A former Thomas' English Muffins worker described as one of seven people worldwide who know the trade secrets behind the product's "nooks and crannies" can't take his knowledge to rival baker Hostess -- at least for now, a judge has ruled.
Chris Botticella, a former senior vice president for Bimbo Foods, the maker of Thomas' English Muffins, has been embroiled in a lawsuit by his former employer after he accepted a job working for Hostess. The stakes are substantial because Thomas' English Muffins brings in about $500 million annually, according to court documents filed by Bimbo.
Philadelphia U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick, in a 37-page opinion written Feb. 9th, granted a preliminary injunction, ruling that Botticella cannot start to work for Hostess Inc. because his extensive knowledge of Bimbo's trade secrets makes it "substantially likely, if not inevitable," that he would disclose Bimbo's secrets to Hostess.
"We seriously doubt that Defendant will somehow clear his mind of Bimbo's trade secret information when working on related tasks at Hostess," Surrick wrote.
Surrick wrote that any harm the injunction might have on Botticella would be minimal because the case most will likely have a final determination in two months.
Botticella's lawyer, Elizabeth Ainslie, immediately appealed Surrick's decision.
"We have asked the court of appeals for speedy consideration of our appeal," Ainsle told ABC News. Surrick found that Botticella continued to work for Bimbo for several months after accepting the Hostess post in October 2009, never telling his bosses of his imminent plans to quit as he continued to attend high-level strategy meetings.
Botticella disputed Surrick's findings and similar claims by his former employer.
"There is no evidence that anyone at BBakeries asked Mr. Botticella at this time where he would be going, nor is there any evidence that Mr. Botticella ever denied that he would be joining Hostess," Botticella said in court filings for the case.
Bimbo's court filings claimed Botticella is one of only seven people who know all three secrets to the production of the muffins.
"Botticella learned trade secrets relating to the production of Thomas' English Muffins, including not only its recipe, but also the equipment necessary for production, necessary moisture level, and the way the product is baked which all contribute to its distinctive characteristics," the company claimed.
On Jan. 4, according to the company, Botticella announced he was retiring and was allowed to continue working during a two-week notice period.
However, on Jan. 13, Bimbo claimed, "rumors percolated to senior management that Botticella was not, in fact, retiring and instead planned to go work for BBU's major competitors Hostess.
"When confronted by senior management," according to the court documents, "Botticella admitted that he had accepted a job with Hostess, and planned to begin work with Hostess on [Jan. 18]."
The company alleged Botticella accessed and transmitted company secrets to his personal laptop before leaving Bimbo.
Botticella insisted in court documents he had no intent to share secrets, and he in fact agreed not to.
"On December 7, 2009, Hostess directed Mr. Botticella to execute an 'Acknowledgment and Representation Form,' which stated that Mr. Botticella would not share any confidential or proprietary BBakeries information with Hostess after beginning his new employment there, and that Hostess' management was not interested in obtaining any such information from Mr. Botticella," his filings state.
Botticella also denied he would necessarily have any involvement in producing muffins for Hostess.
"There is no evidence that Mr. Botticella's new position with Hostess would involve any responsibility for English muffin production. There is therefore no evidence that it will be impossible for Mr. Botticella to perform his job at Hostess without using or divulging confidential information of BBakeries," his filings said.
However, Surrick found that Botticella accessed sensitive documents on his final day of work at Bimbo, and a computer expert showed that an external drive had been connected to Botticella's laptop while he accessed those documents.
Botticella said he simply was practicing computer skills.
"During his final month at BBakeries, Mr. Botticella also used an external device to practice his computer skills ... specifically, transferring files," documents filed in his case claimed. "Many of the files on which Mr. Botticella practiced were stale or nonconfidential." Surrick found Botticella's attempts to explain his conduct were "simply not credible."
"Defendant's conduct before leaving Bimbo, in not disclosing to Bimbo his acceptance of a job offer from a direct competitor, remaining in a position to receive Bimbo's confidential and trade secret information and, in fact, receiving such information after committing to the Hostess job, and copying Bimbo's trade secret information from his work laptop onto external storage devices, demonstrates an intention to use Bimbo trade secrets during his intended employment with Hostess," Surrick wrote.