NuScience Corporation is a California corporation that researches, develops and distributes health and beauty products, including nutritional supplements. In 2009, NuScience obtained by default a permanent injunction in a California federal court against Robert and Michael Henkel, the nephew of a woman from whom NuScience purchased the formula for a nutritional supplement, prohibiting them from selling or marketing NuScience’s trade secrets. Before the federal court injunction was entered, NuScience terminated the employment of David McKinney, NuScience Vice President of sales and marketing. McKinney signed a separation agreement wherein he agreed to maintain the confidentiality of certain NuScience-related matters. What followed might be good book material.
In June 2010, NuScience received an email from a third-party which included an email string between Robert Henkel and McKinney that caused NuScience to conclude Robert Henkel was violating the federal court injunction. Based on the emails, NuScience sued McKinney and Robert Henkel in California Superior Court for misappropriation of trade secrets, among other claims. (“NuScience I”) Robert Henkel again did not appear and the court entered a default against him in March 2011.
McKinney appeared in the state court action and was represented by Stephen E. Abraham. McKinney filed a motion to compel further discovery responses from NuScience and a motion for sanctions against NuScience which NuScience initially opposed. But before the motion was heard, NuScience filed a request for dismissal without prejudice. McKinney responded to the NuScience voluntary dismissal with a motion for attorney’s fees and costs under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, California Civil Code Section 3426 et seq. (“UTSA”). The trial court granted the motion for attorney’s fees, concluded the record showed subjective bad faith on NuScience’s part, and awarded McKinney the $32,842.81 he requested.
NuScience moved for reconsideration contending that after it took Henkel’s default, Henkel called NuScience’s attorney and said NuScience “better back off and leave [them] alone” and that Henkels thereafter began posting threats to publish NuScience’s trade secret formula on the Internet. NuScience’s attorney reported the threat to the FBI, which informed him that it had assigned an agent to investigate and the pending investigation should remain confidential. NuScience asserted that Henkel then told NuScience’s attorney that he “would release NuScience’s formula to the world unless [NuScience] dismissed this lawsuit” and “cease all enforcement of the federal judgment against the Henkels.” NuScience asserted that only later did the FBI “reluctantly acquiesce[ ]” and allowed NuScience to discuss the investigation.
The court denied the motion for reconsideration.
NuScience appealed the attorney’s fees award and the Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the lower court. The Appellate Court found that the email exchange between McKinney and Henkel on which NuScience I was premised was evidence that they were engaged in internal experimentation with NuScience’s trade secret formula and further stated McKinney had been using the samples. The court found this was sufficient evidence of actual or threatened misappropriation under the UTSA. The court further found that the email exchange was evidence that McKinney intended to use the NuScience customer list to market to buyers in Asia and that since McKinney was unlikely to have derived information about customers interested in the formula other than through his employment with NuScience, a trier of fact could conclude McKinney intended to use the information he derived from NuScience’s customer list to compete.
The day after the trial court awarded fees under the UTSA in NuScience I, McKinney filed a malicious prosecution action against NuScience and was represented again by Stephen Abraham (“NuScience II”). NuScience filed a motion to strike under California’s Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Policy) statute. The trial court granted the motion, and rejected McKinney’s claim that the dismissal prior to the hearing on the discovery motion was a favorable determination on the merits, noting “undisputed evidence… that the case was dismissed in response to extortionist threats.” The court awarded NuScience attorney’s fees of $129,938.75. The order was affirmed on appeal.
NuScience then filed an action against McKinney, Abraham and his law firm, and two other individuals in March 2014 alleging malicious prosecution and intentional interference with contractual relations against Abraham. Abraham responded with special motions to strike the causes of action.
Abraham attacked the intentional interference cause of action under the California Anti-SLAPP statute on the grounds that the conduct Abraham was alleged to have engaged in – the filing of declarations in federal and state court lawsuits that were signed by McKinney – is protected conduct. The trial court, and subsequently the Court of Appeal, concluded there could be no breach of contract absent a disclosure or public disparagement and the disclosure/disparagement NuScience alleged was Abraham’s public filing of McKinney’s declarations. As such, it was protected activity.
The trial court also granted Abraham’s SLAPP back action in the malicious prosecution claim. The Court of Appeal agreed, finding that NuScience had not demonstrated that the underlying malicious prosecution claim was initiated with malice because, in part, the malicious prosecution was alleged against a former adversary’s attorney, and not the former adversary. The court held that malice harbored by an adversary may not be attributed to its attorney. NuScience tried to identify additional evidence of Abraham’s own malice on appeal asserting, in part, that Abraham “told NuScience that he intends to destroy NuScience,” but the court pointed out that the actual evidence stated “NuScience will be out of business in six months” and “NuScience will be done in six months,” which the court stated suggested, at most, that Abraham believed that litigation would be successful and that NuScience’s demise was imminent, “not that he intended to cause its demise.” The Court of Appeal affirmed the order dismissing the claims against Abraham and affirmed the award of Abraham’s attorney’s fees of $99,595.00.
While the initial trade secret dispute between the parties here was relatively straightforward, this case is worth highlighting because of the extensive litigation that followed. Despite the company’s legitimate interest in protecting its threatened trade secrets, there were certainly unintended consequences as a result of the company’s vigorous advocacy to protect its interests. NuScience became embroiled in litigation spanning the course of the next eight years, itself even becoming the defendant to a lawsuit. This serves as a cautionary tale and a reminder of the inherent risk to engaging in litigation.
The case is NuScience Corp. v. Abraham, B264334 (Ca. Ct. of App. 2/1/17).