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Time Limits and NDA/Confidentiality Agreements

Friday, June 8th, 2012

It is common for companies to share confidential information with a third party in order to achieve an operational objective, where the third party may be a prospective joint venturer, an acquirer, an investor or even a client.  Prior to disclosing such confidential information, however, these same companies usually require the execution of a confidentiality/non-disclosure agreement by the other party.

This blog has previously discussed issues surrounding confidentiality/non-disclosure agreements.  Today’s topic however is specific: the time limits, if any, that should be considered in such agreements.

Most companies if given a choice would prefer to include in their  NDA/confidentiality agreements a perpetual term, which essentially means that the confidential information can never be disclosed by the third party except in limited circumstances.  Often times however, this desire is diluted in the course of negotiations, leading to a final agreement containing just a limited time for confidentiality, ie, for example, 2, 5 or even 10 years. 

Unbeknownst to such parties, agreeing to this watered-down time limit may lead to substantial future risks with regard to confidential information.  An example is the California case of Silicon Image, Inc. v. Analogk Semiconductor, Inc.   In furtherance of its goal to protect its confidential information, Silicon Image took numerous prudent steps to protect its trade secrets, including: i) requiring its own employees, customers and business partners to sign confidentiality agreements; ii) maintaining a key card access system and by requiring visitors to sign in to protect its trade secrets; iii) protecting computer systems through network security and access control; iv) labeling confidential proprietary information and watermarking all information disclosed outside the company with the name of the individual receiving the information; and, v) providing training sessions to employees on its trade secret protection program.

Yet in spite of its strict adherence to the protection of its confidential information, Silicon Image decided to limit the term of its confidentiality agreements to a set number of years, instead of a perpetual term, due to the fact that that’s what other high-tech companies were doing, and due to the fact that many partners, investors and other third parties pushed back and refused to execute non-disclosure agreements containing a perpetual duration of confidentiality.

Despite its best practices described above, Silicon allowed itself to frequently enter into confidentiality agreements with terms of 2 to 4 years, which proved to be a serious error when the time came for Silicon to seek a preliminary injunction in California Court against a competitor it alleged misappropriated its confidential information.

In denying Silicon’s request for a preliminary injunction, the Court analyzed whether Silicon Image made reasonable efforts to protect its confidential information.  One of the key factors the Court focused on was whether or not the non-disclosure agreements between Silicon Image and its customers and distributors provided adequate protection.  Unfortunately for Silicon, the Court concluded that reasonable steps to protect trade secrets were not shown by Silicon, pointing particularly to the time limits included in its confidentiality agreements.

The Court held that “one who claims that he has a trade secret must exercise eternal vigilance,” requiring all persons to whom a trade secret becomes known to acknowledge and promise to respect the secrecy in a written agreement.  A time limit contained in an NDA demonstrated to the Court that Silicon’s own expectations of maintaining its trade secrets were time limited and, thus, a failure to demonstrate “eternal vigilance” over its trade secrets. 

As a result, Silicon lost a serious case in its attempt to protect its confidential information.  The moral of this story is a simple one.  Companies who include time limits in their confidentiality agreements do so at their peril.  In order to avoid the Silicon Image outcome, it is prudent to stand firm and refuse to include a set time limit for the receiving party’s obligations to maintain the confidential information.  The best practices are for the trade secret owner to insist that the obligation to maintain confidentiality survive as long as the information disclosed qualifies as a trade secret under the requirements of applicable law.

The Legal Standard for Fraud in Maryland

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

To prevail on a claim of fraudulent misrepresentation in Maryland, a plaintiff must establish, by the heightened evidentiary standard of clear and convincing evidence:

“(1) that the defendant made a false representation to the plaintiff, (2) that its falsity was either known to the defendant or that the representation was made with reckless indifference as to its truth, (3) that the misrepresentation was made for the purpose of defrauding the plaintiff, (4) that the plaintiff relied on the misrepresentation and had the right to rely on it, and (5) that the plaintiff suffered compensable injury resulting from the misrepresentation.”  VF Corp. v. Wrexham Aviation Corp., 350 Md. 693, 703 (1998), quoting Nails v. S&R, 334 Md. 398, 415 (1994).

