Shenzen Senior Technology Material v Celgard. On Rome II’s rule applicable law rule for unfair competition, distinguishing ‘direct’ from ‘indirect’ damage, and the Trade Secrets Directive.

Shenzhen Senior Technology Material Co Ltd v Celgard, LLC [2020] EWCA Civ 1293 concerns an appeal against service out of jurisdiction (the judgment appealed is [2020] EWHC 2072 (Ch)). Celgard allege that the importation and marketing by Senior of battery separator film involves the misuse of Celgard’s trade secrets.

Senior (of China) contend that the judge fell into error in concluding, first, that Celgard (incorporated in Delaware) had established a serious issue to be tried (here part of the jurisdictional threshold) assuming that English law applies to its claims and, secondly, that England is the proper forum to try the claims. As to the latter the core argument is that in limiting its claims to remedies in respect of acts in the UK, Celgard could not establish the requisite degree of connection to England. As for the former, they argue the law applicable to Celgard’s claims is Chinese law, which would count against jurisdiction.

Strategically, Celgard’s case against Senior is not based on breach of the NDA applicable between Celgard and one of its former employees,  Dr Zhang who, when he left Celgard, told its then COO that he was going to work for General Electric in California, which does not compete with Celgard in the field of battery separators. It later transpired that he had in fact joined Senior in China, where he was using the false name “Bin Wang”. This element of the facts triggers the question whether Senior is liable for the acts of another, even if that other is its employee.

The Celgard – Zhang NDA is governed by the law of South Carolina, application of which would also have triggered A4(3)(b) or (c) of the Trade Secrets Directive 2016/943. Celgard do rely on the NDA as supporting its case that the trade secrets were confidential. Rather Celgard claim that Senior’s employee acted in breach of an equitable obligation. This engages Rome II,  specifically Article 6(2) because Celgard’s claims are concerned with an act of unfair competition affecting exclusively the interests of a specific competitor, namely Celgard. In such circumstances, Article 6(2) provides that “Article 4 shall apply”.

Of note is that this is one of those cases that show that Rome II applies to more than just tortious obligations: as Arnold LJ notes at 51, as a matter of English law, claims for breach of equitable obligations of confidence are not claims in tort.

Celgard’s case, accepted by Trowe J at the High Court, is that A4(1) leads to English law because the ‘direct damage’ (per Rome II and CJEU Lazard indirect damage needs to be ignored) caused by the wrongdoing it complains of has occurred (and will, if not restrained, continue to occur) in the UK, that being the country into which the infringing goods (namely the shipment to the UK Customer and any future shipments of the same separator) have been (and will be) imported, causing damage to Celgard’s market here.

Senior’s case is that confidential information is intangible property and that damage to intangible property is located at the time and place it became irreversible (support is sought in extracts from Andrew Dickinson’s Rome II volume with OUP). At 58 ff Arnold LJ gives 7 reasons for rejecting the position. I will not repeat them all here. Of note is not just the (most justifiable) heavy leaning on the travaux but also the support sought in secondary EU law different from private international law (such as the Trade Secrets Directive 2016/943) as well as in the consistency between Brussels Ia and the Rome Regulations [on which Szpunar AG has written excellently in Burkhard Hess and Koen Lenaerts (eds.), The 50th Anniversary of the European Law of Civil Procedure]. This is not an easy proposition however given the lack of detail in Rome I and the need for autonomous EU interpretation, understandable.

The Trade Secrets Directive is further discussed at 65 ff for in A4(5) it makes importation of infringing goods an unlawful use of a trade secret “where the person carrying out such activities knew, or ought, under the circumstances, to have known that the trade secret was used unlawfully within the meaning of paragraph 3”. One of the possibilities embraced by paragraph 3 is (a), the person “having acquired the trade secret unlawfully”. Arnold LJ then asks: what law is to be applied to determine whether it was acquired “unlawfully”? Is A4(5) read together with A4(3)(a) an implicit choice of law rule pointing to the law of the place where the trade secret was acquired? Arnold LJ suggests this is not acte clair and may need CJEU clarification however not at this stage for his provisional view (with an eye on the jurisdictional threshold test) is that the Directive is not an implicit choice of law rule and that per Rome II, English law applies.

Plenty applicable law issues to discuss at the merits stage.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 4, Heading 4.6.2. Third ed. forthcoming February 2021.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.