Heard in the Court of Appeals 3 November 2014.
This Decision is not final until expiration of the twenty-one day rehearing period. [North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure 32(b)]
Appeal by plaintiff from order entered 20 February
2014 by Judge Calvin E. Murphy in Catawba County Superior Court.
Catawba County. No. 14 CVS 104.
REVERSED AND REMANDED.
Law Offices of Matthew K. Rogers, PLLC, by Matthew K. Rogers, for plaintiff-appellant.
Patrick, Harper & Dixon, LLP, by Michael P. Thomas, for defendant-appellee.
HUNTER, Robert C., Judge. Chief Judge McGEE and Judge BELL concur.
HUNTER, Robert C., Judge.
TSG Finishing, LLC (" plaintiff" or " TSG" ) appeals from an order denying its motion for a preliminary injunction aimed at preventing its former employee, Keith Bollinger (" defendant" ), from breaching a non-competition and confidentiality agreement (" the non-compete agreement" ) and misappropriating TSG's trade secrets. On appeal, plaintiff contends that the trial court erred by denying its motion for a preliminary injunction because: (1) it has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its claims for breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets; and (2) it would suffer irreparable harm without issuance of the preliminary injunction.
After careful review, we reverse the trial court's order and remand with instructions to issue the preliminary injunction.
TSG is in the business of fabric finishing. It has three plants in Catawba County, North Carolina. Rather than manufacturing fabrics, TSG applies chemical coatings to achieve whichever result is desired by the customer, such as coloring, stiffening, deodorizing, and abrasion resistance.
Defendant began working in the field of fabric finishing for Geltman Corporation after graduating from high school in 1982. He has no formal education beyond high school. TSG, Incorporated (" TSG, Inc." ) acquired Geltman in 1992, and defendant stayed on to work for TSG, Inc. By the late 1990's, defendant was promoted to Quality Control Manager.
Defendant was responsible for assessing a customer's finishing needs and developing a finishing protocol for that customer. Defendant also helped in the creation of a " style data card" for each customer. The style data cards contained information on each step of the finishing process, such as: (1) the chemical finish compound, 70 percent of which was proprietary to TSG; (2) " cup weight" density; (3) needle punch technique; (4) type of machine needed for the needle punch technique; (5) speed of needle punch; (6) types of needles used; (7) needle punch depths; (8) method of compound application; (9) speed of compound application; (10) blade size; (11) fabric tension; and (12) temperature and type of drying required.
Defendant testified during deposition that some of these factors required trial and error to achieve a customer's desired result. For example, on one of the style data cards used to explain defendant's work-related duties during the deposition, defendant had marked a number of changes to the various factors listed and signed his initials to the changes. He testified that he changed the data entered by the customer because subsequent testing revealed different and more efficient methods to achieve the result. He also testified that the results of the trials he conducted and the knowledge he gained regarding how to achieve these results were not known outside of TSG. Michael Goldman, the Director of Operations at TSG, filed an affidavit in which he asserted that some of the customer projects that defendant worked on required over a year's worth of trial and error to achieve a customer's desired result.
TSG expends great effort to keep its customer and finishing information confidential. Specifically, it uses a code system in its communications with customers that allows the customer to identify the type of finish it wants, but does not reveal the chemicals or processes involved in creating that finish. TSG has confidentiality agreements in place with many of its customers. Third parties must sign confidentiality agreements and receive a temporary identification badge when visiting TSG's facilities. TSG's computers are password protected, with additional passwords being required to access the company's production information.
In 2007, TSG, Inc. and defendant entered into a non-disclosure and non-compete agreement. In exchange for an annual increase in compensation of $1,300.00 and a $3,500.00 signing bonus, defendant agreed not to disclose TSG, Inc.'s confidential or proprietary trade secrets and further assented to employment restrictions after his tenure at the company ended.
TSG, Inc. filed for bankruptcy in 2009. By a plan approved by the United States Bankruptcy Court on 1 May 2011, TSG, Inc. transferred its interests to plaintiff, a wholly owned operating subsidy of TSG, Inc., which remained in operation. According to defendant, every aspect of his day-to-day job remained the same after bankruptcy reorganization.
In July 2013, defendant and a direct competitor of TSG, American Custom Finishing, LLC (" ACF" ), began negotiations regarding defendant's potential to leave TSG and work for ACF. According to TSG, defendant resigned from his position on 21 November 2013 and announced that he was leaving to become plant manager for ACF at a plant five miles away from TSG. Defendant claims that he gave TSG two weeks' notice on 21 November 2013 but was terminated immediately and escorted off of the premises. Defendant began working for ACF the following Monday, on 25 November 2013. During his deposition, defendant testified that TSG and ACF shared certain customers, and that defendant is responsible for performing similar customer evaluations for ACF as he did at TSG.
TSG filed suit against defendant on 16 January 2014, alleging claims for breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets, and unfair and deceptive practices. TSG also moved for a preliminary injunction to prevent defendant from breaching the non-compete and misappropriating TSG's trade secrets. A confidential hearing was held on plaintiff's motion, and by order entered 20 February 2014, the trial court denied the motion for preliminary injunction. Plaintiff filed timely notice of appeal.
Grounds for Appellate Review
We must first address the interlocutory nature of plaintiff's appeal. Orders granting or denying preliminary injunctions are " interlocutory and thus generally not immediately reviewable. An appeal may be proper, however, in cases, including those involving trade secrets and non-compete agreements, where the denial of the injunction deprives the appellant of a substantial right which he would lose absent review prior to final determination." VisionAIR, Inc. v. James, 167 N.C.App. 504, 507, 606 S.E.2d 359, 361 (2004) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
[W]here time is of the essence, the appellate process is not the procedural mechanism best suited for resolving the dispute. The parties would be better advised to seek a final determination on the merits at the earliest possible time. Nevertheless, [where a] case presents an important question affecting the respective rights of employers and employees who choose to ...