ENTERPRISE LEASING CO. OF PHOENIX v. EHMKE No. 1 CA-CV 99-0046.
3 P.3d 1064 (1999)
197 Ariz. 144
ENTERPRISE LEASING COMPANY OF PHOENIX, a Nevada corporation, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Rich EHMKE, a single man, Defendant-Appellee.
Court of Appeals of Arizona, Division 1, Department C.
Review Denied May 23, 2000.
Gregory W. Dawson, Phoenix, for the Defendant-Appellee.
¶ 1 This appeal arises out of the denial of a permanent injunction against a company's former employee from misappropriating trade secrets. We agree with Enterprise Leasing Company of Phoenix ("Enterprise") that the trial court erred in finding that the Enterprise financial records and other documents at issue were no longer trade secrets, if they had been, and, thus, that they are not entitled to protection from disclosure by Rich Ehmke, Enterprise's former employee. We conclude instead that the documents constitute proprietary and confidential information and should be afforded trade-secret protection. As such, Ehmke must be enjoined from the disclosure and use of these documents. We therefore reverse the trial court's denial of a permanent injunction, and we remand the case for entry of appropriate relief.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
¶ 2 Ehmke worked for Enterprise in Maricopa County from January 22, 1996, until he was terminated eight months later. As a senior-level manager, Ehmke had access to substantial and proprietary confidential corporate business and financial information concerning Enterprise's market strategy, training methods, and internal financial and operations data. Given his exposure to such information, Ehmke's employment agreement contained a nondisclosure provision, as well as a covenant not to compete. The agreement stated in relevant part that Ehmke:
¶ 3 Nonetheless, upon Ehmke's termination, Enterprise discovered that he had
¶ 4 Shortly thereafter, Ehmke formed a rental-car consulting firm in Phoenix. In this manner, he blatantly competed with Enterprise, indeed soliciting Enterprise customers and employees with the intent to recruit them for his new business.
¶ 5 On December 17, 1996, the trial court granted Enterprise's motion for a temporary restraining order against Ehmke, prohibiting him from soliciting Enterprise customers and employees, divulging trade secrets and otherwise engaging in direct competition with Enterprise.
¶ 6 Not for a year did the trial court conduct a preliminary injunction hearing. Then it found that, not only had Ehmke enjoyed access to confidential business and financial information, but that he had later successfully used this information to compete against Enterprise in Maricopa County.
¶ 7 In July 1997, undeterred by the preliminary injunction, Ehmke became Vice President of the Western United States for Premier Car Rental ("Premier"), a subsidiary of Budget Rent-A-Car ("Budget") and a direct competitor of Enterprise. In this position, he supervised Premier's Arizona branch offices, including those in the Phoenix area. When it became aware of Ehmke's position, Enterprise subpoenaed those of its documents Ehmke had disclosed to Premier.
¶ 8 In February 1998, Enterprise sought a permanent injunction against Ehmke. During the trial, Ehmke admitted that he knowingly had contravened the preliminary injunction by accepting employment with Premier and disclosing to it confidential documents.
¶ 9 The trial court concluded simply "that the [Enterprise] forms do not constitute a
¶ 10 The dispositive issue on appeal is whether the Enterprise documents are trade secrets and thus entitled to protection according to the nondisclosure provision in the employment agreement. Two sets of documents are in question: The first concerns Enterprise's internal financial information. The second, the Enterprise Rent-a-Car Customer Service Worksheet ("Worksheet"), encompasses general business principles involved in the operation of a successful car-rental branch office.
¶ 11 While we are bound by the trial court's findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous, Lee Dev. Co. v. Papp,
¶ 12 This case presents questions involving the interpretation and application of the trade-secret statute. Trade-secret law is traditionally within the realm of state law. See Aronson v. Quick Point Pencil Co.,
¶ 13 Trade-secret law is unusual to the extent that it provides protection to the owner of a trade secret, but only while the information and knowledge remains a secret. See Ruth E. Leistensnider, Comment, Trade Secret Misappropriation: What is the Proper Length of an Injunction After Public Disclosure?, 51 ALBANY L.REV. 271, 272 (1987). The threshold determination whether to protect information as a trade secret therefore depends upon the nature of the information and the circumstances surrounding its secrecy and the maintenance thereof. B.C. Ziegler and Co. v. Ehren,
¶ 14 By definition, a trade secret is not simply information as to single or ephemeral business events. See Roger M. Milgrim, MILGRIM ON TRADE SECRETS § 1.01 1-18 (1999). Rather, a trade secret may consist of a compilation of information that is continuously used or has the potential to be used in one's business and that gives one an opportunity to obtain an advantage over competitors who do not know of or use it. See ARIZ.REV.STAT. ANN. ("A.R.S") § 44-401(4)(a); RESTATEMENT OF TORTS § 757 cmt. b (1939). The Arizona Trade Secrets Act defines "trade secret" as follows:
(a) Derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by other persons
