Employee Misappropriation

In addition to reshaping how business is being done, COVID-19 has presented companies with unprecedented challenges and an increasingly remote work force and has made it more important than ever for businesses to evaluate the security and protection of their trade secrets and confidential information.

Crowell & Moring attorneys Jim Stronski, Anne Li,

The COVID-19 pandemic presents unique and unprecedented challenges to the ongoing need to protect confidential information and trade secrets. The massive business disruptions that enterprises of all kinds now face include (1) entire workforces forced to work remotely, accessing and using confidential information and trade secrets from home; (2) exigent circumstances created by the cessation or substantial slowing of commercial activity that may result in the disclosure of confidential information or trade secrets to third parties outside normal procedures; and (3) the off-boarding of remote employees who are accessing confidential information and trade secrets remotely.

Trade secret protection may not be the immediate priority of a business facing massive business disruptions, but taking reasonable steps now to protect the security of trade secrets and confidential information is critical to the preservation of these valuable assets when this crisis is over. Trade secret law – both federal and state – requires that a trade secret holder take reasonable measures under the circumstances to protect trade secrets.1 Reasonable measures relate not only to prevention of unauthorized disclosures, but also the minimization of the impact of any such disclosures after they occur, and these measures must be reasonable now under the current exigent circumstances.
Continue Reading Trade Secret Protection During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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.
Continue Reading Prosecutions of Trade Secret Theft by Former Employees in Autonomous Vehicle Development

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.
Continue Reading Complex Threat Investigations: Tips for Investigating Trade Secret Misappropriation and Other Digital Crimes

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.
Continue Reading Hirer Beware: Your Employee’s Non-Compete Agreement with their Former Employer May Determine Where You Can be Haled to Court

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).
Continue Reading Permanent Injunctions Restricting Use of Trade Secrets May Only Be as Permanent as an Employment Contract’s Provisions

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.
Continue Reading CUTSA Does Not Preempt Contractual Interference Claim Based on Confidential (But Not Trade Secret) Information

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.
Continue Reading Unsealed Indictment Reveals Criminal Charges Related to Uber/Waymo Dispute