If someone leaves their employer to start their own company (which then gets bought by a competitor of their former employer), can it be a coincidence when that person just happens to end up working for a competitor a few months later on the same material he had been helping his former employer develop?
What if it wasn’t a coincidence? What if it was all an elaborate plot for the competitor to poach the employee, as well as internal documents containing invaluable trade secrets from his former employer?
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is seeking a court order for documents it thinks will prove that’s exactly what happened when Anthony Levandowski left his job at Google to start his own company, Otto, which was quickly bought by Uber.
Levandowski was working on lidar technology (the technology that allows self-driving cars to navigate their environments) for Waymo, Google’s own ride-share company, before leaving to start Otto in early 2016. Otto was a company that made self-driving trucks, and just a few months after its creation, it was bought by Uber for a few million dollars and Levandowski became the head of Uber’s self-driving department.
Unfortunately for Alphabet, they allegedly don’t have any hard evidence to prove their conspiracy theory – they just have a few emails and circumstantial evidence.
Alphabet says Levandowski stole approximately 14,000 documents full of sensitive trade secrets pertaining to their self-driving technology just before he left his position at Google without any prior notice. Alphabet has also pointed out that Uber’s lidar system looks suspiciously similar to theirs.
Uber claims that, if Levandowski did steal any documents, it did not know about the theft and certainly has not benefited from any such stolen information. Uber insists that its current lidar system is a standard design provided by the vendor and that Uber’s own design looks nothing like Waymo’s.
Nevertheless, a San Francisco judge is allowing Alphabet’s lawsuit against Uber for theft of trade secrets to move forward in the courts. Uber tried to have the case moved to arbitration because, according to the ride-share company, Levandowski is at the center of the legal dispute and his employment agreement with Google included an arbitration agreement.
Judge William Alsup disagreed, pointing out that Alphabet is suing Uber, not Levandowski, and that the public courtroom is the proper venue for this particular legal dispute. Uber said in a statement it was dismayed by that decision, but it believes firmly in its own case and is prepared to present its own side of the story in any forum.
That’s good, because Judge Alsup also issued an order to refer the case to the United States Attorney to investigate the possibility Uber stole trade secrets from Alphabet. If the U.S. Attorney decides to accept the case, Uber could be facing criminal charges.
Levandowski has since pleaded the Fifth and recused himself from working on Uber’s self-driving technology. Alphabet is asking the court for an injunction that would prevent Uber from using any of the information or technology it gained from their allegedly stolen documents. Even if they ultimately lose the lawsuit, a successful injunction could effectively take Uber out of the self-driving vehicle race.
Our Chicago non-compete agreement attorneys have defended high level executives in covenant not to compete and trade secret lawsuits. A case in which our firm defended a former Motorola executive was covered in Crain’s Chicago business. You can view that article by clicking here.
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