Senate Judiciary Committee Passes Amended Defend Trade Secrets Act. What Changed? (Guest Blog Post)

By Guest Blogger Sharon K. Sandeen

The Defend Trade Secrets Act (S. 1890) passed out of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary today, but not before it was amended to address a number of concerns that were voiced by opponents over the past two years. The following is my quick analysis of the changes. (Note: page and line references are to the amended version of the legislation.)

Note that there were actually two sets of amendments to the legislation. The so-called manager’s amendment (labeled “S. 1890 Substitute Amendment”) and amendments offered by Senators Leahy and Grassley (labeled “Leahy-Grassley1”). The following page and line references are to the Substitute Amendment. The Leahy-Grassley amendments are discussed thereafter.

[Eric’s note: here’s the substitute amendment and the Leahy/Grassley whistleblower amendment.]

Page 1:

The legislation is now to be known as the “Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016” instead of “2015.”

Page 2, line 2:

“Misappropriated” added and language “aggrieved by misappropriation” deleted

Comment: This change was apparently made in response to expressed concerns that “aggrieved” might be introducing a new concept of wrongdoing into trade secret law. Since “misappropriation” is a defined term in the DTSA (copied from the UTSA), it is better to stick with that language.

Page 2, lines 11-12:

With respect to the ex parte civil seizure remedy, the language “but only in extraordinary circumstances” was added.

Comment: I am not sure what this language adds other than to emphasize the fact that this remedy should rarely be granted. But that begs the question: Why is the remedy needed at all if it will rarely or ever be granted? No one has ever explained to me why egregious cases that might justify such a remedy would not be championed by the U.S. Department of Justice in a criminal case. But there is a clue in later amendments to the EEA criminal provisions that give trade secret owners standing to assert secrecy concerns in such cases. (See report on new Section 3 below).

[Eric’s comment: in my article, I suggested that the ex parte seizure provision be expressly designated “extraordinary.” I thought it may send the helpful signal to judges not to issue ex parte seizure requests as a matter of ordinary course.]

Page 2, lines 24-25:

The language “another form of equitable relief” was added to limit the circumstances under which an ex parte seizure order could be granted.

Comment: As I understand the limitations built into the civil seizure provision, such an order is not to be granted unless other available equitable relief is inadequate. What seems to be lost in the discussion of all forms of equitable relief is that there are legal remedies available, including potential exemplary damages. Typically, equitable relief is not available when such is the case. In this regard, I wonder if “another form of equitable relief” would include a royalty injunction.

Page 4, line 5 et seq:

A new section (V) has been created (and subsequent subsections re-lettered accordingly) to highlight that “the person against whom seizure would be ordered” must have actual possession of both the trade secret and the property to be seized.

Comment: While seemingly limiting the scope of the civil seizure remedy, this addition confirms what the opponents of DTSA were afraid of: that the civil seizure remedy can be used to seize property in addition to the actual trade secrets. While the person against whom seizure would be ordered must be shown to have either misappropriated a trade secret or conspired to misappropriate a trade secret, this language is actually much broader than it may seem on the surface. This is because the definition of misappropriation under the DTSA (and the UTSA) can apply to third-parties who were not directly involved in the initial misappropriation, provided they have the requisite (but obviously later acquired) knowledge. For instance, new employers.

[Eric’s comment: I don’t really get this change. Perhaps it’s designed to protect bailees? Or perhaps it’s an indirect way of trying to further protect cloud service providers from having their servers grabbed–and disrupting numerous other customers–in the pursuit of a single customer’s alleged misappropriation.]

Page 5, line 13:

Deletes the language “that are unrelated to the trade secret that has allegedly been misappropriated” in describing the elements of any civil seizure order.

Comment: This was apparently intended to limit the scope of a civil seizure order, which is a good thing if it works.

Page 5, line 16 – page 6, line 11:

Uses “prohibiting” instead of “restricting” and makes other changes to the provision concerning the required content of a civil seizure order, the most significant change being the addition of a new subsection (iv) which requires the court to “provide guidance to law enforcement officials” concerning how they are to execute the order.

Comment: This language was undoubtedly added to address concerns that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse raised during the hearing on DTSA that was held before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in December of 2015. His principal concern related to the use of force in the event that the person against whom seizure would be ordered was uncooperative.

