Carr v. AutoNation, Inc. et al

Filing 35

ORDER signed by District Judge John A. Mendez on 1/5/18 GRANTING in part and DENYING in part 24 Motion to Dismiss. (Kaminski, H)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 10 EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 11 12 JAMES CARR, an individual, 13 14 No. 2:17-cv-01539-JAM-AC Plaintiff, v. 15 AUTONATION INC., et. al. 16 ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART AUTONATION INC.’S MOTION TO DISMISS Defendants. 17 18 More than twenty years ago, Plaintiff James Carr 19 (“Plaintiff” or “Carr”) formulated a business plan (the “Business 20 Plan”) to “revolutionize” the automobile-wrecking industry into a 21 profitable system. 22 Defendant AutoNation, Inc. (“AutoNation”) and others wrongfully 23 stole his ideas from the Business Plan to open a new highly 24 profitable company called LKQ Corporation (“LKQ”). 25 out about LKQ in October 2015, Plaintiff investigated and 26 researched LKQ and, in June 2017, initiated this lawsuit, 27 alleging Misappropriation of Trade Secrets against all defendants 28 and Breach of Contract Implied in Fact against AutoNation and Compl. ¶¶ 2-3, ECF No. 1-2. 1 He alleges that After finding 1 defendant Wayne Huizenga (“Huizenga”). 2 to dismiss both claims against it. 3 opposes. 4 the Court grants AutoNation’s motion to dismiss the trade secret 5 misappropriation claim without prejudice and denies the motion to 6 dismiss the implied contract claim. 1 Opp’n, ECF No. 29. Compl. AutoNation moves Mem., ECF No. 24. Plaintiff For the reasons explained below, 7 8 I. 9 FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND Plaintiff owned and operated an automobile-wrecking business 10 in Placerville, California between 1985 and 1995. 11 Based on his experience and background as a college-educated 12 certified public accountant, Plaintiff created the Business Plan 13 to transform the automobile-wrecking industry into an efficient, 14 interconnected, and highly profitable national system capable of 15 synchronizing the supply of wrecked cars with the demand of 16 recycled auto parts. 17 Plaintiff sent letters to approximately 10 companies and 18 individuals to gauge their interest in being a business partner 19 and capital source. 20 Compl. ¶¶ 2-3. Compl. ¶ 2. Around November 1995, Compl. ¶ 4. One of two respondents asked for the Business Plan and then, 21 upon Plaintiff’s request, returned the Business Plan after 22 indicating they were not interested. 23 owned by well-known businessman Huizenga, was the other company 24 that responded. 25 and January 1996, Jeff Davis (“Davis”) of AutoNation called 26 1 27 28 Compl. ¶ 4. Compl. ¶ 5. AutoNation, Specifically, between November 1995 This motion was determined to be suitable for decision without oral argument. E.D. Cal. L.R. 230(g). The hearing was scheduled for November 21, 2017. In deciding this motion, the Court takes as true all well-pleaded facts in the operative complaint. 2 1 Plaintiff to ask some follow-up questions and asked for the 2 Business Plan. 3 Business Plan, but without any confidentiality agreement or non- 4 disclosure agreement. 5 California to meet with Plaintiff in person and tour 6 approximately five automobile wrecking yards throughout Northern 7 California. 8 visit, he made clear to Davis that he “contemplated being 9 compensated or otherwise involved should Huizenga, AutoNation, or 10 Compl. ¶¶ 6, 8. Plaintiff sent Davis the Compl. ¶¶ 8, 42. Compl. ¶ 9. Davis then traveled to Plaintiff claims that, during the any affiliates choose to move forward with the idea.” 11 Id. After their visit, Davis called Plaintiff and told him that 12 Huizenga and AutoNation were not interested in pursuing the 13 Business Plan. 14 Business Plan and he did. 15 automobile-wrecking industry and moved on to other ventures. 16 He did not follow developments in the automobile-wrecking 17 industry and did not keep in touch with people in the industry. 