The defendant must actually be aware of the falsity, or atleast the potential for falsity.  The requirement concerning knowledge of the falsity or reckless indifference as to the truth of the representation means either the defendant’s actual knowledge that the representation was false or the defendant’s awareness that he does not know whether the representation is true or false. Ellerin v. Fairfax Savings, 337 Md. at 231, 652 A.2d at 1124.  

Negligence or misjudgment, “‘however gross,’” does not satisfy the knowledge element. Ellerin, 337 Md. at 232, 652 A.2d at 1125, quoting Cahill v. Applegarth, 98 Md. 493, 502, 56 A. 794, 796 (1904). See also VF Corporation and Blue Bell, Inc. v. Wrexham Aviation Corp., 350 Md. 693 (1998).

A defendant must have the intent, the scienter, to cheat another: “It is well recognized under Maryland law that an action for fraud cannot be supported … without any design to impose upon or cheat another.”  VF Corp. v. Wrexham Aviation Corp., 350 Md. 693, 703 (1998).  

The complaining party though, must have reasonably relied on the defendant’s representations.  To determine whether one party’s reliance upon the allegedly fraudulent statements of another party is reasonable, a court looks to all the facts and circumstances present in the particular case.  “In determining whether reliance is reasonable, a court is required to view the act in its setting….” Parker v. Columbia Bank, 91 Md. App. At 361-362. 

The One of the most important circumstances in this regard is the plaintiff’s background and experience.  For example, a complaining person who is knowledgeable in the commercial real estate realm could not be said to have reasonably relied on another’s false representations in that realm, as the complainant would have the requisite knowledge and resources to determine whether such statements were true in the first place.

 

 

Foreign LLCs and Corporations That Transact Business in Maryland But Fail to Register in Maryland Cannot File Suit Here

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

          Before transacting interstate or foreign business in Maryland, a foreign limited liability company (“LLC”) shall register to transact business with the State Department of Assessments and Taxation (“SDAT”) in accordance with Md. Corp. & Ass’ns. Code Ann. § 4A-1002:

“(a) Requirement. — Before doing any interstate, intrastate, or foreign business in this State, a foreign limited liability company shall register with the Department.”

           Under § 4A-1002, a foreign LLC is required to complete an application setting forth, among other information, its name, state of organization, business purpose, and resident agent, and pay a filing fee to SDAT.

          Md. Corp. & Ass’ns. Code Ann. § 4A-1007 states that any foreign limited liability company that fails to register with the SDAT in accordance with § 4A-1002 is barred from maintaining a lawsuit in any court of this State, as follows:

“(a) Barred from maintaining suit. — If a foreign limited liability company is doing or has done any intrastate, interstate, or foreign business in this State without complying with the requirements of this subtitle, the foreign limited liability company and any person claiming under it may not maintain suit in any court of this State, unless the limited liability company shows to the satisfaction of the court that:

   (1) The foreign limited liability company or the person claiming under it has paid the penalty specified in subsection (d)(1) of this section; and

   (2) (i) The foreign limited liability company or a successor to it has complied with the requirements of this title; or

     (ii) The foreign limited liability company and any foreign limited liability company successor to it are no longer doing intrastate, interstate, or foreign business in this State.”  

In essence, Md. Corp. & Ass’ns. Code Ann. § 4A-1007 bars a foreign LLC from acting as a plaintiff in any Maryland state or federal court if the LLC is doing or has done “any intrastate, interstate, or foreign business” in Maryland without registering or qualifying with SDAT. 

Foreign corporations face nearly identical Maryland statutes.  See Md. Corp. & Ass’ns. Code Ann. §§ 7-202,  and 7-301, respectively. 

