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Pope v. Alberto-Culver Co.

April 27, 1998

H. MAIE POPE, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ALBERTO-CULVER COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 95 L 07012 Honorable Paddy McNamara, judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice O'mara Frossard

On May 27, 1995, plaintiff H. Maie Pope filed a complaint against defendant Alberto-Culver Company for trade secret misappropriation in violation of the Illinois Trade Secrets Act (765 ILCS 1065/1 et seq. (West 1994)), breach of contract and unjust enrichment. Plaintiff alleges defendant misappropriated a proposal she submitted to the company which involved the dispensing of lye-based hair relaxer in a squeezable tube, using the tube to apply the product. She contends defendant misappropriated her proposal by introducing a similar product line after the company rejected her proposal. The trial court bifurcated the liability and damage issues for separate trials, and after discovery on the liability issues, defendant moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment on December 11, 1996. It is from this order that plaintiff appeals.

I. FACTS

Plaintiff approached defendant in May of 1990 with a proposal in which a plastic tube is used to contain and apply lye-based hair relaxer. Defendant has developed and marketed product lines that include both lye-based and non-lye-based hair relaxers since the 1980s. Within the industry at large, non-lye-based hair relaxers are sold in tubes almost identical to those in plaintiff's proposal, while lye-based hair relaxers are sold primarily in plastic jars or tubs, though at least one company has sold a lye-based hair relaxer in a plastic, squeezable bottle.

After conducting research in the public library, plaintiff constructed crude models and made drawings of her proposal. Her proposal included prototypes of the dispenser and instructions for its use. She and defendant executed a confidential and nondisclosure agreement in which defendant agreed not to disclose or misappropriate any trade secrets or confidential information contained in the proposal.

Defendant rejected plaintiff's proposal in February 1991. In April of 1993, defendant introduced a line of hair care products under the name "Motions," which included a lye-based hair relaxer in a tube. In her complaint, plaintiff contends the idea for the "Motions" tube was taken directly from her proposal. Defendant denies that plaintiff's proposal led to the creation of the "Motions" tube and asserts the idea was independently originated by an employee who had experience with lye- based relaxers in tubes as early as the 1970s.

II. ANALYSIS

1. Standard of Review

The appellate review of a grant of summary judgment is de novo. USG Corp. v. Sterling Plumbing Group, Inc., 247 Ill. App. 3d 316, 318, 617 N.E.2d 69 (1993). Summary judgment is proper only when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 1994). The function of the appellate court in reviewing the grant of summary judgment is not to decide disputed issues of fact but rather to determine whether a factual dispute exists. Kerr v. Illinois Central R.R. Co., 283 Ill. App. 3d 574, 583, 670 N.E.2d 759 (1996). The court must construe the evidence strictly against the movant and liberally in favor of the opponent. Quality Lighting, Inc. v. Benjamin, 227 Ill. App. 3d 880, 884, 592 N.E.2d 377 (1992).

2. The Illinois Trade Secrets Act

Plaintiff first asserts that defendant misappropriated her trade secret under the Illinois Trade Secrets Act (Act) (765 ILCS 1065/1 et seq. (West 1994)). Before addressing the issue of misappropriation under the Act, however, we must determine whether plaintiff's proposal is entitled to trade secret protection as a matter of law.

Under the Act, a trade secret is defined as follows:

"[I]nformation, including but not limited to, technical or non-technical data, a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, drawing, process, financial data, or list of actual or potential customers or suppliers, that:

(1) is sufficiently secret to derive economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to other persons who can obtain economic ...


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