Showing posts with label trade secrets. Show all posts
Showing posts with label trade secrets. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Belgian-waffle makers battle over whose doughy goodness won pride of place on Oprah's list

PxHere CC0
Two Massachusetts business are embroiled in a mouth-watering lawsuit over waffles and Oprah.

Oprah's 2021 "favorite things" featured "Eastern Standard Provisions Gourmet Liège Belgian Waffle Gift Box." Yum.

Eastern Standard Provisions is based in Waltham, Mass., and lists its "Classic Liège Belgian Waffles" for sale online. Here's the pitch:

Our artisanal Classic Liège Belgian Waffles are crafted with real butter and pearl sugar imported from Belgium for a light, sweet crunch. Our Classic Liège Belgian Waffles are different than other waffles you may be used to. Most waffles are made with batter, but our Classic Liège Belgian Waffles are made from dough delivering a soft, brioche-like texture and a one-of-a-kind waffle experience.

This is not Eastern Standard's Oprah debut. Its "artisanal soft pretzels" made the grade in 2019.

But wait. Based in Attleboro, Mass., the Burgundian gourmet street-food brassiere claims in a lawsuit (via WCVB) that Oprah picked Burgundian waffles for the list, because Eastern Standard ripped off the Burgundian recipe it had learned under a non-disclosure agreement when the two explored a co-branding venture.

According to the lawsuit, Burgundian founder Shane Matlock learned how to make the Liège waffles while serving in the U.S. Army, when, for three of 15 years, he was stationed on the France-Belgium border, and, the Burgundian website says, he premiered the waffles in Providence, Rhode Island (my home state, near Attleboro) in 2017.

All I know for sure is that I now have a craving for waffles.

The case is The Burgundian LLC v. Hawthorne Food Co. (Mass. Super. Ct. Suffolk Dep't Bus. Litig. Sess. filed Feb. 3, 2022).  The plaintiff alleges, inter alia, breach of contract, violation of state trade secret law, passing off, false advertising, and unfair trade practices.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Court: Irish officials must justify non-disclosure under FOIA exemption for commercial information

Ireland Supreme Court chamber (Michael Foley CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
In two judgments in late September, the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 2014 exemption for confidential commercial information is not mandatory and that public entities relying on the exemption "must explain why the public interest does not justify release."

In both cases, public entities responding to record requests had been permitted to rely on the prima facie application of the exemption.  That approach fell short of the Irish FOIA's legislative command, the Supreme Court reasoned, because the record requesters were given no information with which to test the validity of the exemption.  The Supreme Court reversed and remanded.

Federal and state FOIAs in the United States also exempt from disclosure confidential information that private entities supply to government when disclosure would jeopardize the private entity's competitive position.  The exemptions operate also to shield public information from disclosure that would jeopardize the government's own competitive position as an actor in the private marketplace.

The U.S. FOIA does not, and state FOIAs typically do not, require that a public agency independently test confidential-information exemption against the public interest in disclosure, essentially second-guessing private owners' confidentiality designations.  To the contrary, legislative exemptions in some states are mandatory, and not, as U.S. FOIA exemptions are, committed to administrative discretion.  Current federal policy permits the disclosure of some statutorily exempt records, but the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) counsels agencies to engage in "full and deliberate" analysis of competing interests.  As to federal exemption 4, for confidential information, the DOJ has opined that such information "would not ordinarily be the subject of discretionary FOIA disclosure."

University College Cork, 2019 (Michael O'Sheil CC BY-SA 4.0)
However, unlike U.S. FOIA exemption 4 ("trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential," 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4)), the Irish exemption for confidential information is limited by a "public interest override."  According to the Irish law, the exemption does not apply when according to the agency "head concerned, the public interest would, on balance, be better served by granting than by refusing to grant the FOI request."  Public interest overrides favoring disclosure are uncommon in U.S. access-to-information law, except in balancing analyses involving personnel records.

Journalist Gavin Sheridan, 2014 (Markus ›fin‹ Hametner CC BY 2.0)
Decided on September 25, 2020, both cases in Ireland involved journalistic investigations.  In Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources v. Information Commissioner, [2020] IESC 57, journalist, FOI advocate, and founding CEO of Vizlegal, a legal information service provider, Gavin Sheridan (recent profile at The Attic) sought access to a state contract with service wholesaler E-Nasc Éireann Teoranta (eNet) to provide public access to fibre-optic-cable infrastructure.  In University College Cork v. Information Commissioner, [2020] IESC 58, news broadcaster RTÉ sought information about a €100m loan by the European Investment Bank to the National University of Ireland, Cork.  Both court opinions were authored by Justice Marie Baker, herself a U. Cork alumna, with four other justices concurring.

