TKC Aerospace, Inc. was justifiably upset when its vice president, Charles Muhs, left and began working closely with Phoenix Heliparts, Inc., a competitor. Then TKC found even more reason to be upset. TKC lost a Department of State contract to Heliparts who used TKC’s trade secrets. TKC sued Heliparts in Arizona. After a 40 day trial, TKC got a $30 million judgment against Heliparts. TKC sued Charles in a concurrent case in Alaska. Based on the Arizona judgment, the district court granted TKC’s motion for summary judgment against Charles in the amount of $20 million. Then Charles filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case.

In the bankruptcy case, TKC used the Alaska judgment to have the $20 million debt held non-dischargeable on summary judgment. Charles appealed to the district court and lost. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case for further hearing. The Fourth Circuit held that a trade secret misappropriation judgment can be held non-dischargeable under the Bankruptcy Code only if the misappropriation is both willful and malicious. The Arizona judgment didn’t make those findings against Charles. The Alaska judgment didn’t make those findings either. So neither the Arizona judgment nor the Alaska judgment could be used to determine if the trade secret misappropriation debt was non-dischargeable.

WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. TKC thought it had a slam dunk. It had two judgments for trade secret misappropriation. But, bankruptcy is a whole new world. Bankruptcy is designed to give a debtor a fresh start. So non-dischargeability of a debt is strictly construed. TKC’s result can be avoided. A plaintiff can lay the groundwork for non-dischargeability if the defendant happens to file bankruptcy.