A former food-industry executive armed with the secret to the "nooks and crannies" in Thomas' English muffins displayed "suspicious conduct" before his planned move to rival Hostess, a U.S. appeals court said in upholding a ban on the move.
Chris Botticella of Trabuco Canyon, Calif., remains barred from starting the Hostess job while a trade-secret lawsuit filed by Thomas' parent company, Bimbo Bakeries USA, plays out.
Botticella is one of just seven people worldwide who know the recipe and manufacturing process that give Thomas' English muffins their trademark "nooks and crannies," according to Bimbo.
"A number of the files accessed from Botticella's laptop during his final days at Bimbo were highly sensitive and their possession by a competitor would have been damaging to Bimbo," Sr. 3rd U.S. Circuit Judge Morton I. Greenberg wrote this week, upholding a lower-court decision.
Courts must balance a company's right to guard trade secrets against an employee's right to switch jobs, the 3rd Circuit said.
In this case, the three-judge panel agreed with a lower-court judge that Botticella — who had declined to testify at the preliminary injunction hearing — should be banned from Hostess temporarily.
"The court should fashion a remedy appropriate to protect Bimbo's trade secrets without unduly imposing on Botticella's right to pursue his chosen occupation," Greenberg wrote.
The case now goes back to U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick for further findings.
Forensic tests run on Botticella's computer show he accessed cost-cutting strategies, product launch dates, planned plant and line closures, labor contract information and other strategic information after accepting the Hostess job in late 2009.
Botticella served as vice president of Bimbo's operations in the western U.S., earning $250,000 a year. He said he'd grown frustrated by the job, so agreed to a Houston-based job with Hostess that paid $200,000 plus bonuses. But he told Bimbo he was retiring, and stayed on for several months.
In court papers, Botticella said he wanted to finish out the year so he could get his 2009 bonus.
Botticella's lawyer, Elizabeth K. Ainslie, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Bimbo lawyer Michael Banks declined to comment.
Trade-secret fights are not uncommon, but laws governing them vary widely by state. In the Bimbo case, lawyers are debating whether a leak must be "inevitable" or merely "probable" before judges in Pennsylvania can stop someone from taking a new job.
Bimbo Bakeries USA, based in Horsham, is a unit of Mexican food conglomerate Grupo Bimbo SAB.