Florida employers who have non-compete agreements may enforce the restrictive covenants based on the legitimate business interest of trade secrets under Florida Statutes Section 542.335(1)(b)(1). Employers may also sue for misappropriation of trade secrets. However, employers sometimes sue former employees for common law claims that are related to misappropriation of company trade secrets. Such common law claims have sometimes faced roadblocks because many state law trade secret statutes preempt or displace all other non-contract claims arising from the trade secret misappropriation. Florida’s trade secret statute, like many others, preempts all potential claims arising from the unauthorized use of a trade secret unless the claim sounds in contract. Fla. Stat. § 688.008 (The Uniform Trade Secrets Act “displace[s] conflicting tort, restitutory, and other law of this state providing civil remedies for misappropriation of a trade secret [except]… contractual remedies”). Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation attorney, and represents clients in business litigation in Miami, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment law, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.
Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal in Digiport, Inc. v. Foram Dev. BFC, LLC, 314 So. 3d 550 (Fla. 3d DCA 2020), provided an analysis of Florida law trade secret preemption. Digiport explained that Florida courts look to the facts alleged in the complaint to determine whether “there are material distinctions between the allegations comprising the additional torts and the allegations supporting the [trade secret claim].” The appellate court determined the plaintiff’s claims were preempted because they were premised on the same allegations and elements as its trade secret claims, stating “[b]oth the trade secret misappropriation claim and the misappropriation of a business idea count are premised upon allegations that [the plaintiff] invested substantial time in creating a novel business idea, the idea was disclosed to [the defendant] in confidence, reasonable measures to protect the secrecy were undertaken, and [the defendant] misappropriated the idea by disclosing its plans to other companies for its own benefit.” Conversely, courts allow claims affiliated with trade secrets to proceed if trade secret misappropriation does not alone comprise the underlying wrong. For example, in Mortgage Now, Inc. v. Stone, 2009 WL 4262877 (N.D. Fla. Nov. 24, 2009), the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida allowed a claim of civil conspiracy to proceed because the defendant’s acts were unrelated to the misappropriation of trade secrets.
Preemption is a powerful tool that may apply to claims involving the use of information that does not qualify as a trade secret. K3 Enterprises, Inc. Saspwski, 2021 WL 8363506 *9 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 19, 2021), explained that, “[a]ccording to the majority view, non-FUTSA, non-contractual civil misappropriation claims do constitute conflicting law under Florida Statute § 688.008(1) and are preempted at the motion to dismiss stage.”) (internal quotations omitted). Similarly, another federal district court in American Registry, LLC v. Hanaw, 2014 WL 12606501, *6 (M.D. Fla. July 16, 2014), stated in pertinent part that, “[t]he Court finds that the FUTSA preempts all non-contract claims based on the misappropriation of confidential and/or commercially valuable information even if the information does not constitute a trade secret under the FUTSA.”
Nevertheless, debate on this issue exists because some courts refuse to preempt claims before the existence of a trade secret is established. In Gordon Food Serv., Inc. v. Price Armstrong, LLC, 2021 WL 7448881, at *9 (M.D. Fla. July 8, 2021), the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida refused to find the plaintiff’s claims were preempted when ruling on a motion to dismiss, because the finder of fact did not yet determine whether the plaintiff had a trade secret). Reluctance to dismiss suggests some courts do not believe claims based on non-trade secret information can be preempted. This, however, appears to be the minority view. For example, the U.S. Disrict Court for the Southern District of California in Jardin v. Datallegro, Inc., 2011 WL 1375311 (S.D. Cal. Apr. 12, 2011), explained that the California Uniform Trade Secret Act “preempts all claims based upon the misappropriation of … confidential information, whether or not that information rises to the level of a trade secret.”
Employers can likely sue for trade secret misappropriation under the federal statute and still assert tort claims because the federal trade secret statute does not contain a preemption clause. See 18 U.S.C.A. § 1832 et. seq. So long as the employer conducts interstate business, there is generally little difference between the federal trade secret statute and state trade secret statutes. Compare, e.g., U.S.C.A. § 1839 and Fla. Stat. § 688.002. Therefore, an employer may be able to avoid preemption of its tort claims by suing for trade secret misappropriation under the federal statute.
Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation lawyer, and represents clients in Miami, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. This article does not serve as a substitute for legal advice tailored to a particular situation.