Page 7, line 13 – page 8, line 22:

The “Materials in Custody” provision was re-labeled and expanded, particularly with respect to the newly labeled sub-section “Storage Medium” and new provisions labeled “Protection of Confidentiality” and “Appointment of a Special Master.”

Comment: The added language was undoubtedly added in an attempt to address concerns about the scope of any civil seizure order (including the very real possibility that property not relevant to the trade secret case might be seized), the handling of seized information, and the practical reality that federal court staff is ill-equipped to manage such materials. Nothing in the legislation indicates who will pay for the services of a Special Master.

[Eric’s comment: although I raised specific points in my article, this change doesn’t address the logistics challenges of initially determining which materials to bring into custody, especially given the statute’s order that the seizure order must be narrowly drawn.]

Page 9, line 2-15:

Deleted the language that used to allow state and local officials to execute a civil seizure order and instead specifies that a civil seizure order must be executed by federal law enforcement personnel. State and local law enforcement personnel can be involved, but they cannot be involved in the actual seizure of property. Further, the court may allow for the use of a technical expert to assist federal law enforcement officials in executing the civil seizure order, again without specifying who will pay for the technical expert.

Comment: These amendments address some of the concerns that have been expressed about how a civil seizure order will be executed and how it can be done without including the legitimate business information of the “person against whom civil seizure is ordered.” However, the more that efforts are made to address the concerns of critics, the more the risks of such a remedy are revealed. If this remedy will be used very infrequently as its proponents argue, Congress should ask if the marginal benefits of this remedy are worth its tremendous costs, particularly given the fact that: (1) criminal prosecution and seizure are possible in egregious cases; and (2) plaintiffs in trade secret cases have very robust legal remedies in the event of the loss of trade secrecy.

Page 11, line 6 et seq:

The standing to file a motion for encryption has been broadened to include both parties to the litigation and “a person who claims an interest in the subject matter seized.”

Comment: This is a positive development, but obviously it acknowledges that non-parties may be affected by a civil seizure order and be forced to hire an attorney to protect their interests.

Page 11, line 23 – page 12, line 8:

The provisions concerning the effect of injunctions on employment were re-worked, re-lettered and expanded. First, the original language was amended so that any injunction must “be based upon evidence of threatened misappropriation and not merely on the information a person knows.” Second, the legislation now includes language which states that an injunction cannot “otherwise conflict with an applicable State law prohibiting restraints on the practice of a lawful profession, trade, or business.”

Comment: This is a very positive development that makes it clear that State law governing restrictive covenants, including non-compete agreements, will continue to apply as limits on the scope of injunctive relief. More specifically, it rejects the worst aspects of the inevitable disclosure doctrine which many states (most notably California) have found to be inconsistent with their laws against restrictive covenants, particularly those that restrict employee mobility. Issues of choice of law remain, of course.

Page 13, line 9:

The measure of potential exemplary damages has been lowered to 2 times instead of 3 times.

Comment: This is a positive development, particularly for the proponents of the DTSA who claim that its primary purpose is greater uniformity in trade secret law. The new language is consistent with the UTSA. However, it appears that this change may have been part of a compromise since (as discussed below), the criminal penalties for a violation of the EEA have been increased.

Page 13, line 23:

The statute of limitations has been lowered to 3 years from 5 years.

Comment: This change also makes the statute of limitations consistent with the language of the UTSA (although some UTSA states have not adopted the statute of limitations specified in the UTSA). This is a positive development because businesses can now be more certain when threats of trade secret litigation will end. Since the statute of limitation follows the discovery rule, plaintiffs will have plenty of time to bring a lawsuit once the facts giving rise to such claims are discovered.

Page 14, line 8:

The definitions provisions of the DTSA must be read alongside the existing definition provisions of the EEA, which is where you will find the definition of a trade secret. A change from earlier versions of the legislation is that the word “public” in 18 U.S.C. §1839 (3)(B) (the definition of a trade secret) will be substituted with “another person who can obtain economic value from the disclosure or use of the information.”

Comment: This is another positive development that makes the definition of a trade secret under the EEA (as amended) more consistent with the language of the UTSA. Without this amendment, the EEA might be interpreted to include information that is in the public domain under state law. Not changed in the EEA to be consistent with the UTSA is the first part of the definition of a trade secret which, under the EEA, includes a litany of types of information that might qualify for trade secret misappropriation. However, this greater specificity always struck me as necessary since the EEA was initially, and will remain in part, a criminal statute.