The Maryland Court of Appeals stated the following in Yangming Marine Transport Corporation v. Revon Products U.S.A., Inc., 311 Md. 496 (1988):

“As pointed out above, under § 7-301, a foreign corporation that has not complied with § 7-202 or § 7-203 is barred from suing in Maryland if the corporation “is doing . . . any intrastate, interstate, or foreign business in this State.”  …. Instead, we have held that § 7-301 embodies a test for determining whether a foreign corporation is “doing business” in Maryland. See G.E.M., Inc. v. Plough, Inc., 228 Md. 484, 486, 180 A.2d 478, 480 (1962). Under this test, § 7-301 bars an unqualified or unregistered foreign corporation from suing in Maryland courts only if the corporation is doing such a substantial amount of localized business in this State that the corporation could be deemed “present” here. See, e.g., S.A.S. Personnel Consult. v. Pat-Pan, 286 Md. 335, 339-340, 407 A.2d 1139, 1142 (1979); G.E.M., Inc. v. Plough Inc., supra, 228 Md. at 488-489, 180 A.2d at 480-481.

 

 

Legal Differences Between a Stock Purchase and an Asset Purchase

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

A Stock Purchase refers to the sale and purchase of an ownership interest in an entity like a corporation, partnership or limited liability company. The Seller sells, and the Buyer purchases, all or part of the outstanding shares of stock in a corporation, or all or part of the membership interest in an LLC or partnership, as well as all of the existing assets and liabilities of the entity. This includes the name and goodwill of the business, which oftentimes can be valuable. The existing entity itself does not change. Rather, the owners of the stock or membership interest in the entity change from Seller to Buyer, while the entity itself continues uninterrupted.

In a Stock Purchase, unless agreed otherwise, the Seller is absolved of any obligations or liabilities stemming from its prior ownership interest in the entity, as the Purchaser becomes the owner of not only the assets of the entity, but likewise the debts and obligations as well. For this reason a Seller will generally prefer a Stock Purchase over an Asset Purchase, as a Stock Purchase allows the Seller to walk away from the business without the fear of future debts, liabilities or obligations of the business. For the Purchaser of stock in such a transaction, I cannot stress how important it is to perform the maximum amount of due diligence it can, in order the possibility of assuming any unintended or unknown liabilities and obligations, since such liabilities should have or could have been known.

Unlike a Stock Purchase, an Asset Purchase involves, as the name implies, the purchase and sale of only the assets of a particular business, without the purchase or sale of any stock or other ownership interest in the company. The Purchaser buys, and the Seller sells, only the specific assets identified in the governing document, named the Asset Purchase Agreement. Any assets not included in the Asset Purchase Agreement remain the property of Seller. The Buyer must create a new entity that will own the purchased Assets, or use an already existing entity for the transaction.

The Seller of assets retains ownership of the shares of the stock or other membership interest in the business, and as a result the Seller also retains any existing or future obligations and liabilities of such business, except those specifically transferred to the Buyer as part of the sale. For this reason a Purchaser will normally prefer an Asset Purchase to a Stock Purchase. This way, the Buyer obtains only the specific assets which it desired to purchase, and which debts, obligations and liabilities it is assuming, if any.

An additional cost that may be necessary in an Asset Purchase is the need to possibly transfer ownership of certain assets used in or by the business, and/or assign leases and other third party contracts to which Seller was a party.

There are many tax issues that must be addressed when deciding between a Stock Purchase an Asset Purchase. I advise my clients to see the advice of an accountant for such issues.

The Importance of an Attorneys Fees Clause

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

I was recently asked to litigate a breach of contract claim on behalf of a party who was wronged by the breach of another party to a contract. The kind of contract is immaterial for the purpose of this article. It could have been an independent contractor agreement, or employment agreement, or an asset purchase, stock purchase, non-compete, or non-solicitation agreement, or any one of a dozen other types of contracts. Regardless, as I have said previously in these posts, there are certain contractual provisions that should be found in just about every contract. What may be possibly be the single most important provision, from my perspective, happened to have been omitted from this particular contract, that is, a provision addressing the potential recovery of attorney’s fees resulting from litigation.

I say that this may be the single most important provision in a contract not in a substantive sense, as the material terms of the contract must of course be included with specificity. The services to be performed or the products to be sold are obviously vital, since without which there may be no meeting of the minds and thus no contract in the first place. And there are other material provisions related to the deal itself that must be included as well, ie the duration of the agreement, compensation, termination, etc.