A.R.S. § 44-401. This rather expansive definition emphasizes the secrecy of the alleged trade secret, as well as the competitive advantage afforded by it. See Bruce T. Atkins, Trading Secrets in the Information Age: Can Trade Secret Law Survive the Internet?, 1996 U. ILL. L.REV. 1151, 1156; Avtec Systems, Inc. v. Peiffer,
¶ 15 Because the hallmark of a trade secret obviously is its secrecy, not only must the subject-matter of the trade secret be secret, it must be of such a nature that it would not occur to persons in the trade or business. Wright, 11 Ariz.App. at 295, 464 P.2d at 366; see A.R.S. § 44-401(4)(a). Accordingly, matters that are public knowledge are not safeguarded as trade secrets. See Kewanee Oil Co. v. Bicron Corp.,
¶ 16 In particular, when a process or idea is so common or widely known that it lacks all novelty, uniqueness and originality, it necessarily lacks the element of privacy required to make it legally cognizable as a trade secret. See Cockerham v. Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp.,
¶ 17 Although matters of general knowledge cannot be appropriated as secret, a trade secret may consist of a combination of elements even though each individual component may be a matter of common knowledge. See Kewanee Oil Co., 416 U.S. at 481-84, 94 S.Ct. 1879; Rivendell Forest Products, Ltd. v. Georgia-Pacific Corp.,
¶ 18 Enterprise's financial documents include sensitive internal economic records concerning its branch offices in Maricopa County, such as profit and loss figures,
¶ 19 Additionally, a document such as the Worksheet reflects a substantial market-research investment by Enterprise delineating several factors helpful to managing a successful branch office. As said above, a compilation need only be a slight advance over common knowledge to receive protection. Compare Henry Hope X-Ray Products, Inc. v. Marron Carrel, Inc.,
¶ 20 We recognize that not every commercial secret qualifies as a trade secret. Only those secrets affording a demonstrable competitive advantage may properly be considered a trade secret. Wright, 11 Ariz.App. at 295-96, 464 P.2d at 366-67. Value will be inferred if the owner can show that the information confers upon it an economic advantage over others in the industry. Rivendell Forest Products, 28 F.3d at 1046.
¶ 21 These documents provide economic value for Enterprise and would allow a competitor to gain an advantage if the documents were discovered in the marketplace. For instance, a competitor would have a detailed account of Enterprise's financial data that might be used to affect the placement of branch offices and/or pricing and sales decisions. The Worksheet could provide a competitor with a blueprint of the Enterprise customer-service principles.
¶ 22 Just as the trade secret's owner is obliged to establish that the matter is secret, it must also show that it exercised reasonable care to safeguard the secret. A.R.S. § 44-401(4)(b). Indeed, the most important factor in gaining trade-secret protection is demonstrating that the owner has taken such precautions as are reasonable under the circumstances to preserve the secrecy of the information. Michael A. Epstein & Stuart D. Levi, Protecting Trade Secret Information, 43 BUS. LAW. 887, 895 (1988); see A.R.S. § 44-401(4)(b). As many courts have explained, a business that takes only scant precautions in guarding the confidentiality of the secret will not receive protection. Epstein & Levi, Protecting Trade Secret Information, 43 BUS. LAW at 895.
¶ 23 The secrecy need not, however, be absolute. Henry Hope X-Ray Products, 674 F.2d at 1340. Rather, when evaluating the level of secrecy required, the owner need only be able to show that it made reasonable efforts to maintain the secrecy of the information such as to ensure that it would be difficult for others to discover the information without using improper means. Id.; K-2 Ski Co. v. Head Ski Co.,
¶ 25 Ehmke erroneously asserts that he merely tapped his general knowledge of the car-rental business to produce documents for Premier, and, indeed, trade-secret law does and should not prevent former employees from using their general knowledge and skill at another job. Amex Dist. Co., 150 Ariz. at 516, 724 P.2d at 602. However, the policy supporting trade-secret law is to balance this public interest in competition in the workplace with the need for commercial ethics. See Kewanee Oil Co., 416 U.S. at 481-82, 94 S.Ct. 1879; see also PepsiCo, Inc. v. Redmond,
¶ 26 Clearly this case does not present a situation in which one innocently discovers a secret or in good faith paid value for the secret. See RESTATEMENT OF TORTS § 758 cmt. a. Enterprise took adequate practical steps to protect this information from public disclosure. Relying on its general protective procedures and, specifically, the nondisclosure provision of Ehmke's contract, Enterprise imparted this information to Ehmke for his use in the context of his employment with Enterprise. The contract obligated Ehmke to maintain the confidentiality of Enterprise's financial information and Worksheet; it did not exclude information that Ehmke as an Enterprise employee himself contributed. There is no question that Ehmke knew and understood this limited use. Ehmke had notice of the confidentiality of the information and used improper means to appropriate, disclose and utilize Enterprise's trade secrets in his own business endeavors.
¶ 27 The judgment of the trial court is reversed. The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
CONCURRING: PHILIP E. TOCI, Judge, and THOMAS C. KLEINSCHMIDT, Judge.
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