Page 17, line 21 – Page 19, line 2:

A new Section 3 was added titled “Trade Secret Theft Enforcement” and old Section 3 was re-labeled as Section 4. This section increases the penalties for a violation of 18 U.S.C. §1832 from $5,000,000 to the greater of $5,000,000 or 3 times the value of the stolen trade secrets to the organization, including the costs of reproducing the trade secrets. Second, it adds a new provision titled “Rights of Trade Secret Owners” that essentially allows trade secret owners to be heard in criminal court concerning the need to protect their trade secrets. Lastly, it amends 18 U.S.C. §1961 (the RICO statute) to add a violation of the EEA as a predicate act.

Comment: At first blush, these changes seem to more directly address the concerns that motivated the proposed legislation and should have been tried first before risking the disruption of U.S. trade secret law by creating a federal civil cause of action for trade secret misappropriation. What they reveal is the concern that trade secret owners have about the effectiveness of federal criminal prosecution to stop (or punish) the most egregious cases of trade secret misappropriation. They also reflect the risks to trade secrets posed by the public nature of criminal prosecutions. Robust criminal laws are already on the books to punish those who would engage in the most egregious forms of trade secret misappropriation, but trade secret owners might be hesitant to report such crimes out of fear that their trade secrets might be lost in the process. Allowing trade secret owners to express their confidentiality concerns in a criminal court seems like a good idea. More study of the implications of the RICO provision is needed, particularly with respect to the potential for the over assertion of criminal prosecutions which was a major concern of business interests when the EEA was first adopted.

Page 22, line 23 et seq.:

The re-numbered “Sense of Congress” provision (now Section 5) added point (4) concerning the civil seizure order and Congress’ sense that the need for such a remedy should be balanced against the risk of interrupting the business of third parties and the legitimate interests of the party accused of wrongdoing.

Comment: While this is helpful language, it is interesting that this language is included in the “Sense of Congress” provision and not in the text of the civil seizure provision itself. While Congress is at it, I would urge it to add point (5) to the “Sense of Congress” and state that the DTSA should be interpreted and applied in a manner that is consistent with the commentary to the UTSA.

Page 23, Line 4 et seq:

New Section 6 was added titled “Best Practices” to require the Federal Judicial Center “using existing resources” to, within two years, recommend best practices related to civil seizure orders.

Comment: Again, this indicates that concerns about the abuse of civil seizure orders remain.

[Eric’s comment: although the minor changes to the ex parte seizure provision are a very, very small improvement, for the reasons I explain in my article, the ex parte seizure provision can’t really be fixed. Thus, so long as it remains in the federal bill, Congress is embracing a probably unhelpful procedure with significant potential for competitive misuse solely because a very small number of large trade secret owners want yet another shiny new toy. I doubt I’ll ever be enthusiastic about any federal trade secret bill that doesn’t preempt state law and doesn’t track the UTSA more closely, but so long as the ex parte seizure provision remains in the bill, I view the entire bill as substantively and procedurally objectionable.]

Leahy-Grassley Amendments

These amendments would add a section to the DTSA, in a place to be determined, titled “Immunity from Liability for Confidential Disclosure of a Trade Secret or in a Court Filing.” This new section is designed to protect whistleblowers from liability for the disclosure of trade secrets to the government and in the context of retaliation lawsuits, provided that steps are taken by the whistleblower to keep such information confidential. It also would require employers to give notice of such immunity to employees, thereby requiring an exception to confidentiality provisions.

Comment: This is a very positive development for those who are concerned that the assertion of trade secret rights can be used to prevent the timely disclosure of information that is needed by law enforcement authorities. However, it only applies where there is an alleged violation of law and not, more broadly, in situations where threats to public health exist, for instance.

Related posts:

* Ex Parte Seizures and the Defend Trade Secrets Act
* Do We Need A New Judicial Fast Lane To Combat Trade Secret Theft?
* 42 Law Professors Oppose The Defend Trade Secrets Act
* Federal Trade Secret Bill Re-Introduced–And It’s Still Troublesome (Guest Blog Post)
* Some Specific Problems With The Proposed Federal Trade Secret Law (Comments From a Reader)
* A Bibliography About Federal Trade Secret Law Reform (Guest Blog Post)
* Do We Need a New Federal Trade Secret Law?