18 Id. 19 Compl. ¶ 10. Id. Plaintiff asked Davis to return the Then Plaintiff left the Id. At a barbeque almost twenty years later, Plaintiff told a 20 new acquaintance who owned a Northern California auto parts 21 recycler that Plaintiff once had a billion dollar business idea 22 involving the automobile-wrecking industry. 23 added that he pitched it to Huizenga and AutoNation. 24 new acquaintance expressed shock and told Plaintiff that a 25 successful company called LKQ Corporation (“LKQ”) had been formed 26 with Huizenga’s involvement and that it was tremendously 27 successful. 28 Compl. ¶ 11. Id. He The Id. Plaintiff did further research on the internet to learn that 3 1 Huizenga’s business associate founded LKQ and that Huizenga and 2 AutoNation were founding backers. 3 discovered that AutoNation owned significant shares of LKQ until 4 2003. 5 Compl. ¶ 12. And Plaintiff Compl. ¶ 17. After completing his initial research, Plaintiff filed suit 6 against Defendants AutoNation, Huizenga, Davis, and LKQ in El 7 Dorado County Superior Court, alleging misappropriation of trade 8 secrets against all Defendants and breach of contract implied in 9 fact against AutoNation and Huizenga. Compl. ¶ 53. Defendants 10 collectively removed the case to this Court under 28 U.S.C. 11 § 1441. 12 Court approved the parties’ stipulation to dismiss Defendants 13 Huizenga and Davis without prejudice. Not. of Removal, ECF No. 1. On September 19, 2017, the Order, ECF No. 22. 14 15 II. OPINION 16 A. 17 Trade secret misappropriation claims brought under the 18 California Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“CUTSA”) have a three year 19 statute of limitations. 20 year limitation begins to run from the time the misappropriation 21 is discovered or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should 22 have been discovered. 23 24 Statute Of Limitations 1. Cal. Civ. Code § 3426.6. And the three Id. Plaintiff’s Entitlement To Tolling “Generally, an action may not be dismissed at the pleading 25 stage based on the statute of limitations ‘unless it is clear 26 from the face of the complaint that the statute has run and that 27 no tolling is possible.’” 28 Grp., Inc., No. 2:14-CV-1482 JAM-AC, 2015 WL 1926965, at *2 (E.D. McMenemy v. Colonial First Lending 4 1 Cal. Apr. 15, 2015) (citing Brocade Commc’ns Sys., Inc. v. A10 2 Networks, Inc., 2011 WL 1044899, at *3 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 23, 2011) 3 (internal citation omitted)); see also Jablon v. Dean Witter & 4 Co., 614 F.2d 677, 682 (9th Cir. 1980) (“When a motion to dismiss 5 is based on the running of a statute of limitations, it can be 6 granted only if the assertions of the complaint, read with the 7 required liberty, would not permit the plaintiff to prove that 8 the statute was tolled.”) 9 tolling based on delayed discovery is usually a question of fact 10 for the jury, unless the uncontradicted facts are susceptible to 11 only one legitimate inference. 12 (citing Kline v. Turner, 87 Cal. App. 4th 1369, 1374 (2001)). 13 Whether a plaintiff is entitled to McMenemy, 2015 WL 1926965, at *2 To avail itself of delayed discovery tolling, a plaintiff 14 must plead facts showing (1) the time and manner of discovery and 15 (2) the inability to have made an earlier discovery despite 16 reasonable diligence. 17 E-Fab, Inc. v. Accountants, Inc. Servs., 153 Cal. App. 4th 1308, 18 1320 (2007) and Rey v. OneWest Bank, FSB, 2:12-CV-02078 MCE-GGH, 19 2013 WL 127839, at *5 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 9, 2013)). 20 on the plaintiff to show diligence and conclusory allegations 21 will not withstand a motion to dismiss. 22 Surgery, Inc., 35 Cal. 4th 797, 808 (2005). 23 duty to diligently investigate is only triggered when the 24 plaintiff “has reason to suspect an injury and some wrongful 25 cause.” 26 153 Cal. App. 4th at 1319). 27 28 McMenemy, 2015 WL 1926965, at *2 (citing The burden is Fox v. Ethicon EndoBut the plaintiff’s McMenemy, 2015 WL 1926965, at *2 (citing E-Fab, Inc., Here, AutoNation got a copy of Plaintiff’s Business Plan and corresponded with him about it in February 1995. 