But aside from the substantive points of the deal, there is not a more important procedural, boilerplate, provision than a provision addressing attorney’s fees. Why? Because in many cases, the lack of such a provision makes litigating over a contract a financially untenable idea. A party to a contract may have the facts and the law on its side. The case may essentially be a slam dunk, if such things exist. However, if at the end of the day, the damages available to the winning party only barely exceed the amount the party paid to its attorney’s to prosecute the case, then regardless of how great a case it is, the filing of a lawsuit or arbitration makes little sense from a bottom line perspective. None of us, clients or attorneys, litigate in order to achieve moral victories. If maintaining a lawsuit does not make sense from a financial point of view, then regardless of right and wrong and getting even, I always advise my clients to consider the case strictly from a business perspective, leaving aside emotion.

That is why it is such a huge benefit when a contract at issue contains a prevailing party clause with regard to attorney’s fees. This magic language allows a wronged party to sue with the understanding that if the facts and the law support her case, then she will be made whole in regard to not only the actual damages she sustained as a result of the breach of contract, but in addition, all costs, expenses and attorney’s fees she expended in litigating the matter. Please then, I ask you to review EVERY agreement your business has signed, as well as every agreement you sign from here on out, and prior to execution, include a provision similar to the following:

“In the event of litigation [or arbitration] for any matter arising out of or related to this Agreement, the party prevailing in any such action shall be entitled to recover from the losing party its reasonable attorney’s fees and all other legal costs and expenses, including filing fees, expended in the matter.”

The importance of this provision cannot be overstated, since attorney’s fees on even a fairly “routine” matter can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and for more complex cases against defendants with deep pockets, it would not be a surprise to see attorneys’ fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Trademark Infringement and Available Remedies

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

If you have registered your business trademark or service mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), then you have the right to sue a party that is infringing your trademark rights. The criteria used to determine whether the use of your mark or a similar mark qualifies as infringement is whether such use causes a “likelihood of confusion” to the public. Likelihood of confusion exists when a court believes that the public would be confused as to the source of the goods, or as to the sponsorship or approval of such goods.

Courts deciding a trademark infringement action will mainly look at two issues in deciding an infringement action: 1) the similarity of the two marks, for example, are the marks identical or merely similar; and, 2) what goods or services are the marks associated with. The more similar the marks, and the more related the products or services of the two marks are, the more likely a court will find a likelihood of confusion and enjoin the offending party’s use of the mark.

Should your prevail in a trademark infringement action, you are entitled to some or all of the following remedies: 1) injunctive relief to enjoin the other party from using the mark; 2) profits the opposing party made as a result of its use of the infringing mark; 3) monetary damages you sustained as a result of the infringing party’s use of the mark; and, 4) the costs you incurred in bringing the infringement action. In addition, a court may award treble (triple) damages if there is a finding of bad faith on the part of the offending party.

Why a Single Member LLC Needs an Operating Agreement

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Maryland law does not require that a sole member limited liability company (“LLC”) have an existing, enforceable operating agreement on file. Nevertheless, there is an excellent reason to draft and execute one: by executing an LLC operating agreement, the single member of the LLC has drawn a line of protection guarding that person against personal liability for the business debts and obligations of the LLC.

Specifically, Maryland courts have held that the protection from liability that exists by virtue of the LLC’s formation can disintegrate if the LLC fails to observe certain corporate formalities. One of these formalities is the existence of a valid operating agreement. Having an operating agreement in place can protect the single member from liability when a third party attempts to sue the individual member in order to satisfy an obligation resulting from a debt of the LLC.

Without an operating agreement, it may prove more difficult for the sole member to avoid liability. Courts sometimes blur the line between a sole member LLC with its protection from liability for its individual owners, and a sole proprietorship where such protection does not exist. However, this line becomes more clear cut, and courts will as a result hesitate to “pierce the corporate veil” and hold an individual liable for the LLC’s debts, when corporate formalities like having an operating agreement are complied with.

So You Have Formed Your Corporation/LLC, Now What?

