New Trade Secrets Law: The HR Angle

It’s incredibly rare these days for a proposed law to receive near-unanimous backing in the U.S. House and Senate but, by George, our nation’s politicians managed to pull off this miraculous feat recently, which culminated with President Obama affixing his signature yesterday to the Defend Trade Secrets Act.

The new law puts trade secrets on par with patents, copyrights and trademarks, which are already protected under federal law. The Defend Trade Secrets Act provides a “uniform set of rules for trade secret protection” throughout the United States (although it does not replace trade secret laws passed by individual states). The upshot is that companies whose trade secrets were violated in multiple states can now file suit in a federal court rather than trying to determine which state may (or may not) provide the best legal remedy.

Trade secret claims have long been a key component of employee non-compete agreement lawsuits, writes Chris Marquardt, a partner at Alston & Bird’s labor and employment law group. For this reason, the new federal law “not only gives employers another tool to protect their confidential business information, but will also likely shift many routine employment-agreement lawsuits into the federal court system,” he writes.

Employee non-compete agreements can vary widely from state to state and the new law is written in such a way as to recognize that “the statute should not override state laws” on such agreements, Marquardt writes. However, he adds, “only time will tell how broadly federal courts interpret the new law and how willing they are to use it to prevent employees from accepting new jobs in competition with a former employer.”

Brett Coburn, also a partner with Alston & Bird, writes that one of the less-frequently discussed aspects of the new law is one that will impact nearly all employers: “The law grants both criminal and civil immunity under both federal and state trade secrets laws to individuals who disclose a company’s trade secrets to the government” if the person has reason to suspect that a legal violation has occurred. It also requires employers to notify employees of this immunity “in any agreements that govern the use of trade secrets or other confidential information.”

To ensure compliance, Coburn writes, HR leaders and legal counsel will need to reexamine their company’s restrictive covenant and nondisclosure agreements, as well as policies regarding the protection of confidential information and employee whistleblower activities.