More details and further analysis of the cases are available from Andrew McKeown BL at Irish Legal News (Sept. 28, 2020), and from Bébhinn Bollard, Doug McMahon, and Brendan Slattery at McCann FitzGerald (Oct. 12, 2020).

Friday, March 29, 2019

S.D. newspaper seeks transparency in federal food subsidies through SCOTUS-bound FOIA suit

Amicus brief in FMI v. Argus Leader
On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (LII), case concerning the federal open records law exemption for sensitive competitive information.  Textually, the American access-to-information (ATI) statute, para. (b)(4) ("exemption 4"), exempts from disclosure "trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [or legal personality] and privileged or confidential."  State ATI laws have comparable provisions, and interpretation of the federal law is sometimes influential on state courts interpreting similar language. 

Plaintiff below, Respondent Argus Leader Media publishes the Argus Leader, the largest-circulation newspaper in South Dakota, based in Sioux Falls, and a member of the USA Today newspaper network.  In investigation of federal food subsidies, the Leader invoked the FOIA to find out how much taxpayer money is paid by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to individual food retailers.  The USDA refused on a number of grounds, including exemption 4.  Joining the USDA in resisting disclosure is a trade association of food retailers, Petitioner Food Marketing Institute (FMI).

The Eighth Circuit, per U.S. Circuit Judge Jane L. Kelly, upheld the trial court's ruling in favor of the newspaper.  Argus Leader Media v. USDA, 889 F.3d 914 (8th Cir. 2018).  The court wrote: 
Applying the law to the facts, we find no basis for reversal. The trial evidence showed that the grocery industry is highly competitive, but is already rich with publically-available data that market participants (and prospective market entrants) use to model their competitors' sales. The evidence shows that releasing the contested data is likely to make these statistical models marginally more accurate. But the evidence does not support a finding that this marginal improvement in accuracy is likely to cause substantial competitive harm. The USDA's evidence showed only that more accurate information would allow grocery retailers to make better business decisions.

On appeal (No. 18-481: SCOTUSblog, Oyez), the parties dispute how to interpret exemption 4.  The Eighth Circuit followed the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court to define "confidential" as risking "substantial competitive harm."  Even within that test, lower courts have divided over the requisite degree of certainty to bring the exemption into play, from the reasonable possibility of advantage to a competitor to a near certainty that economic loss will result. FMI would instead prefer that the Court embrace a much broader exemption: what FMI calls the "ordinary meaning" of the word "confidential," that is, simply, exempting from disclosure information that a company has not disclosed.

I signed on in support of Argus Leader Media to an Amicus Brief of FOIA and First Amendment Scholars, organized by the First Amendment Clinic at Cornell Law School, by students under the leadership of faculty including Assistant Director Cortelyou C. Kenney, and for my part via FOIA expert Professor Margaret Kwoka at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  The brief asserts:

Petitioner [FMI] argues for sweeping changes to FOIA’s test for disclosure of confidential commercial information under Exemption 4 used by all Courts of Appeals for the past forty-four years, beginning with National Parks in 1974. Acknowledging that FOIA does not define the term “confidential,” the National Parks court held that the statute requires disclosure— notwithstanding a claim that the withheld records are confidential commercial information—absent a showing of either (1) impairment of the government’s ability to obtain necessary information in the future; or, as relevant here, (2) infliction of substantial competitive harm to the information submitter. 498 F.2d 765, 770 (D.C. Cir. 1974). That test has withstood the test of time. Any change should come from Congress, rather than this Court, because of the unusual context of FOIA, and the unusual context of this case.

Saliently, to my mind, the brief demonstrates congressional approval of the "substantial harm" test, and the FOIA ought not be reinterpreted contrary to its laudable aim of transparency.

As I have written recently in another context, the greatest threat around the world today to transparency and accountability might come from the private sector as surely as from the public sector.  There should be no question as to the need to maximize transparency where the two meet.  While FMI lobbies Congress and works through a Food PAC and "political education fund," certainly taxpayers are entitled to know what public subsidies are being delivered to FMI constituents.

Other signatories on the brief are: Ashutosh A. Bhagwat, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law, University of California, Davis School of Law; Michael C. Dorf, Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law,
Cornell Law School; Heidi Kitrosser, Professor of Law, University of Minnesota Law School; Seth F. Kreimer, Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law; Margaret B. Kwoka, Associate Professor with Tenure, University of Denver Sturm College of Law; James O’Reilly, Retired Professor, University of Cincinnati College of Law; and Nelson Tebbe, Professor of Law, Cornell Law School.