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Start-up companies many times do not know the extent of their legal and other needs after forming a business. The drafting and filing of Articles of Incorporation or Articles of Organization are just the beginning of your company’s service needs. I recommend that each new business owner immediately reach out to establish relationships with the myriad of services providers your business needs, now and in the future. Such service providers include many of the following:

- a corporate law attorney specializing in employment, contracts, intellectual property, litigation and other corporate issues;

- a CPA for your business accounting and tax services;

- an insurance broker for your business liability, E&O, and other insurance needs;

- a banker with whom you have a personal relationship with;

- a financial advisor for your 401K, retirement and other accounts;

- an IT services firm to be on call for your computer networking needs;

- a payroll company to handle weekly payroll and taxes for your employees; and

- a company to develop your website, and then focus on your internet advertising, search engine optimization, and other advertising needs in order to properly publicize your business over the internet.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me should you need referrals in any of the above areas.

How Does a Franchisor Prove Damages in Litigation Against a Franchisee?

Friday, July 9th, 2010

In representing franchisor clients against defaulting franchisees, it is imperative to give adequate thought to how the franchisor is going to prove its damages that resulted from a franchisee’s breach of the franchise agreement. When confronted with this issue, I most often utilize a financially competent representative of the franchisor to testify with regard to that amount of monetary damage suffered by the franchisor. The franchisor’s representative must be able to prove the damage by evaluating the franchisee’s financial statements, including revenues and/or profits, expenses, and royalties paid to the franchisor, and then determine what sums the franchisor would have earned either during and/or after the franchise term had it not been for the franchisee’s breach.

In order to testify convincingly and thoroughly, the franchisor’s representative must be able to analyze the franchisee’s financial numbers and draw a conclusion from such numbers. Therefore, a chief financial officer of a small franchisor, or an auditor or accountant of a larger franchisor, is an ideal representative in these instances, provided that the representative has been with the company long enough to be able to testify knowledgeably with regard to the details of the franchisor’s system.

Generally, a well-prepared franchisor representative will be permitted to testify as to the value or the projected profits of a franchised business provided the representative has a sufficient foundation for the analysis and opinion, including particular knowledge of the financial issues presented by virtue or his or her position in the franchisor company. This simply means that a franchisor representative may opine on the issue of lost profits where they know the franchisor and franchisee’s business and financial system intimately, and have the professional ability to analyze the franchisee’s financial statements.

To see how a franchisor SHOULD NOT approach the issue of proving its damages against a franchisee, see Lifewise Master Funding v. Telebank, 374 F.3d 917 (10th Cir. 2004), which in essence holds that a company’s witness as to damages must have personal knowledge of all items factored into his opinion in order for the opinion to be admissible. The court concluded that a business owner or executive may give “a straightforward opinion as to lost profits using conventional methods based on [the company's] actual operating history.” However, because in this case the witness lacked personal knowledge of the factors used in the damages analysis, the opinion was inadmissible.

Enforcement of Non-Compete Not Dependent on Solicitation of Former Clients or Use of Confidential Information

Monday, April 12th, 2010

In TEKsystems, Inc. v. Bolton, (2010), the Maryland Federal District Court recently reinforced Maryland law on the point that the enforcement of a covenant not to compete is not dependent on whether the competing former employee solicits his former employer’s clients or uses its confidential information, but rather on whether or not the scope of the restrictive covenant is reasonable. The only factors that will determine whether the non-compete is valid are its temporal and geographical limits, the employer’s legitimate business interests, the employee’s unique and specialized skills, any undue hardship on the employee, and the public interest served by enforcing the restrictive covenant.

The non-compete found in the former employee’s employment agreement contained standard language prohibiting the former employee from engaging “in the business of recruiting or providing on a temporary or permanent basis technical service personnel, industrial personnel, or office support personnel” for a period of 18 months after termination of employment, and within a geographical limitation of a 50-mile radius of the employee’s former office. Both the period of time of 18 months and the geographical scope of 50 miles have been held as reasonable on numerous occasions by Maryland courts.
The Court also found that the employer had legitimate business interests in enforcing the covenant, the employee possessed unique and specialized skills, and the employee would not suffer undue hardship by enforcing the covenant. The enforcement of the non-compete was upheld against the former employee.

To read a comprehensive blog of all of the issues address by the Court in this case, visit the blog of the Business Law Section of the Maryland State Bar Association at http://marylandbusinesslawdevelopments.blogspot.com/search/label/Injunctive%20Relief.