5 Plaintiff 1 alleges that his Business Plan was used to open LKQ in 1998, 19 2 years before Plaintiff filed his complaint. 3 Given that the applicable statute of limitations is three years, 4 Cal. Civ. Code § 3426.6, the Court must dismiss Plaintiff’s CUTSA 5 claim unless the Court determines Plaintiff is entitled to 6 tolling based on delayed discovery of the facts constituting the 7 alleged trade secret misappropriation. 8 9 Compl. ¶¶ 8, 12. Plaintiff has alleged that he had no reason to suspect any wrongdoing on AutoNation’s part until October 2015, when he 10 learned at a barbecue about LKQ’s formation with Huizenga and 11 AutoNation’s involvement. 12 alleges that he had “no reason to suspect Defendants had indeed 13 pursued Plaintiff’s plan without his knowledge” because he 14 believed Davis when Davis said AutoNation would not be pursuing 15 the Business Plan. 16 show that Plaintiff had no reason to suspect any injury or that 17 AutoNation would do anything wrongful. 18 Plaintiff’s duty to diligently investigate was actually triggered 19 is a factual issue that the Court cannot resolve from the 20 pleadings alone. 21 Kline, 87 Cal. App. 4th at 1374 and E-Fab, Inc., 153 Cal. App. 22 4th at 1319). 23 Compl. ¶ 11. Compl. ¶ 32. Plaintiff further These allegations plausibly Accordingly, whether See McMenemy, 2015 WL 1926965, at *2 (citing In arguing that Plaintiff’s allegations do not suffice to 24 toll the statute of limitations, AutoNation relies on Goldberg v. 25 Cameron, 482 F. Supp. 2d 1136 (N.D. Cal. 2007). 26 contends that Goldberg is “on all fours” with Plaintiff’s case. 27 Mem. at 4. 28 Goldberg was one of the most well-known entertainment franchises It is not. AutoNation The allegedly stolen copyright in 6 1 of the 1980’s and 1990’s: The Terminator trilogy. 2 Goldberg found that, because “The Terminator movies have been 3 exceedingly popular both domestically and abroad. . . . [e]ven 4 attempting to eschew all electronic media, it is unreasonable to 5 assert that plaintiff had zero exposure to The Terminator movies. 6 . . .” 7 from society beyond the realm of reasonable conduct, the Goldberg 8 court also refused to believe Plaintiff’s 20-year, self-imposed 9 yoga exile. 10 482 F. Supp. 2d at 1148. The Court in Finding a two-decade withdrawal Id. at 1149. But here, the existence of LKQ is not as notorious as The 11 Terminator movies and Plaintiff has pleaded specific facts 12 explaining why he did not have reason to suspect that AutoNation 13 allegedly stole his idea and created LKQ: 14 • LKQ was formed under a different name than anyone or anything Plaintiff dealt with when initially pitching his idea to AutoNation. • The LKQ IPO did not occur until 2003, and Plaintiff did not know about that because he had left the auto-parts industry. • LKQ was given a name that, unlike Huizenga’s other ventures (e.g. Blockbuster, Waste Management, AutoNation) did not clearly convey the nature of the company’s business. 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 Compl. ¶¶ 32-36. To support its argument that Plaintiff should have known 23 about his potential claim earlier, AutoNation also cites Fox v. 24 Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Inc., 35 Cal. 4th 797, 803-04 (2005) and 25 McKelvey v. Boeing N. Am., 74 Cal. App. 4th 151, 161 (1999). 26 Mem. at 9-10. 27 In Fox, the plaintiff was immediately aware of her injury and was 28 hospitalized shortly after the surgery giving rise to her claim. AutoNation’s reliance on those cases is misplaced. 7 1 35 Cal. App. 4th at 803-04. 2 aware of their injury but not the full nature of the injuries or 3 the defendant’s responsibilities for those injuries. 4 App. 4th at 161. 5 he had no reason to suspect AutoNation would steal his idea after 6 Davis told him that AutoNation was not pursuing his Business 7 Plan. 8 9 In McKelvey, the plaintiffs were 74 Cal. Here, Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that Compl. ¶ 32. In further support of its argument that Plaintiff was on constructive notice of his potential claim, AutoNation also 10 requests the Court to take judicial notice of numerous newspaper 11 articles and public documents. 