Allegations of corporate espionage are at the heart of a court battle between the Michigan Blueberry Growers Association and its competitor True Blue Management LLC.

Grand Junction, Mich.-based True Blue and its CEO John Conner say the dispute is a sour grapes case.

The association filed the case “about a week” after True Blue broke off negotiations that could have resulted in the association marketing half of its blueberry crop, according to court documents.

The association, also based in Grand Junction, claims its former information services manager Brenda Reeves stole 600,000 lines of source code she helped write for the grower-owned association.

Reeves and 15 business entities under the True Blue Farms umbrella are named by the association as defendants. Both sides are scheduled to speak at a Sept. 29 hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Janet Neff.

The association wants the judge to issue a restraining order to stop Reeves from working for its competitor for a year. It also wants the judge to stop True Blue from soliciting business from any of the association’s growers for a year. The group also wants any stolen computer code and company documents returned.

The True Blue companies and Reeves flatly deny all of the allegations and contend they have cooperated with the association by allowing a third-party computer forensics expert to examine Reeves computer equipment.

Intertwined histories

Bitter blueberry battle brewingConner and Reeves both worked for the association before going to True Blue. Conner was with the association for 13 years, ultimately serving as director of information services. He then went to Naturipe where he worked for four years before joining True Blue.

The association owns 30% of Naturipe, which is the marketing and sales entity for the association, according to court documents.

Reeves worked for the association for 14 years, many of them with Conner as her boss.

Both Reeves and the association state in court documents that she worked for 10 years as a primary developer for the 600,000 lines of source code that made up the proprietary software known as Produce Track. The program tracks blueberries from the field to market. The association’s complaint states it markets about 100 million pounds of blueberries annually.

Neither Conner nor Reeves signed confidentiality or non-compete agreements with the association, according to court documents. Conner says the Produce Track software does not meet the needs of the vertically integrated True Blue companies operations.

The association contends the defendants are using the Produce Track source code to develop software for their own use. True Blue uses two third-party applications to track its fruit, according to court documents.

“Ms. Reeves is developing an enterprise resource planning ‘ERP’ software system for True Blue. That system will address sales and inventory management, …” the company states in court documents.

“Many of the apparent uses for which the association presumably developed Produce Track simply are of no application to integrated farms like True Blue.”

Bitter blueberry battle brewingNegotiations sour

In the summer of 2013 Reeves contacted Conner regarding possible employment at True Blue. He offered her a job and when she submitted her resignation, the association asked her to stay for 30 days while it looked for her replacement, according to court documents.

Reeves left the association in mid-September 2013. In the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014, Conner states in his affidavit the association was negotiating with True Blue to market half of its blueberry crop.

“This would have given the association a very competitive percentage of the overall Michigan blueberry production,” Conner states in his affidavit.

“About a week after I told Bob Hawk of the association that True Blue was not going to team up with the association to sell our fruit, the association began the process of suing Brenda Reeves. Mr. Hawk never mentioned his concerns about Brenda Reeves to me in any of our discussions. I am surprised that he filed the lawsuit without ever discussing his concerns with me.”