NLRB General Counsel issues memo outlining likely reversals to Obama-era precedents

As previously reported here in this blog, the Trump Board (NLRB Boards are often colloquially but not pejoratively referred to by the President during their term) has begun overruling Obama-era precedents. Further reversals are anticipated. Curious which Obama-era NLRB precedents are likely to be reversed?

NLRB General Counsel Robb issued a controversial memo, shortlisting the cases he thinks most warrant attention. Indeed to call it a shortlist is a stretch. The General Counsel lists 26 categories, that range from employee access to email, to protections for section 7 rights, obscene and harassing behavior, off-duty access to property, the Weingarten right to have a representative present, rights of employees during contract negotiations, successorship and of course the joint employer doctrine, unilateral changes consistent with past practice, information requests during the processing of a grievance, dues check-offs, remedies, deferral, and, well, the list goes on, as will employers’ need to stay tuned to forthcoming developments at the Board.

Source: NLRB General Counsel Memorandum GC 18-02.

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

Individual employee non-competes struck for failure to bargain with the workers’ union

Unionized employers may not implement unilateral changes to wages, hours and working conditions without first providing the union notice and an opportunity to bargain. A union is not required to bargain.

In a previous post this blog summarized a Sixth Circuit case, Detroit Edison, that held an employer, who gave notice, was not required to negotiate with a union that merely griped about changes without actually requesting negotiations.

In this case, the company failed to give notice. Instead the company simply started requiring union-represented employees to sign a confidentiality agreement that contained non-competes, invention assignment language, non-interference language, and non-solicits as to both employees and customers. While this type of agreement is not, itself, unusual in the American workplace, unionized employers need to remember that unions are the exclusive bargaining agent of represented workers, so the company must give notice of changes to wages, hours and working conditions, and if negotiations are requested, negotiate over the changes with the union.

Worse, this agreement contained an at-will disclaimer. Again, an at-will disclaimer is common in the American workplace, but here it contradicted the “just cause” discharge clause that the union had bargained for in its collective bargaining agreement with the company.

The D.C. Circuit had no difficulty upholding the NLRB’s decision against the company.

Furthermore, the Court affirmed the Board’s holding that the non-solicits were themselves violative of NLRA rights (under section 7 of the NLRA). (Section 7 rights apply even to employees who are not represented by a union.) Under section 7, employees have the right to engage in protected concerted activity to further their wages, hours and working conditions. Doing so through a union is just one way they may exercise this right. Another is to solicit support from a company’s customers by way of a customer boycott. Here the customer non-solicit prohibited employees from “directly or indirectly” soliciting customers “to terminate or otherwise alter his, her or its relationship with the Company.” This aspect of the Court’s ruling appears highly controversial. It remains to be seen if other courts will interpret section 7 so broadly as to bar a customer non-solicit like this.

The case was Minteq International, Inc. v. NLRB, case no. 16-1276 (D.C. Cir. 4/28/17).

$1.3-million verdict overturned, where design was held to be publicly known, despite efforts to keep it confidential as a trade secret

Although publicly known information can be combined in proprietary ways that create a trade secret, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that a design that is not “a secret in the first place,” in other words, that is a matter “of public knowledge or of general knowledge in an industry” is not, itself, a trade secret, no matter how hard its owner works to keep it confidential, the design does not become a trade secret.

Lacking protection as a trade secret, the Court of Appeals reversed a jury’s $1.3-million verdict in this case for misappropriate in violation of Colorado’s trade secret laws.

The decision is a sharp reminder of the limitations imposed by Colorado law on companies seeking to claim trade secrets. The determination whether information constitutes a trade secret is often crucial in non-compete and non-solicit cases.

The case was Hawg Tools, LLC v. Newsco international Energy Services, Inc. — P.3d — (Colo.App. 2016).