2 12 public documents in his Complaint, belying his assertion that 13 AutoNation’s potential wrongdoing occurred “in secret.” 14 Compl. ¶¶ 12-18. 15 existed before the 2015 barbecue, whether that gave Plaintiff 16 constructive notice of his claim and he should have known about 17 the alleged trade secret misappropriation are questions of fact. 18 See Kling v. Hallmark Cards, Inc., 225 F.3d 1030, 1041 (9th Cir. 19 2000) (finding there was a “genuine issue of material fact as to 20 whether” the plaintiffs knew or had reason to know about the 21 actual or impending infringement of their alleged copyrights 22 before 1994 even though defendants were “openly and continuously” 23 conducting a national distribution of the allegedly infringing 24 material). 25 2 26 27 28 Mem. at 8-9. Plaintiff cites to See However, even if all of these public documents The Court denies AutoNation’s Request for Judicial Notice, ECF No. 25, because the documents referenced therein are either unnecessary for the disposition of AutoNation’s motion or are documents that may not be judicially noticed to the extent that AutoNation relies on them for the truth of the contents therein, e.g. Exhibits A-O and K. 8 1 AutoNation also argues that the public filings about LKQ put 2 Plaintiff on constructive notice about his potential claim, 3 citing Wang v. Palo Alto Networks Inc., No. C 121095579 WHA, 2014 4 WL 1410346 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 11, 2014), In Cmty. Cause v. 5 Boatwright, 124 Cal. App. 3d 888 (1981), and Baker v. Beech 6 Aircraft Corp., 96 Cal. App. 3d 321, 327-28 (1979). 7 are inapposite. 8 9 These cases In Wang, the Court applied the rule that publication of patents puts those practicing in the same field and prosecuting 10 their own patent applications in that field on notice of all the 11 contents of the publication. 12 this rule was limited to the patent context and is not a “ringing 13 universal rule of law for purposes of commencing a limitations 14 period.” 15 clarified that no case “suggest[s] the existence of public 16 records precludes the application of the delayed discovery 17 doctrine as a matter of law.” 18 Ct., 66 Cal. App. 4th 1236, 1247 (1998). 19 Appeal did not consider the issue of constructive notice where 20 the plaintiff has no reason to suspect injury because the Baker 21 plaintiffs (families of plane crash victims) knew of the injury 22 immediately. 23 upon by AutoNation fail to negate Plaintiff’s argument that he 24 has pleaded sufficient facts for delayed discovery. 25 26 Id. 2. Wang, 2014 WL 1410346, at *6. But The Cal. Court of Appeal reviewed Boatwright and Prudential Home Mtg. Co. v. Sup. 96 Cal. App. 3d at 332. In Baker, the Court of In short, the cases relied Prejudice to Defendant AutoNation argues that allowing Plaintiff to pursue his 27 complaint would prejudice AutoNation in the way the statute of 28 limitations is designed to prevent. 9 Mem. at 6-7. This argument 1 is also unpersuasive given that none of the cases cited involve 2 dismissing pleadings based on prejudice. 3 39 Cal. 3d 892, 903 (1985) (summary judgment); Bollinger v. Nat’l 4 Fire Ins. Co., 25 Cal. 2d 399, 411-12 (1944) (reversing lower 5 court’s grant of demurrer); Duty v. Abex Corp., 214 Cal. App. 3d 6 742, 746, 753 (1989) (reversing grant of directed verdict at 7 trial). 8 prejudice are similar to a defense of laches, which are typically 9 resolved at trial. 10 225 F.3d at 1041. 11 argument at this early stage of the litigation. See Gutierrez v. Mofid, Statute of limitations arguments based on alleged See Duty, 214 Cal. App 3d at 748-49; Kling, Thus, the Court cannot resolve the prejudice 12 Plaintiff has sufficiently pleaded facts to support the 13 reasonableness of his delayed discovery of the alleged trade 14 secret misappropriation. 15 dismiss the claim based on a violation of the statute of 16 limitations. 