|Some caterpillars change into butterflies; others|
become litigants. But which are more appealing?
Accountant Paula Huesca had a middle management post with Caterpillar Logistics till she left in August 2010 to take up a senior management position with Quinton Hazell Automotive Limited (QH). Her contract of employment with Caterpillar didn't contain a restrictive covenant, though she did sign a separate confidentiality agreement, unlimited in time, in which she undertook not to use or divulge Caterpillar's trade secrets or confidential information during or after her employment.
A year later, Caterpillar told Huesca that it intended to sue her for breach of a fiduciary duty which she owed the company by accepting the QH position . Huesco denied the allegation, maintaining that she had no intention of disclosing confidential information to QH and even undertaking not to do so. Not daunted by this display of confident denial, Caterpillar issued proceedings: the order which it sought contained a generic definition of confidential information which did neither specified any particular information which was stated to be confidential not listed any documents by which it could be ascertained precisely what was included. According to Caterpillar,despite the requirement laid down by the Court of Appeal in Faccenda Chicken Ltd v Fowler  Ch 117 and Roger Bullivant Ltd v Ellis (1987) ICR 464 that the confidential information be identified, the court could still apply the principle established by the House of Lords in Bolkiah v KPMG  UKHL 52 that an ex-employee can be barred from carrying out specified work for a new employer unless that employee is able to satisfy the court that all reasonable measures have been taken to ensure that no disclosure would occur.
Mr Justice Tugendhat dismissed Caterpillar's application.
- The learned judge wasn't persuaded of the utility of the Bolkiah principle. Apart from the fact that no order had ever been made on behalf of an employer against an employee in reliance on it, Bolkiah wasn't an employment case and contained no reference to any employment case law. All it established was that a solicitor remained under a continuing duty, after a retainer had ended, to preserve the confidentiality of information imparted by a client during the fiduciary relationship which had previously existed. If Bolkiah was relevant to the relationship of an employee to an employer, it was odd that its relevance had been overlooked in all the major employment cases since it was decided.
- The judge agreed that an employee might indeed be a fiduciary in respect of specific property or confidential information entrusted to his or her care -- and that such an employee might even have a relationship with the employer which was analogous to that of a trustee to a beneficiary or solicitor to client. However, that was not the usual case. In general, in a normal employment relationship, the balance of power was with the employer -- not the employee.
- If Bolkiah didn't apply, what did? The judge explained that Faccenda Chickens still ruled the roost: this meant that the extent to which an employer was free by agreement to restrain the use or disclosure by a former employee of confidential information depended on the nature of the information and the period and territory in which the restraint was to apply.
- In any event, Caterpillar's application was doomed for several reasons, but mainly because (i) the confidentiality agreement was too wide to be enforceable since it sought to include both information and other matter that employees would normally carry around in their heads and would be entitled to use for their own benefit after the employment relationship ended, and (ii) the form of the injunction which Caterpillar was too wide because it was not clear what information it was seeking to protect and also because it specified no time limit;
The IPKat understands that permission to appeal has been granted. He thinks the decision is correct on the facts and agrees that the application of the principle in Bolkiah would be inappropriate here. However, he doesn't like the idea that, if Bolkiah had been relevant, it would have been cited in all the leading employment cases by now: that argument can be used against any means of legal reasoning in which a perceptive lawyer is able to graft a precedent from one field of application so that it bears fruit in another.
Recipes for chicken and caterpillar here and here
The chicken, the cat and the caterpillar here