Uber fires engineer at center of trade secret suit

Krales  The Verge
Krales The Verge
Author

31 May, 2017

Uber has fired Anthony Levandowski, a vice president of technology and the star engineer leading the company's self-driving automobile efforts, according to an internal email sent to employees Tuesday.

Waymo has alleged that Anthony Levandowski downloaded 14,000 documents containing trade secrets before he founded a startup that was purchased by Uber. U.S. District Judge William Alsup has since recommended that Justice Department officials investigate the accusations against Mr. Levandowski and Uber.

Waymo, which is the name of Alphabet Inc.'s self-driving auto division, claims that Levandowski stole thousands of confidential files when he left the company to found his own self-driving vehicle startup, Otto, which was later acquired by Uber for more than $680 million.

Asked last month why Uber did not threaten to fire Levandowski to pressure him into turning over the documents, Uber attorney Arturo Gonzalez told Reuters, "We can fire him but we still don't get the documents". What's more, Levandowski was ordered to hand over a large cache of documents, an order he refused after invoking his 5th amendment right against self-incrimination. Levandowski was awarded $250m in Uber stock as part of the deal, according to documents revealed in court. In a statement on Tuesday, his lawyers argued that a person can not be fired for invoking one's Fifth Amendment rights.

Levandowski's expertise in robot-controlled cars is the main reason that the ride-hailing company bought his startup for $680 million nine months ago. The company is testing autonomous cars with real passengers in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

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Uber said his refusal to hand over those documents - a key piece of evidence in the lawsuit between Uber and Google's parent company - violated the terms of his employment.

Uber had been standing by Levandowski's right to use his Fifth Amendment protections until Alsup issued the decision requiring the company to return any documents belonging to Waymo by May 31. Yoo writes that Levandowski's failure to comply with the court order constitutes a potential "breach" of the employment agreement.

"It is an act by the judicial branch of our federal government compelling an individual to choose between preserving his livelihood and preserving his constitutional rights", Levandowski's lawyers wrote.

"In a sense, Waymo has already won a battle here by basically forcing Levandowski off of Uber's team", said Eric Goldman, director of Santa Clara Law's High Tech Law Institute.

Under the order, Levandowski was barred from being involved at Uber with anything to do with LiDAR, an object-sensing technology used to help self-driving cars "see", which is at the heart of the suit.


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