How can a business protect its critical information when an employee goes to work for a competitor? Many employers simply assume that if it deems information “confidential,” the law automatically protects it when an employee leaves and goes to work for a competitor. That’s not necessarily the case. In order to protect its confidential information, such as intellectual property, information, systems, customer lists, pricing information and the like, an employer must take affirmative steps long before the rogue employee leaves to ensure that its information is protected. Such information can be protected from disclosure both under Illinois common law and pursuant to the Illinois Trade Secrets Act (“ITSA”).
An employer’s trade secrets, such as its customer lists, are a protectable interest. An employer has a clear and ascertainable right in protecting its trade secrets. To show information is a trade secret under ITSA, an employer must meet two threshold requirements. First, it must show the information was sufficiently secret to provide the employer with a competitive advantage. Second, the employer must show that it took affirmative measures to stop others from acquiring or using the information. Examples of steps employers typically take to keep information confidential include keeping the information under lock and key, limiting computer access, requiring confidentiality agreements, and other employer efforts to advise employees that the information imparted to them must be kept secret. Establishing this second prong is where employers typically fall short.
Where employers have invested substantial time, money, and effort to obtain a secret advantage, the secret should be protected from an employee who obtains it through improper means. Although employees may take general knowledge or information with them that they developed during their employment, they may not take confidential information, including trade secrets. The taking does not have to be a physical taking by actually copying the names. A trade secret can be misappropriated by physical copying or by memorization. Using memorization to rebuild a trade secret does not transform the trade secret from confidential information into non-confidential information. A trade secret can also be obtained through reverse engineering
Whether and how an employer keeps information secret is one of the most important factors when determining whether information is a trade secret. When information is generally known or understood in an industry, even if it is unknown to the public at large, it does not constitute a trade secret. If a business fully discloses information throughout an industry through a catalog or other literature, it is not considered a trade secret. If the information can be readily duplicated without considerable time, effort, or expense, it is not considered a trade secret. If a customer list, for example, is generally available to all employees and the employees are not required to sign confidentiality agreements, the list is likely not considered a trade secret.
By far the most litigation in this area is over whether an employer’s customer list is a confidential trade secret. Whether customer lists constitute trade secrets largely depends on the facts of each case. Customer lists and other customer information can be considered a protectable trade secret if the information has been developed by the employer over a number of years at great expense and kept under tight security. However, the same type of information is not protectable where it has not been treated as confidential and secret by the employer, was generally available to other employees and known by persons in the trade, could be easily duplicated by reference to telephone directories or industry publications, and where the customers on such lists did business with more than one company or otherwise changed businesses frequently so that their identities were known to the employer’s competitors.
Illinois courts have found that customer lists do not constitute protectable trade secrets where, for example: a) the particular industry was competitive and customers often dealt with multiple companies; b) the employer had failed to produce sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the customer list was subject to reasonable efforts to protect its secrecy; and c) sufficient efforts had not been taken to maintain the list’s secrecy. To be a protectable trade secret, the employer must demonstrate the information it seeks to protect was sufficiently secret to provide it with a competitive advantage. However, for steps to be deemed sufficient to protect a trade secret, extensive steps must be taken to protect both the electronic and hard copies of the purported trade secret.
For more information regarding the protection of a company’s confidential information, please contact:
(312) 368-0100 or email@example.com
Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the new federal estate tax system “exempts” from federal estate tax, all estates under $11.2 million for each decedent, meaning that a married couple could have an estate of $22.4 million and not incur any federal estate taxes. This higher amount means that most estates will not be subject to federal estate tax. These amounts will be subject to increase, based upon increases in the Consumer Price Index; however, the amount “sunsets” after 2026, and the amounts will be reduced by half. The good news is that many estate plans can be drafted with little regard to federal estate taxes in some states. The bad news is that residents of Illinois are subject to a much lower threshold and may need to examine their estate plans in light of the Illinois thresholds.
Illinois taxes all estates in excess of $4 million AND, if not structured properly, both spouses may not be able to take advantage of the full amount. While federal law generally permits a surviving spouse to “use” any unused exemption amount of their deceased spouse, Illinois does not permit this. For federal tax purposes, if one spouse dies with a $6 million dollar taxable estate, then under some circumstances, the surviving spouse may use his or her own exemption of $11.2 million, plus the “unused” $5.2 million of the deceased spouse.
“Typical” estate planning has often maximized the federal exemption amount on the first spouse to die by putting that into a segregated trust while leaving everything else to the surviving spouse. If you have not looked at your estate planning documents, you should do so immediately. Under the “typical” plan, the surviving spouse is often only entitled to receive income from that segregated trust which holds the maximum federal exemption amount; principal distributions are based upon need. Thus, the surviving spouse may not be able to access principal of the decedent’s estate without establishing a need. And to make matters worse, if that trust holds more than $4 million dollars, then there will be liability for Illinois estate taxes upon the death of the first spouse.
If you have any questions about your estate plan or how federal and Illinois estate taxes affect your estate planning, please call or contact:
Morris Saunders at:
312-368-0100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.