Friday, June 2, 2017

The Reading List (2017, No. 21): Levandowski's Gone

Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended June 2, 2017


Waymo v. Uber

We know what the lead story is: Waymo's suit against Uber. It seems every week produces new drama in the trade secrets case of the year. Why is it such a deal? We're talking about a technological development - self-driving cars - that may be among the most significant in the past hundred years.

Anthony Levandowski - the star engineer behind Waymo's self-driving car technology - has been fired from Uber. Presumably, his termination is a direct result of Judge Alsup's rulings and orders compelling Uber to account for the 14,000 files Levandowski apparently took before leaving Google. That spelled a clear division in where Uber and Levandowski were headed with this dispute.

For a thorough deconstruction of Levandowski's firing, I highly recommend reading John Marsh's excellent analysis. I couldn't do it better and won't try.

Trade Secrets Injunctions

One of the more vexing procedural questions in trade secrets cases is the extent to which wrongful conduct will be enjoined. To be sure, that was one of the flashpoints of Judge Alsup's ruling that effectively barred Levandowski from working for Uber in any competing capacity. But it didn't strictly limit what Uber could do to develop self-driving technology independent of Levandowski.

On a far more mundane level (all cases are more mundane) is Systems Spray-Cooled, Inc. v. FCH Tech, Inc., No. 16 CV 1085, out of the Western District of Arkansas. There, the court grappled with how much competitive activity to enjoin after two ex-employees had misappropriated certain design drawings and pricing information. The misappropriation finding came as a direct result of the defendants' destruction of hard-drive evidence. Without a governing non-compete, the court was faced with how far to extend a trade-secrets injunction. And here, given the evidence destruction, the court carved a middle ground - barring not only the "use" of certain information (assuming it was still available after the destruction) but also some business activity that arose from the misappropriation itself. The court would not go so far as to prohibit the defendants from working in a competitive industry, but did prevent them from using certain designs to develop competing products.

The price for a broader injunction? A $5 million bond.

David Nosal Heads to Washington?

So what's up with this guy? Besides Levandowski and Sergey Aleynikov, few names have become more household in the trade-secrets arena than David Nosal. The ex-Korn/Ferry executive was convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for obtaining the password of a current employee. That allowed Nosal and others to access a database containing valuable information on executive search candidates. (For in-depth coverage, read Professor Orin Kerr's analysis here and a lengthier piece in the Harvard Law Review.)

After Nosal's petition for en banc rehearing was denied by the Ninth Circuit, he appealed his CFAA conviction to the Supreme Court. Representing him? Neal Katyal of Hogan Lovells, the former Solicitor General and premier appellate litigator. Nosal's petition for writ of certiorari was filed May 5.

How much does a typical non-compete case cost?

Aside from "is this thing enforceable?" the question I get asked most is "what's this gonna cost?"

What am I referring to? Non-competes and non-compete suits, of course. No easy answers there, because there are a lot of variables at play. Those variables range from the plaintiff's attorney (competent, middler, or bumptious fool) to the scope of the wrongful conduct alleged. Generally, if the case involves a claim of trade secrets misappropriation with what appears to be some kind of a physical taking of information, the litigation is hard to budget.

But what about a garden-variety non-compete case, about a customer here or there or perhaps even a dispute over the type of work the employee is engaging in? Hard to piece together data, but an unreported case out of Washington noted the prevailing employee spent about $53,000. We know that because the appellate court upheld the fee award. That amount seems about right for a case that does not proceed to trial but instead gets resolved on summary judgment.

The case is Gaddis Events, Inc. v. Wu, No. 75227-8-I, and it's available here.

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