17 B. The Court denies AutoNation’s motion to Plaintiff’s Efforts To Maintain The Secrecy Of His Business Plan 18 AutoNation argues that Plaintiff’s trade secret 19 misappropriation claim also fails because he has not alleged 20 sufficiently reasonable efforts to maintain the secrecy of the 21 Business Plan. Mem. at 12. The Court agrees. 22 Under the CUTSA, a trade secret requires “efforts that are 23 reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.” 24 Cal. Civ. Code § 3426.1. Whether information is secret is “a 25 relative concept and requires a fact-intensive analysis.” 26 SkinMedica, Inc. v. Histogen Inc., 869 F.Supp.2d 1176, 1194 (S. 27 28 10 1 D. Cal. 2012) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). 3 2 If an individual discloses his trade secret to others who are 3 under no obligation to protect the confidentiality of the 4 information, or otherwise publicly discloses the secret, his 5 property right is extinguished. 6 Sys. Lab., Inc., 226 Cal. App. 4th 26, 57 (2014) (internal 7 citation and quotation marks omitted); see also SkinMedica, 869 8 F.Supp.2d at 1194 (“[I]t follows that an unprotected disclosure 9 of the holder’s secret terminates the existence of a trade 10 Altavion, Inc. v. Konica Minolta secret.”) (internal citation omitted). 11 Whether the recipient of the purported trade secret has a 12 duty to maintain secrecy can be implied from the circumstances. 13 Direct Tech., LLC v. Elec. Arts, Inc., 836 F.3d 1059, 1070 (9th 14 Cir. 2016) (“Where the facts show that a disclosure is made in 15 order to further a particular relationship, a relationship of 16 confidence may be implied, e.g. disclosure to a prospective 17 purchaser to enable him to appraise the value of the secret[.]”) 18 (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). 19 Here, Plaintiff has not alleged sufficient facts 20 demonstrating that he took reasonable steps to protect the 21 secrecy of the Business Plan. 22 issue a non-disclosure agreement before sending the Business Plan 23 to AutoNation. Opp’n at 14. Plaintiff concedes he did not Plaintiff tries to justify this 24 3 25 26 27 28 Plaintiff claims “[w]hether a trade secrets plaintiff has taken steps to preserve secrecy that are appropriate under the circumstances can only be determined in the summary judgment stage (let alone the pleading[s] stage) in an ‘extreme case.’” Opp’n at 11. But that proposition relies on an unpublished Ninth Circuit case that has no precedential value. U.S. Ct. of App. 9th Cir. Rule 36-3. 11 1 conduct by arguing that he “was not concerned that AutoNation 2 would take issue with the substance of the NDA, but rather that 3 any hassle would cause [sic] to lose interest in the individual 4 businessman trying to sell his vision.” 5 may explain why Plaintiff acted the way he did, it does not 6 explain how Plaintiff’s inaction imposed a duty on AutoNation to 7 keep the Business Plan secret. 8 9 Opp’n at 14. While this The Complaint also lacks sufficient facts which would permit the Court to determine whether Plaintiff’s alleged efforts to 10 keep the Business Plan secret were reasonable. 11 in a conclusory manner that “Plaintiff believed the circumstances 12 made clear to the recipients that their receipt of the Business 13 Plan and Plaintiff’s further input and expertise was conditioned 14 upon their agreement not to use or further disclose the Business 15 Plan without Plaintiff’s consent.” 16 not plead what those specific circumstances were or how they 17 relate to his efforts to keep the Business Plan secret. 18 Compl. ¶ 42. Plaintiff alleges Plaintiff does Plaintiff also alleges that he “sought to further protect 19 his Business Plan and confirm the parties’ understanding” about 20 the alleged secrecy of the Business Plan by asking the recipients 21 to return the Business Plan. 22 not allege how this would have communicated to AutoNation that 23 his Business Plan was secret when he had not asserted any secrecy 24 until then. 25 Compl. ¶ 42. But Plaintiff does Compl. ¶¶ 4-6. To support his argument that he has sufficiently pleaded the 26 reasonableness of the efforts he took to maintain the secrecy of 27 the Business Plan, Plaintiff cites to two Fifth Circuit cases 28 that lack precedential value in this Court. 