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Tenth Circuit reaffirms need for irreparable harm to obtain injunction in trade secrets case

Both federal and state law (respectively, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) and Colorado’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act (CUTSA)) authorize a company to obtain a preliminary injunction against a former employee who is using or threatening to use its trade secrets. The Tenth Circuit recently reaffirmed that, among the requirements for such an injunction, is proof of irreparable harm. (The other requirements are (1) substantial likelihood of success once the merits of the case are decided, (2) the threatened injury outweighs the harm of the injunction, and (3) the injunction will not be adverse to the public interest.)

To be “irreparable” the harm that will be suffered but for the preliminary injunction must be the kind that cannot be reversed, repaired or even compensated for in damages.

In this case, the trial court found that the harm the former employer would suffer if no injunction was issued could be compensated for in damages. In other words, quoting the trial court, it could be “reasonably quantified” in terms of dollars, and such an award of damages “would have adequately made (the company) whole.” Typically that is enough to show such harm is not “irreparable” and therefore a preliminary injunction should be denied.

However, the trial court decided that no showing of actual harm was necessary to prove the irreparable harm element; it decided that the element of irreparable harm could instead be presumed. The court so decided “because both the DTSA … and the CUTSA … provide for injunctive relief.”

The Tenth Circuit reversed. The Tenth Circuit held that legislatures can create presumptions of irreparable harm but to do so they need to say so. Both DTSA and CUTSA lack such language. They merely allow for injunctive relief:

DTSA and CUTSA … merely authorize and do not mandate injunctive relief and thus do not allow a presumption of irreparable harm.

Without a presumption of irreparable harm and lacking proof of irreparable harm, the Tenth Circuit reversed.

The case illustrates the need to prove irreparable harm, in order to obtain a preliminary injunction in cases involving trade secrets. The case is also a reminder that irreparable harm cannot exist where monetary damages will make the plaintiff whole.

Source: FIRST WESTERN CAPITAL MANAGEMENT COMPANY v. MALAMED, Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit 2017 – Google Scholar