with the courts available to the public. Because filing documents “under seal” requires the clerk’s office to go to the inconvenience of identifying and segregating these filings (with the concomitant risks of lost documents and inadvertent disclosure), the party seeking this exception must obtain the court’s permission before putting the court to this inconvenience. Lawyers requesting protective orders in the Business Litigation Session (which are standard in trade secret cases and many other types of business litigation) should keep Judge Van Gestel’s warning in mind. An example of a protective order referencing the Uniform Rules of Impoundment can be found here: [link]

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