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July 14, 2022

Stormy Weather Ahead: Lack of Causation Evidence Rains Out Appeal

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The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit found that a trade secret owner lacked "non-speculative and sufficiently probative evidence of a causal nexus between Defendants' alleged bad acts and [the trade secret owner's] asserted damages," and upheld a lower court's summary judgment ruling for defendants. GeoMetWatch Corp. v. Hall, et. al, Case No. 19-4130 (10th Cir. June 29, 2022) (Holmes, Kelly, Lucero, JJ.)

GeoMetWatch (GMW) alleged misappropriation of trade secrets and multiple other complaints against several different groups of defendants, including the Hall defendants, Utah University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation (AWSF) defendants, and Utah State University Research Foundation (USURF) defendants. The lower court granted summary judgment to all defendants based on lack of non-speculative causation relating to lost profits, to the USURF and AWSF defendants based on governmental immunity under Utah law, and to AWSF on its contractual counterclaim. GMW appealed.

Background

GMW launched a venture for a new satellite-based weather-detecting senor system developed by USURF. GMW entered into a cooperation agreement with AsiaSat, a foreign commercial satellite operator on which GMW relied to secure funding from Export-Import Bank. There were two conditions precedent before AsiaSat would seek the loan: a guarantee for the loan and a convertible note. The Hall defendants were brought in to possibly provide the guarantee, and with the understanding that Hall would maintain confidentiality of GMW's information. After reviewing the confidential information, Hall entered into a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) with GMW. Despite the NDA, Hall launched a competing company and sent a series of inflammatory emails regarding the state of GMW to AsiaSat. These actions became the basis for GMW's complaint of trade secret appropriation. After failing to make payments to AWSF for the construction of the senor, and despite finding a replacement manufacturer, GMW never satisfied either of the conditions precedent and AsiaSat never applied for the loan. GMW eventually ran out of money and filed the underlying suit.

GMW argued that its lost profits stemmed from its failure to secure a loan with AsiaSat and Export-Import Bank because of the defendants' trade secrets misappropriation and other bad acts. GMW relied on evidence such as a series of inflammatory emails from Hall stating that "GMW is in Trouble," along with an invitation to do business with a new company that the Hall defendants launched reviewing GMW's confidential information. The lower court found that GMW had failed to provide more than speculative evidence that the defendants' actions, with or without GMW's confidential information, caused GMW's lost profits.

The Tenth Circuit's Ruling

At the Tenth Circuit, GMW argued that the lower court ignored "non-speculative" evidence from which it could be inferred that the defendants' actions were the cause of lost profits. The Court noted that the district court found that none of GMW's experts actually opined that any of the defendants' actions caused the lost profits. Although one expert put forth a theory based on GMW losing its "first-mover advantage," the Court found that no specific facts were offered to support this theory. The Court distinguished between speculation (no facts) and inference (underlying facts) and concluded that there was no factual basis presented on which to base inferences, but only the speculation of a former GMW CFO acting as an expert. The Court found GMW's own failure to meet the conditions precedent led to its inability to secure a loan with AsiaSat and Export-Import Bank. The Court also noted that GMW did not identify with any level of specificity the evidence purportedly disregarded by the lower court in its summary judgment ruling. The Court pointed out AsiaSat's delay in submitting the loan application was due to GMW's failure to meet the conditions precedent, an event that predated the introduction of Hall by nearly two months. Ultimately, the Court found that GMW offered only speculation devoid of contested facts and sustained the summary judgment.

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