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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently held in Governo Law Firm LLC v. Bergeron, 487 Mass. 188 (2021), that the inapplicability of G. L. c. 93A, § 11, to disputes arising from an employment relationship does not mean that an employee never can be liable to its employer under G. L. c. 93A, § 11. Rather, where an employee misappropriates her employer’s proprietary materials during the course of employment and then later uses the materials in the marketplace, that conduct is not purely internal and it comprises a marketplace transaction that may give rise to a claim under G. L. c. 93A.
In this case, Governo Law Firm (GLF) sued to protect materials stolen by a group of its nonequity partners as they left GLF and prepared to start a new law firm, CMBG3 Law LLC. Governo had created a research library containing over 20 years of materials it had collected on asbestos litigation, along with an electronic database used to search the library. The nonequity partners secretly downloaded the library and databases, along with administrative materials such as GLF’s employee handbook and client lists while still employed with GLF. They then made an offer to GLF’s sole owner to purchase GLF and stated if the offer was not accepted that same day, they would resign. GLF’s owner rejected the offer and—too late—locked the attorneys out of GLF’s computer systems. The next day, those attorneys opened for business under CMBG3 and began using the stolen materials.
The jury in the Superior Court action found some or all of the attorney defendants liable for conversion, breach of the duty of loyalty, and conspiracy, but found none of them liable for unfair or deceptive trade practices in violation of G.L c. 93A, § 11. CMBG3 was found liable for conversion and civil conspiracy. GLF was awarded $900,000 in damages calculated by lost profits and a permanent injunction was issued enjoining the defendants from using the library and the databases.
GLF appealed the judge’s trial instructions and his posttrial rulings regarding the 93A claim, the scope of the injunction, and interest on the damages award. The SJC on appeal agreed with GLF and held the judge erroneously instructed the jury that the defendants’ conduct prior to their separation of employment, namely the stealing of the materials while still employed at GLF, was not relevant to GLF’s claim under G.L. c. 93A § 11. The SJC held that in order for the jury to resolve the G. L. c. 93A, § 11 claim the jury should have considered whether the attorney defendants’ theft and subsequent use of GLF’s materials amounted to unfair or deceptive conduct.
The SJC further determined it was an abuse of discretion for the trial judge to exclude the stolen administrative materials, such as the employee handbook and client list, from the scope of the permanent injunction.
Regarding interest, the SJC held that while prejudgment interest was not required due to the non-compensatory nature of the damages, which were awarded on the basis of the defendant’s profits and not to make the plaintiff whole, post-judgment interest was appropriate and would accrue from the date of entry of initial judgment until payment in full. This was contrary to the position taken by the attorney defendants and the trial judge that the deposit of damages with the court, rather than directly to GLF, would terminate the accrual of post-judgment interest.
If you have any questions of would like more information, please contact Nancy Reimer at [email protected]., Jennifer Markowski at [email protected] or any other member of our Lawyers’ Professional Liability Practice Group, or Employment Law Group a list of which can be found at www.fmglaw.com.