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Business Law Update: Unfair Competition may not be Preempted by Michigan’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act

Greetings on this cloudy Friday in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 Business owner: I’m going to give you a scenario.

Let’s say your business wants to engage the services of another business to sell its products.

Q: When a business wants to engage the services of another business that will necessarily involve the business divulging confidential infoIMG_1513rmation what do you do?

A: Enter into a Non-Disclosure/Confidentiality Agreement.

Another question:

Q: What happens when the business that received the confidential information goes on to develop a product eerily similar to your product after learning about your confidential information?

A: Potentially, a lawsuit.

Yesterday I read a new published decision from the Michigan Court of Appeals,

Planet Bingo LLC v VKGS, LLC

In the words of the Court of Appeals:

the relevant procedural history is complex“.

Therefore, I won’t delve into the history. Suffice it to say, the parties filed lawsuits based upon the same claims in several different courts across the country.

“This case arises out of Video King’s use of a software program (“EPIC”) that was developed by Planet Bingo’s subsidiary Melange, Video King’s subsequent development of a competing software program (“OMNI”), and plaintiffs’ allegation that Video King wrongfully developed OMNI using confidential information gleaned from EPIC.” Id. pg 1.

The parties entered into a confidentiality agreement.

According to the court –  the parties entered into a contract in 2005 that “had a substantial confidentiality clause:”

Such agreements are necessary to protect in a broad manner all confidential information disclosed to another party in a business agreement.

In a nutshell, Planet Bingo claimed Video King had access to Planet Bingo’s confidential information for its software program EPIC. Thereafter, Video King allegedly used that confidential information to create its own competing software program.

Planet Bingo sued VKGS (Video King) for –

breach of contract (confidentiality agreement),

unfair competition, and

unjust enrichment.

What is unfair competition?

“unfair competition” may encompass any conduct that is fraudulent or deceptive and tends to mislead the public.  See Atco Indus. v Sentek Corp., Lexis 1670, page 7 (July 10, 2003).

This court went back and forth among several courts/jurisdictions and eventually, the Trial Court in Ingham County dismissed plaintiffs’ claims. Among other things, the Court said that the Michigan Uniform Trade Secrets Act (MUTSA)  MCL 445.1901 et seq, preempted – or replaced the common law claim of unfair competition.

The Court of Appeals reversed.

According to the Court:

MUTSA generally “displaces conflicting tort, restitutionary, and other law of this state providing civil remedies for misappropriation of a trade secret,” Id. pg 6.

“It has been recognized from common law, on the other hand, that unfair competition encompasses more than just misappropriation. See In re MCI Telecom Corp Complaint, 240 Mich App 292, 312; 612 NW2d 826 (2000) (“[T]he common-law doctrine of unfair competition was ordinarily limited to acts of fraud, bad-faith misrepresentation, misappropriation, or product confusion.”) (Emphasis added). Id. pg 7.

“Thus, MUTSA does not preempt all common-law unfair competition claims, only those that are based on misappropriation of “trade secrets” as defined by MUTSA.” Id.

“The pertinent question, then, is whether plaintiffs’ unfair competition claim was based on misappropriation alone or also on fraud, bad-faith misrepresentation, or product confusion.” Id.

Conclusion:

We can glean from the Planet Bingo Case that a claim of unfair competition can be brought when based on:

  • Fraud
  • Bad-faith misrepresentation; or
  • product confusion.

If a claim for unfair competition is brought solely related to misappropriation of Trade Secrets, then the MUTSA is the controlling statute.

Questions? Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

www.dwlawpc.com

twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

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