I have at least had a chance to read the December 27, 2012 decision of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington in Amazon.com v. Powers, granting in part and denying in part Amazon’s request for a preliminary injunction against one of its former executives, Daniel Powers.
The case involves a high level former Amazon employee, Mr. Powers, subject to the typical restrictive covenants (nondisclosure, no-raid, nonsolicitation, noncompete, and invention assignment). Mr. Powers was responsible for sales of Amazon cloud computing services. Mr. Powers was terminated from Amazon and, importantly, took nothing. (This is always best practice for a departing employee.) Nor did he have plans to work elsewhere at the time that he was terminated.
Three months later, Mr. Powers joined Google. Google and Mr. Powers agreed that Mr. Powers would not: refer to cloud computing in his title until the end of 2012 (i.e., about 6 months after his termination); be involved with cloud computing for 6 months (i.e., for 9 months after his termination); use or disclose Amazon’s confidential information; work with Amazon’s customers for 6 months (i.e., for 9 months after his termination); and be involved with the hiring of Amazon’s employees for 12 months from his termination.
Google’s and Powers’ voluntary restrictions were insufficient for Amazon. Amazon sued in Washington state court. Mr. Powers removed the case to the Western District.
First, the Court, somewhat surprisingly, denied Amazon’s request for a preliminary injunction to protect its confidential information.
The Court’s decision in this regard was based on the following factors: (1) Amazon was unable to definitively identify what specific knowledge is “still” in Mr. Power’s memory without discovery, which Amazon declined to do before the preliminary injunction hearing, and (2) Mr. Powers and his new employer (Google) agreed to “virtually every restriction Amazon seeks in its injunction . . . .” The defendants’ voluntary commitment to protect the information was seen by the Court as establishing that Amazon was unlikely to prove that Mr. Powers would use confidential information (even if Amazon had been able to prove that Mr. Powers still remembered confidential information). Factual scenarios like this are quite common and frequently come out the other way, with the Court granting an injunction protecting confidential information.
Second, the Court’s analysis of the lack of proof of trade secrets provides a cautionary tale. Specifically, with regard to the issue of the existence of protectable trade secrets, the Court stated as follows:
Amazon did not ask to file any evidence under seal, suggesting that it believes the court will divine what information is a trade secret from [a] public declaration [of one of its employees]. Having scoured that declaration, the court is unable to do so. The court acknowledges that it is likely that Mr. Powers learned information that would qualify as a trade secret while he was at Amazon. See RCW § 19.108.010(4) (defining trade secret as a information that derives “independent economic value” from being neither known nor readily ascertainable and that is subject to reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy). But if there is trade secret information that Mr. Powers could still be expected to know, Amazon has not identified it.
The takeaway from that paragraph is to take heed of the seemingly increasing trend of courts (not just in the 9th Circuit) to require early particularization of trade secrets (and, of course, a corresponding willingness to accept the alleged secrets under seal).
Third, the Court deftly avoided deciding whether Washington has or has not recognized the inevitable disclosure doctrine – an area of the law receiving significant attention in many recent decisions. Despite the Court’s avoidance of the issue, it nevertheless made the following cautionary observation (for others to take note of in the future):
Were inevitable disclosure as easy to establish as Amazon suggests in its motion, then a nondisclosure agreement would become a noncompetition agreement of infinite duration. . . . Washington law does not permit that result.
Fourth, the Court’s analysis of the nonsolicitation (of customers) restriction was quite thorough and informative. Specifically, the Court first observed that Washington courts are more apt to enforce a nonsolicitation agreement than a noncompete agreement, because the nature of the restriction on the employee is less severe. However, in shorting to nine months the 18-month stated duration of the restriction, the Court’s analysis was as follows:
This is not a case where Mr. Powers seeks to leap from Amazon immediately to Google with his former customers in tow. He stopped working with Amazon customers more than six months ago. There is no evidence he has had contact with any of them since then. There is no direct evidence that he intends to pursue business with any of them. The only indirect evidence that he has interest in contacting his former customers is that he has chosen to fight Amazon’s efforts to enforce the Agreement. Although the personal aspects of his relationships with his former customers might be expected to endure for more than six months, they might just as well extend even beyond the 18-months that the Agreement provides. Amazon has not explained why it selected an 18-month period, nor has it disputed Mr. Powers’ suggestion that the Agreement he signed is a “form” agreement that Amazon requires virtually every employee to sign. Because Amazon makes no effort to tailor the duration of its competitive restrictions to individual employees, the court is not inclined to defer to its one-size-fits-all contractual choices. Amazon has not convinced the court that the aspects of Mr. Powers’ relationships with customers that depend on confidential Amazon information are still viable today.
The influence that each of those facts (the six month period before Mr. Powers joined Google; his lack of communication; the “evidence” of his interest in contacting the clients; the potential longevity of the client relationships; the “form” nature of the agreement; and the absence of confidential information) had on the Court’s decision should be instructive to those of us facing these issues in Washington (and elsewhere). Each raises all sorts of questions.
Focusing, for example, on the longevity of the relationship as compared with the duration of the restriction. That issue exists not just with customer relationships, but with confidential information and trade secrets protectable through noncompetes. In fact, one of the criticisms of noncompetes is that they are not coterminous with the life of the trade secrets. Good luck to Coca-Cola enforcing a noncompete until the secret formula to Coke is revealed. It won’t happen. Nor, I suspect, would a court refuse to enforce Coca-Cola’s secret formula based noncompete simply because the secret formula would outlive the restriction.
Well, then, why should a nonsolicitation agreement be circumscribed because the goodwill may extend longer than the restriction? While it’s easy to understand modifying (i.e., shortening) the duration when the restriction would outlive its utility, it’s hard to understand shortening it because the restriction isn’t long enough. Does this suggest that the Court would be receptive to a defense in the context of a noncompete on the ground that the trade secrets protected by the noncompete will outlast the restriction, so the restriction is unnecessary? Unclear.
And, fifth, similar to Ken’s point, the Court’s analysis of the noncompete is instructive. The Court reasoned as follows:
Its ban on working with former customers serves to protect the goodwill it has built up with specific businesses. A general ban on Mr. Powers’ competing against Amazon for other cloud computing customers is not a ban on unfair competition, it is a ban on competition generally. Amazon cannot eliminate skilled employees from future competition by the simple expedient of hiring them. To rule otherwise would give Amazon far greater power than necessary to protect its legitimate business interest. No Washington court has enforced a restriction that would effectively eliminate a former employee from a particular business sector. This court will not be the first, particularly where Amazon has not provided enough detail about the nature of AWS’s cloud computing business to convince it that an employee like Mr. Powers can only compete with AWS by competing unfairly.
The two aspects of the decision that seem atypical are that: (1) the Court used the nonsolicitation covenant to undermine the noncompete; and (2) the Court refused – under the particular facts presented – to bar Mr. Powers from a particular business sector. While both can be seen as a mere failing of the sufficiency of Amazon’s evidence, they seem to be more; they seem to suggest an overall reluctance by the Court to enforce noncompete agreements – especially where Washington is a reformation state (meaning that the courts can essentially rewrite a restriction to make it reasonable).
Stay tuned to see how the law develops in Washington (and elsewhere). It should be interesting!