12 Opp’n at 12. 1 Plaintiff also cites Montz v. Pilgrim Films & TV, Inc., 649 F.3d 2 975 (9th Cir. 2001) and Gunther-Wahl Prods., Inc. v. Mattel, 3 Inc., 104 Cal. App. 4th 27 (2002)—two cases from outside the 4 CUTSA arena—to argue that the alleged circumstances imposed a 5 duty of confidentiality on AutoNation. 6 and Gunther-Wahl Prods., those courts examined whether the 7 circumstances showed an implied contract, not whether a party had 8 a duty to keep a business idea secret. 9 App. 4th at 42-43. 10 11 Opp’n at 12-13. In Montz 649 F.3d at 979; 104 Cal. The cases are neither applicable nor persuasive. Because Plaintiff has failed to allege the reasonable steps 12 he took to maintain the secrecy of the Business Plan, his trade 13 secret misappropriation claim fails and must be dismissed. 14 Altavion, Inc., 226 Cal. App. 4th at 57. See 15 C. Breach Of Contract Implied By Fact 16 AutoNation does not argue against the merits of Plaintiff’s 17 breach of implied contract claim. 18 AutoNation again cites Goldberg (and no other case) to argue that 19 Plaintiff has not adequately pleaded facts to toll the two-year 20 statute of limitations on this claim. 21 already indicated above that it does not find Goldberg to be on 22 all fours here. 23 this claim as well. 24 See generally Mem. Mem. at 15. Rather, The Court has The Court’s tolling analysis above applies for In addition, whether Plaintiff exercised reasonable 25 diligence in discovering AutoNation’s alleged breach is “a 26 question of fact for the court or jury to decide.” 27 Inc. v. KTTV, 147 Cal. App. 3d 805, 832-33 (1983) (internal 28 quotation marks and citation omitted). 13 April Enter., And a plaintiff is on 1 inquiry notice when he suspects or should suspect that their 2 injury was caused by wrongdoing. 3 Sup. Ct., 225 Cal. App. 4th 1222, 1234, 1236 (2014) (finding 4 plaintiffs were on inquiry notice from the date they sent an 5 email asking whether their idea for a show was stolen). 6 the Court concluded above, Plaintiff has adequately pleaded that 7 he had “no reason to suspect Defendants had indeed pursued 8 Plaintiff’s plan without his knowledge” because he believed Davis 9 when he said AutoNation would not be pursuing the business idea. NBC Universal Media, LLC v. But, as 10 Compl. ¶ 32. 11 documents about LKQ’s origins show that Plaintiff should have 12 suspected wrongdoing is a factual issue the Court cannot resolve 13 at this stage. 14 to dismiss the implied contract claim. Whether the existence of publicly available Accordingly, the Court denies AutoNation’s motion 15 D. Leave to Amend 16 Courts dismissing claims under Federal Rule of Civil 17 Procedure 12(b)(6) have discretion to permit amendment, and there 18 is a strong presumption in favor of leave to amend. 19 Cap., LLC v. Aspeon, Inc., 316 F.3d 1048, 1051-52 (9th Cir. 20 2003). 21 not appropriate unless it is clear. . . that the complaint could 22 not be saved by amendment.” 23 omitted). Eminence “Dismissal with prejudice and without leave to amend is Id. at 1052 (internal citation 24 The Court is not completely convinced that further amendment 25 would be futile and will give Plaintiff an opportunity to plead a 26 legally sufficient trade secret misappropriation claim against 27 AutoNation. 28 /// 14 1 2 III. ORDER For the reasons set forth above, the Court DENIES 3 AutoNation’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s implied contract claim 4 and GRANTS AutoNation’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s trade 5 secret misappropriation claim with leave to amend. 6 Plaintiff elect to file a First Amended Complaint to address the 7 dismissed trade secret misappropriation claim against AutoNation, 8 he must do so by January 24, 2018. 9 pleading to a First Amended Complaint is due twenty (20) days 10 11 12 thereafter. IT IS SO ORDERED. Dated: January 5, 2018 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 15 Should Defendant’s responsive

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