I just learned the details of this story—it happened last spring, but it was sealed until several days ago. I'd love to hear what you folks think about it.
The alleged extortion: Our tale begins April 24, 2017, with some texts that one Armando Acosta sent to his manager at Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (apparently "the nation's largest cleaning contractor to the food industry"). Acosta worked for PSSI as a cleaner, and was assigned to a food processing plant owned by AdvancePierre Foods. AdvancePierre's plants are predominantly in Garfield County, Oklahoma, and AdvancePierre is apparently "one of the largest employers in the area."
Acosta's texts "claim[ed] that swabs he took from PSSI's customer's equipment tested positive for Listeria, as well as other bacteria." In copies of the texts attached to PSSI's court filings, Acosta said that he was going to take this information that day and the next to various businesses (presumably AdvancePierre's customers), as well as to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And, in those texts, Acosta apparently sought $650,000 from PSSI as payment for his silence. (For the specifics about Acosta and what he allegedly did, I will generally rely on PSSI's factual claims in their court papers; I could not find Acosta myself and Acosta didn't file any papers.)
The big business deal: The next day, April 25, three things happened. First, Tyson Foods—the nation's leading meat processor—announced that it was buying AdvancePierre for about $3 billion.
The injunction: Second, PSSI petitioned the Garfield County trial court for a temporary restraining order that would temporarily bar Acosta from "[d]isclosing or using, directly or indirectly, any of the illegally obtained confidential and/or propriety information obtained from PSSI and/or AdvancePierre to any person and/or entity." Judge Jason Seigars granted the request that morning, ordering that Acosta be:
restrained [for two days] from interfering, in any respect, [with] PSSI's business relationships with AdvancePierre, and ... from contacting any governmental agency or media outlet regarding his allegations ....
Acosta didn't appear at the hearing, and indeed was only served with the petition on April 27 (though it may well be that the difficulty serving him was his own fault).
The legal theory behind the TRO was a bit complicated. The case was listed on the docket as involving libel, which is why I wrote about it in June as a libel case. Part of PSSI's argument was that Acosta "cannot be harmed if he is ordered to stop making false statements regarding PSSI and AdvancePierre." Another motion, filed the same day, stated that "Plaintiff and its customer avers, based on Plaintiff's customer's due diligence, as explained more fully in the Verified Petition, that the information Defendant seeks to disseminate is false." And PSSI said that, "AdvancePierre has mechanisms in place to test for the presence of bacteria and other contaminants—none of which have resulted in positive test results in the area where Employee illegally obtained his 'findings'"; in a further filing this year it added that "AdvancePierre likewise complied with its regular testing obligations after Defendant's threats and determined that no contamination existed within the facility."
But the main theory in the petition was not focused on falsity (unsurprising, since PSSI didn't have access to Acosta's claimed evidence). Indeed, according to PSSI's motion for the temporary restraining order,
As of the date of filing this Motion, PSSI is not aware of any basis in fact regarding Defendant's allegations regarding contamination of any equipment in AdvancePierre's Enid plant. However, in order to best protect its business interests and proprietary information, PSSI is assuming, for purposes of this Motion and its Petition only, Defendant's allegations concerning the contaminated equipment are true.
Rather, the focus of PSSI's claims was that Acosta's conduct constituted "breach of confidentiality" and "tortious interference with business contracts":
- Acosta had "illegally obtained confidential and/or proprietary information belonging to PSSI and/or its customers," "in violation of his job description" (which did not "include the taking of and/or the testing of samples from the customers' equipment and/or plants") "and [of] PSSI's Employee Handbook" (which required employees to keep "client-related information" confidential),
- Acosta's goal was extortion, and
- if Acosta were to release this information, "whether true or false," the release "could lead to the termination of vital business contracts with PSSI, irreparable defamatory harm, exposure to unwarranted government investigation, and the release of confidential and proprietary business information."
This was the basis for the judge's order forbidding Acosta from conveying the information to the media or to the government.
The sealing of the case: Finally, still on April 25, PSSI also moved to seal the case, arguing that
sealing of the requested filings is necessary in the interest of justice where dissemination of the information stolen by Defendant would harm the business practices of Plaintiff and its customer as well as cause unwarranted fear and concern amongst the general public.
The judge granted the motion the same day, providing that the petition and the motion for the TRO were to be sealed.MORE »