KANSAS CITY – The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri has denied a defense motion to dismiss a suit filed by an agricultural media company over allegations of misappropriation of trade secrets.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Bough denied Gregory Johnson and Blue Book Services Inc.'s motion to dismiss a case filed by Farm Journal Inc., doing business as Farm Journal Media, on April 24.
Farm Journal is a media company that focuses on the topic of agriculture news. Johnson is a former employee of the media company who served as editorial director for two of the publications produced by the plaintiff. The ruling states Johnson is now employed by Farm Journal’s direct competitor, Blue Book.
During his tenure at Farm Journal, the ruling states Johnson was privy to the plaintiff's confidential and proprietary information, including trade secrets, market research, research data and more.
“When defendant Johnson accepted plaintiff’s employment offer on Dec. 2, 2015, he ‘agreed in the offer letter he signed’ not to disclose or use plaintiff’s confidential information ‘except in furtherance of’ plaintiff’s business,” the ruling states, and that this was a requirement of all employees.
In March 2018, Johnson began having discussions with Blue Book's president and CEO about possibly moving to their company, the ruling states. In July, he was offered the director of media development position.
Shortly after his departure, Farm Journal noticed Johnson had changed the social media handle of its publication, The Packer.
“Johnson deliberately changed the ‘handle’ of The Packer’s Twitter account from ‘@gregofthepacker’ to ‘@gregofthebluebook’” and thereby “redirect[ed]” plaintiff’s “followers to Blue Book content,” the ruling states.
Farm Journal also alleged that Johnson had copied more than 11,000 files from the plaintiff’s internal hard-drive soon after his first talks with Blue Book.
“In November and December 2018, Plaintiff sent letters to defendants Johnson and Blue Book informing them of what plaintiff had learned since defendant Johnson’s departure and demanding their cooperation in returning plaintiff’s property,” according to the ruling.
Johnson never responded and Blue Book declined the request, the ruling states. Farm Journal soon filed their lawsuit.
Farm Journal alleged a breach of contract and other counts, referencing the offer letter that Johnson signed at the beginning of his employment.
“Defendant Johnson argues that any duty of confidentiality he owed to plaintiff as a condition of his employment ‘terminated’ on July 17, 2018, because ‘by its terms, the offer letter obligated Mr. Johnson to maintain confidentiality only as long as the offer letter was in effect—it does not contain any provision stating that the confidentiality obligations survives the termination of the agreement,’” according to the ruling.
The plaintiff countered by saying even if the contract did not survive the termination, Johnson allegedly "'stole'" confidential information while still employed by it.
"Plaintiff’s allegations, if true, show a breach of the confidentiality agreement during his employment with plaintiff, regardless of whether defendant Johnson’s duty under that agreement lasted beyond the end of his employment," the ruling states.