NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENTS

Non-disclosure agreements are called by many different names: NDAs, confidentiality agreements, confidential disclosure agreements, and proprietary information agreements, among other terms. Regardless of the terminology or type of business entity which is involved, all non-disclosure agreements share the same basic objective: protecting businesses against financial losses arising from the disclosure of trade secrets and confidential information. They must not be confused with non-compete agreements, which are designed for a different purpose and are of limited use in the state of California, where they are typically considered unenforceable.

Startup Tools Toolbox

Because clear and enforceable non-disclosure agreements are a dynamic and effective means of protecting proprietary information, well-constructed NDAs have proven invaluable for countless business owners and employers across a diverse range of industries, and should be included in every company’s legal toolbox. But remember, NDAs which violate state or federal laws often create more problems than they protect against.

At Bellatrix PC, our knowledgeable business attorneys have extensive experience helping start-ups, partnerships, limited liability companies, and corporations draft detailed, favorable, and enforceable non-disclosure agreements.  We pride ourselves on our sophisticated understanding of state and federal business and employment law, and will work closely with your company to determine and pursue a strategic and cost-effective means of resolving any NDA-related matter.

To schedule a confidential legal consultation, call our law offices today at (800) 889-8376.

Understanding the Difference Between Non-Compete and Non-Disclosure Agreements

As noted above, it is critical for employers and business owners to familiarize themselves with the fundamental differences which separate non-disclosure agreements from non-compete agreements. The two contracts serve different purposes, yet the terms are often transposed or mentioned in the same context, which creates confusion and misunderstandings regarding their actual purposes.

Non-compete agreements impose restrictions on a current or former employees future employment opportunities. For instance, a non-compete agreement may state that when an employee leaves Company A, that employee cannot work at a competing company for a certain period of time.  In addition, it may state that the employee cannot start a competing business for a finite period of time. Because non-compete agreements expressly restrict both competition and a person’s ability to earn a living, they are rife with potential problems and are seldom enforceable in California.

NDA’s on the other hand are designed to prevent a party, often an employee, who will be exposed to confidential, trade secret, or proprietary information  from divulging that information without expressly restricting competition or future employment. In the instance of an NDA, an employee may agree that when they leave Company A, they will not divulge or misappropriate any confidential or proprietary information obtained from Company A. Breaking the terms of a well drafted non-disclosure agreement  would expose the breaching party to substantial liability  based on breach of contract (damages for breach of an NDA are discussed in more depth later in this article). Because NDAs do not prohibit competition per se – they merely prohibit misappropriation and use of the employer’s confidential information, they do not face the same enforceability problems as non-compete agreements.

NDAs can be “mutual” (meaning two parties share trade secrets, often used when two businesses collaborate on a single project) or “one-way” (meaning only one party shares information, often used when an employer is entrusting trade secrets to an employee).

For California business owners, the important thing to remember is that NDAs do not struggle with the same enforceability issues as non-compete agreements.  Therefore, NDAs are consistently the more effective and reliable means of protecting confidential information and preserving a business advantage.

What Are Trade Secrets?

Trade secrets are as varied as the businesses who hold them.  Depending on what the entity does, trade secrets might include formulas, computer software, algorithms, recipes, databases, product designs, methods of manufacturing, businesses strategies, and other pieces of information which give the business a competitive edge.

Cal. Civ. Code § 3426.1, which is part of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, defines a trade secret as “information, including a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, or process” which both (1) “derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to the public or to other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use” and (2) “is the subject of [reasonable] efforts… to maintain its secrecy.”

While there is no bright line rule for what constitutes a trade secret, it’s safe to say that any business which has created, designed, or implemented something that gives it an economic advantage or a competitive edge should take measures to protect it.

Recovering Damages for Breach of Contract and Confidentiality Violations

The Uniform Trade Secrets Act doesn’t simply define what trade secrets are: it also sets forth potential consequences of violating a non-disclosure agreement.  Cal. Civ. Code § 3426.3(a) clearly states the following:

A complainant may recover damages for the actual loss caused by misappropriation [defined as “acquisition of a trade secret… by improper means” or “disclosure… without express or implied consent].  A complainant also may recover for the unjust enrichment caused by misappropriation that is not taken into account in computing damages for actual loss.

The Act also supplies some additional guidelines pertaining to civil lawsuits and compensation:

  • Even if it cannot be proven in court that misappropriation of a trade secret led to unjust enrichment or financial damages, the court can still “order payment of a reasonable royalty” for a limited period of time (see Cal. Civ. Code § 3426.3(b)).
  • If the misappropriation was “willful and malicious” (i.e. intentional and with the intent to do harm), then the plaintiff can potentially recover damages up to twice the award under Cal. Civ. Code § 3426.3(a) or Cal. Civ. Code § 3426.3(b) (see Cal. Civ. Code § 3426.3(c)).

As with any type of contract or written agreement, the use of generic boilerplate documents is a recipe for legal and financial disaster. The importance of drafting unique, customized NDAs with assistance from an experienced business lawyer cannot be overstated.  Businesses have maximum protection when they have NDAs which account for specific details and conditions unique to their business.  Using a clear, comprehensive, and tailored agreements drastically reduces the chance that the contract will be breached or found to be unenforceable in future.

Employers are urged to steer clear of the numerous generic templates available for download from the internet. NDA templates are often overbroad, unenforceable, and include non-compete clauses which violate California law. The breach of contract attorneys of Bellatrix PC have years of experience representing a broad spectrum of entities in the preparation and defense of business contracts like non-disclosure agreements and covenants not to compete. Whether you simply need assistance drafting or reviewing new or existing NDAs, or you need aggressive legal representation from a commercial litigation attorney, our team is ready to help yours

To talk more about how we can help you meet your goals and resolve your disputes, call Bellatrix PC right away at (800) 889-8376.