Trade Secrets in the Employer-Employee Relationship

forum shopping

In Israel, workers have freedom of occupation and can change jobs or set up their own businesses and may compete with their former employers. The work relationship often exposes the employee to trade secrets. Ex-employees are obliged to maintain confidentiality with regards to trade secrets and cannot compete with former employers by using such secrets. But was a legitimate trade secret?

Work related disputes are dealt with by the Labour Courts, but what establishes the employer-employee relationship?

Nissim Versano appealed an interim Decision of the Tel Aviv District Court given by Judge Ginat to refer the case to the Labour Court to decide whether or not there was an employer-employee relationship. Judge Amit of the Israel Supreme Court refused the Appeal.

On 25 March 2014, Nissim Versano filed suit in the Tel Aviv District Court, claiming that for a number of years he has been involved in the tobacco industry, and has developed contacts with a number of parties in the field. He claims that he took Moshe Ninio into the business as a partner, with a verbal agreement that Ninio wouldn’t use acquired knowledge against the wishes of Versano.

Versano claimed that Ninio set up a competing shop with similar design, stock and prices to Versano’s and that this created a situation of passing off, Unjust Enrichment and theft of trade secrets.

Ninio claimed that he was an employee of Versano and not a partner. He claimed that the District Court was thus not the correct forum to hear the case which should have been filed in the Tel Aviv Labour Court, and requested that the case be thrown out as not within the jurisdiction of the Tel Aviv Court. To substantiate his case, Ninio appended three salary slips testifying to him being an employee.

Judge Ginat of the Tel Aviv District Court referred the case to the Tel Aviv Labour Court to rule on the issue of whether there was an employee-employer relationship, and Versano appealed this referral.

Versano claimed that the District Court should decide whether it was competent to hear the case and, if not, should refer it.

The Supreme Court ruled that Ginat should either hear the case, refer it or throw it out. In other words, he should have ruled on whether or not it was a labour related dispute, and not referred that decision to the Labour Court. Cases cannot be batted back and forth.

However, the appeal was thrown out. The appellant should have appealed by right instead of requesting right of appeal. If a case is heard by District Court instead of by the Labour or Rabbinical tribunals, there is a right of appeal. However, if a case is transferred to a tribunal, one should appeal immediately.

The Supreme Court could use the Request for Right of Appeal as grounds to rule substantively on the Appeal, but did not see fit to do so.

The issue is a partial transfer, which is correctly seen as an interim decision and therefore there are grounds to file an interim appeal.

The Supreme Court related to a case transferred to the Rabbinical Court by a woman claiming financial support on the grounds of having acquired status of a wife by having had intercourse with a man in a manner establishing common law wife status as being an example of an interim decision that could be appealed, but ruled that in this case, the claim of employee – employer relationship should be heard by the labour tribunal who not only have sole discretion to hear labour disputes but also to rule on whether there is an employer-employee relationship.

Furthermore, cases concerning trade-related disputes having an employer-employee aspect are in the sole jurisdiction of the labour court. Trade secret related cases are also the sole jurisdiction of the labour court if there is an employment aspect to the case.

Once transferred to the Labour Courts, cases should stay there rather than be transferred on.

Appeal to Supreme Court  3930/14 Versano vs. Ninio, by Judge Amit, 26 June 2014

COMMENTS

Having one court only being the correct forum for hearing a case prevents ‘forum shopping’. This decision is likely to have repercussions on employee compensation for patents as well as for trade-secret issues. Many companies might be less than happy with this, since the Labour Courts are seen as being pro-employee. With the Iscar case (Plony vs. Company) on appeal to the Supreme Court, this could get interesting.

One Response to Trade Secrets in the Employer-Employee Relationship

  1. Sharon says:

    Thanks for the report of this case. Seems like a textbook classic for civil procedure clusterfuck… I wonder how the Compensation & Royalty Committee’s decision of June 17, 2014 to remit the case to Labour Court to rule on the issue of who is the employer of the employee whose invention is claimed to be a service invention, for the sake of “procedural efficiency” (yeah, right) would pan out…

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