Our Chicago trade secrets attorneys were interested to see a recent trade secrets lawsuit coming from the high-dollar world of professional sports. Palace Sports & Entertainment, owner of the Detroit Pistons basketball team, is suing rival venue and sports company Olympia Entertainment Inc., plus nine ex-employees who moved to Olympia, for alleged theft of its confidential trade secrets. Crain’s Detroit Business reported that the claim stems from the movement of ten Palace employees to Olympia, starting in February when Palace president Tom Wilson left to run a new venture for Olympia and its parent company, Ilitch Holdings. This venture was to look into a new venue for the Detroit Red Wings, also owned by Ilitch. Nine people followed Wilson, including two executive vice presidents. In Michigan state court, Palace accuses them of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, unfair competition, conspiracy, conversion, tortious interference and misappropriation of trade secrets.
According to the complaint in Palace Sports & Entertainment Inc. v. Olympia Entertainment Inc., dated June 8, 2010, Palace is accusing the ex-employees of taking and misusing trade secrets, despite having signed different versions of a confidentiality agreement that gave them a fiduciary role in Palace’s confidential information. The contract also contained restrictive covenants not to disclose such information to people outside the company, or use it for their own or anyone else’s gain. Confidential information was defined broadly, including “any technical, economic, financial, marketing or other information, which is not common knowledge.” Palace alleges that the ex-employees misappropriated information including suite prices, customer and prospect lists and sales notes, a business plan, marketing plans, suite assignments, appointment logs, proposals, vendor lists and at least one contract. When Palace notified Olympia of the first theft, it said, Olympia provided physical documents and lists of files. But Olympia did not provide the electronic data behind those files, Palace alleged and has even put some of the data on its own computers.
Palace demanded that Olympia return all of the electronic files and physical documents; that each ex-employee swear an oath that all of the information has been returned; and that a third-party expert be allowed to comb Olympia’s computers and the ex-employees’ personal computers for the information. Olympia has not complied. In its lawsuit, Palace said this caused it immediate and irreparable harm by enabling unfair competition. Olympia said publicly that it believed Palace simply did not like losing its employees. No further court documents are freely available, but trial is set for May 27, 2011.
This case generated great interest in the Detroit press, in part because Ilitch was considering buying the Pistons from Palace. But as Illinois business lawyers, we would like to discuss the strength of Palace’s case, judging by the allegations made in its complaint. Specifically, we suspect that the defendants could consider a defense based on whether the information they are accused of stealing was actually confidential trade secrets. Under the laws of Michigan, Illinois and other states, some information is not a trade secret because it is widely available to the public and not valuable. Thus, a trade secrets lawsuit cannot survive if it is based on the use of information such as lists of businesses copied from a phone book. Even if Palace’s confidentiality agreement defines such information as confidential, employees would be under no obligation to comply. The agreement cited in the complaint may also be subject to a challenge for being overly broad or vague because its definition of confidential business information includes “any information, not known to the general public.” This could easily include information with no special economic value.