Employee Misappropriation

As autonomous vehicles quickly move farther towards the mainstream, the underlying technology has become increasingly more valuable and has led to an uptick in the theft of autonomous vehicle (“AV”) trade secrets. Indeed, criminal prosecutions of former employees for trade secret theft have been on the rise, especially in the autonomous vehicle segment. Two recent cases underscore the enforcement agencies’ efforts to stem the rise in trade secret theft in the AV segment. Anthony Scott Levandowski was a former executive at both Uber and Google. He departed Google and created a new company named Ottomotto, LLC that was later purchased by Uber. Levandowski pled guilty to theft of trade secrets from Google, admitting that he downloaded approximately 14,000 files from an internal, password-protected Google server to his personal laptop, including a key internal tracking document from Google that detailed the status of its self-driving car program. Levandowki faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and $250,000 fine plus restitution.
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Companies and other organizations increasingly must face serious and complex threats to their business and infrastructure.  Whether the threat is trade secret theft, rogue insiders, cybercrime adversaries, aggressive competitors, or misconduct by business and supply chain partners, companies should remain constantly vigilant and defense ready. Adversaries, including especially cybercriminals operating exclusively in the digital domain, are often highly motivated, sophisticated, resourced, and innovative. The opaque, pervasive, and global nature of modern digital networked environments presents opportunities for criminals. The sophistication and relentless creativity of these bad actors pose significant challenges to companies and law enforcement agencies in being able to detect, assess, mitigate, attribute, and deter these threats. Because available tools and real-world practices to address these threats often outpace the law, companies are called upon to develop their own comprehensive approaches to investigate and remediate these forms of risk. In doing so, companies must be willing to assume a certain level of risk to effectively investigate and obtain sufficient insight to counter the problems.
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The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania recently ruled that a forum-selection clause in a former employee’s non-compete agreement may bind their new employer for purposes of establishing personal jurisdiction.

Matthews International Corporation (“Matthews”), a manufacturer of cremation furnaces, filed an action in the Western District of Pennsylvania against former employees and two competitors, Implant Recycling, LLC (“Implant”) and IR Environmental Solutions, Inc. (“IR Environmental”), alleging misappropriation of trade secrets and unfair competition. According to Matthews’s complaint, its former employees saved confidential company information and trade secrets on their personal USB drives and emailed company files to themselves before leaving Matthews to join Implant or IR Environmental. These former employees were subject to non-competition agreements that required them to submit to personal jurisdiction in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas or the Western District of Pennsylvania.
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A New Mexico court of appeals recently held that a former employee could not be permanently enjoined from disclosing trade secrets because his employment agreement provided for a five-year limit on the duty of confidentiality.

Lasen, Inc. (“Lasen”), a company that uses trade secret helicopter-mounted LIDAR imaging technology to detect methane gas leaks in natural gas pipelines, sued a former research scientist who wrote the source code for the company’s signature technology. Lasen alleged that the former employee stole the source code and other crucial information as well as deleted Lasen’s copies following his termination in 2009. As a result, Lasen was unable to update its LIDAR technology because it could not decipher the source code. Lasen also alleged that the former employee used its trade secrets in seeking employment with a direct competitor. After a bench trial, the court found the former employee did not misappropriate Lasen’s trade secrets, but he did breach his fiduciary duty and wrongfully retained intellectual property and trade secrets that belonged to Lasen. Therefore, the court permanently enjoined the former employee from disseminating or retaining any of Lasen’s trade secrets (the parties had stipulated that the source code was trade secret).
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The Southern District of California recently confirmed that the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“CUTSA”) does not preempt other civil claims to extent they are based on wrongful conduct relating to non-trade secret intellectual property.

The case involves an employee leaving a company and allegedly commercializing its trade secret with a competitor. Defendant Mr. Corey was an original co-founder of Plaintiff Javo – which sold coffee, tea, and botanical extracts. He played a key role in developing Javo’s proprietary process for making extracts. The process involved using a specially made extraction vessel and particular levels of water quality, temperature and pressure. In 2011, as a result of Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, Javo terminated Mr. Corey’s employment. Importantly to this case, his employment agreement had included an assignment of all his rights and interests in any trade secrets to Javo.

Mr. Corey went on to work for the Defendant, California Extraction Ventures (“CEV”). Shortly thereafter, Mr. Corey filed patent applications disclosing some of Javo’s allegedly proprietary information, including purported trade secret information, as well as other confidential (but not trade secret) information. Rather than assign the patent applications to Javo, Mr. Corey assigned them to CEV, his new employer. Eventually seven patents issued, and seven additional applications were published.
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On September 23rd, 2019, the District Court for the District of Colorado awarded Atlas Biologicals, Inc. a total of $2 million against Defendant Thomas Kutrubes and his company, Peak Serum, Inc. Kutrubes, a part owner and former employee of Atlas, was found liable for trademark infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, and breach of fiduciary duty.

In the First Circuit, restrictive covenants are governed predominately by statute (with the exception of Puerto Rico, which governs such agreements through common law). Within the last year, Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire have amended their restrictive-covenant statutes to prohibit employers from requiring lower-wage earners to sign noncompete agreements. A recently proposed amendment to Massachusetts law, if passed, would render all noncompetition agreements void and unenforceable effective January 1, 2021. These efforts reflect increasing hostility towards, and increased scrutiny of, restrictive covenants in the First Circuit.

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On August 26th, 2019, a federal indictment was unsealed, revealing that federal prosecutors have brought 33 criminal charges against a former Google engineer who worked on the company’s self-driving car project from its founding in 2009 through his resignation in January 2016. The indictment alleges that in the months before his departure, the former Google employee downloaded from a secure database multiple engineering, manufacturing and business files related to Google’s custom LiDAR and self-driving car technology. The indictment further alleges that when the employee stole the files he was also working for two of Google’s main competitors in the self-driving space, Tyto LiDAR LLC, and 280 Systems, Inc.
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As in other states, the enforceability of restrictive covenants or non-compete clauses in the Sixth Circuit turns primarily on the reasonableness of the restriction’s geographic and temporal scope. Michigan has enacted a statute explaining when non-competes may be enforced. In Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, enforcement is determined entirely by common law. In Ohio and Tennessee, courts will consider the public interest in addition to the interests of the parties involved.

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After a week-long trial in June, a jury in the Southern District of Texas awarded digital marketing firm Six Dimensions, Inc. (Dimensions) $287,000 for its breach of contract claim against its former employee, Lynn Brading. However, the jury rejected Dimensions’ $50 million lawsuit against its competitor, Perficient Inc. (Perficient) for stealing its trade secrets.
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