preliminary injunction

A preliminary injunction is one of the available provisional remedies, namely, equitable relief entered by a court prior to a final determination of the merits. The relief usually orders a party to restrain from a course of conduct or compels a party to continue with a course of conduct until the action has been decided. Preliminary injunctions differ from temporary restraining orders in that TROs are usually granted pending a hearing for a preliminary injunction where a court determines that “immediate and irreparable injury, loss or damage will result unless the defendant is restrained before the hearing can be held.” See CPLR § 6301.

The standard that a party seeking a preliminary injunction must satisfy to obtain such “extraordinary” relief is the well-settled three-prong test: (1) a probability of success on the merits, (2) danger of irreparable injury in the absence of an injunction and (3) a balance of equities in its favor. See Nobu Next Door, LLC v. Fine Arts Hous., Inc., 4 N.Y.3d 839, 840 (2005).

Injunctive relief is not designed to determine the merits of the action, rather its function is to preserve the status quo pending the outcome of an action. For this reason, preliminary injunctions can be used as a significant weapon in commercial and business litigation. Nevertheless, it is important to understand when this remedy is available and when it is not.

Establishing the second prong of the test often proves to be the most difficult since the vast majority of commercial and business litigation cases seek monetary damages—something that can be remedied at the disposition of a litigation and therefore not worthy of the extraordinary remedy of injunctive relief. By definition, the concept of irreparable injury seeks relief for a type of harm for which there is no adequate remedy at law (e.g., no monetary damages).

New York County Commercial Division Judge Sherwood recently denied an application for a preliminary injunction for two reasons: the plaintiff sought a remedy which would alter, not maintain, the status quo and because plaintiff could not show irreparable harm.

In that case, the plaintiff sought to have the Court compel the defendant to deliver shares in defendant’s company to plaintiff based on the terms of a purchase and sale agreement between the parties. However, defendant argued that the transfer of shares would be in violation of various SEC rules preventing the plaintiff from acquiring further shares of defendant’s common stocks. Ultimately, Sherwood decided that compelling the defendant to transfer the shares would alter the status quo because it would be giving plaintiff its ultimate relief it sought by allowing it to bypass a potentially illegal transfer of shares. See Crede CG III, Ltd. v. Tanzanian Royalty Exploration Corp., 2018 NY Slip Op 32918 (New York County, 2018).  This type of relief, also known as a “mandatory” injunction, is granted only upon a much higher burden. See Lehey v. Goldburt, 90 A.D.3d 410, 411 (1st Dep’t 2011).

Next the plaintiff argued that it would be irreparably harmed if its application for a preliminary injunction was not granted because the defendant was “on the verge of insolvency” threatening plaintiff’s ability to collect on a potential judgment issued at the conclusion of the case. Here, defendant was a publicly traded company created to help fund some of its gold and precious metal mining projects in Tanzania. At the time of the application it had current assets of $1.3 million and debts of over $10 million along with $50 million in assets located in Tanzania where the law of that country does not currently recognize United States judgments.

Judge Sherwood reaffirmed the principle that the relief of a preliminary injunction is not available in an action seeking solely money damages. He reasoned that plaintiff’s damages consisted of the value of publicly traded stock of defendant’s company which could easily and readily be calculated. Sherwood reasoned that the fact that defendant might not have any assets left by the end of the litigation was not enough to award a preliminary injunction because an “unsecured creditor has no cognizable interest in a debtor’s property until the creditor obtained a judgement.” He went on to say that a creditor therefore “has no equitable prejudgment remedy that will interfere with the debtor’s use of its property—even if the defendant threatens to strip itself of assets.”

In conclusion, commercial litigators must remember that the extraordinary remedy of a preliminary injunction, can be used as a weapon, but such relief is only available to maintain the status quo and where irreparable harm exists.

Under what circumstances do customer information and business operations constitute “trade secrets” that may be enjoined from use by a former employee ? A recent decision by Justice Elizabeth H. Emerson on this issue serves as a stark reminder that a preliminary injunction requires “clear and convincing” proof that the information is truly a secret.

In Devos, Ltd v. United Returns, Inc., recently-troubled pharmaceutical-return company Devos sought to enjoin its former employees from operating a competitor, United Returns, pursuant to business tort law and non-compete/solicitation provisions contained in the former employees’ employment contracts. In August 2015, Devos obtained a temporary restraining order and sought a preliminary injunction, which United Returns subsequently moved to vacate. 

The court denied the preliminary injunction and vacated the temporary restraints. After finding that the non-compete provisions included in the restrictive covenants were overly broad, the court found that the restrictive covenants were unnecessary, as well. As for Devos’ business tort claims involving misappropriation of trade secrets, the court found that “clear and convincing evidence” of a trade secret was lacking. In particular, the court rejected Devos’ contention that its customer information and business operations were “trade secrets” that United Returns had unfairly exploited to obtain competitive advantages. Crucially, there was no evidence that Devos had taken measures to protect its customer lists from disclosure; in fact, United Returns submitted evidence that the names of Devos’ customers were publicly available and well known within the industry.

Nor did the manner in which Devos conducted its business constitute a “trade secret.” United Returns introduced evidence that Devos’ systems and processes were used throughout the pharmaceutical-return industry, and “an employee’s recollection of information pertaining to the specific needs and business habits of particular customers is not confidential.” Thus, the court reaffirmed and applied the elements of “secrecy”: (1) substantial exclusivity of knowledge of the process or compilation of information and (2) the employment of precautionary measures to preserve such exclusive knowledge by limiting legitimate access by others.

Devos’ failure to meet its evidentiary burden demonstrates how important it is for employers to restrict access to important customer records. But even where efforts have been made to maintain the secrecy of customers’ information, a former employee still cannot be prevented from using that information if it could be easily obtained from publicly available sources.  For example, in Sasqua Group v. Courtney, the Eastern District of New York dismissed a misappropriation action because the  plaintiff’s allegedly “confidential” customer information database could have been duplicated through simple (though lengthy) internet searches. By contrast, in Freedom Calls Foundation v. Bukstel, the Eastern District of New York held that it would be very difficult to duplicate the plaintiff’s efforts in compiling its list of non-profit donors and clients because their personal contact information was not publicly known outside of the industry.  

Merely because a well-trained former employee has successfully competed does not prove that confidential information was misappropriated–all the more reason to take care when drafting non-compete provisions. Absent such an effective provision, Devos serves as a cautionary tale that institutional knowledge sometimes must jump a high hurdle before it can be protected as a trade secret.