Uber Threatens to Fire Engineer at Center of Waymo LawsuitBy
Levandowski must comply or may face termination, lawyer says
Uber maintains it hasn’t stolen Waymo’s trade secrets
Uber Technologies Inc., under pressure from a court order in its battle with Alphabet Inc. over driverless technology, threatened to fire the engineer accused of taking files from his former employer if he doesn’t help the company obey the judge’s requests.
Uber asked Anthony Levandowski to cooperate in the investigation into the allegedly stolen material or be terminated, according to a May 15 letter from Uber General Counsel Salle Yoo. Levandowski voluntarily stepped away from any role pertaining to the so-called lidar technology that was under development when he worked for Alphabet’s Waymo unit.
Levandowski, who isn’t a defendant in the lawsuit brought by Waymo, has refused to testify in the case, citing his Fifth Amendment right to avoid incriminating himself. Waymo alleges that Levandowski downloaded thousands of confidential files before he left the company to launch his own self-driving startup, Otto, that was acquired by Uber for almost $700 million.
Since the lawsuit was filed in February, Uber and Levandowski have walked a fine line together, sometimes invoking the ire of the judge in the case. U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup has been frustrated by Levandowski’s unwillingness to testify and turn over evidence, and how Uber has benefited from his stance.
It’s unclear yet if the order and Yoo’s demands represent a true wedge in the alliance between Uber and its engineer or if the general counsel’s letter and Levandowski’s response is another element of the litigation strategy to avoid a breakup. While the letter might appear to signal a shift in Uber’s attitude toward Levandowski, it’s much more likely intended to serve both of their immediate needs, according to Jim Pooley, a lawyer at Orrick in Menlo Park, California, who isn’t connected to the case.
“Uber has now demonstrated compliance with an important aspect of the judge’s order, while at the same time making a record for Levandowski to challenge the order on the basis that he has been forced to choose between his job and his Constitutional rights,” Pooley said.
Levandowski’s lawyer argued in a court filing that Alsup’s May 11 order imposed an impossible burden on the engineer. It forces him to choose between his Constitutional rights against self-incrimination or his job, and the order should be amended, Miles Ehrlich wrote in the filing.
Levandowski remained at the head of Uber’s driverless car program until last month. He was demoted to appease Alsup, but the judge has maintained that Uber hasn’t done enough to pressure Levandowski to cooperate with the case. His May 11 order was designed to force a response.
“If you do not agree to comply with all of the requirements set forth herein, or if you fail to comply in a material manner, then Uber will take adverse employment action against you, which may include termination of your employment,” Yoo wrote in the May 15 letter to Levandowski.
The Uber-Levandowski alliance will be tested again soon, as both head toward a May 25 hearing in which they’ll continue to resist Waymo’s efforts to gain access to a due-diligence report commissioned last year to assess the risks associated with Uber’s acquisition of Otto.
The order "leaves little room for interpretation," Ehrlich wrote. "Anything short of firing Mr. Levandowski to get him to waive his Fifth Amendment rights and attorney-client privileges would put Uber at risk of contempt, since it would fail to measure up to the court’s command that Uber exercise every lawful power it has over Mr. Levandowski."
Chelsea Kohler, a spokeswoman for Uber, declined to comment. Waymo spokesman Johnny Luu didn’t respond to an email and Ehrlich didn’t return a call and an email sent after regular business hours.
The letter from Yoo was attached to a May 18 filing in Waymo’s trade secret theft lawsuit against Uber.
“We continue to believe that no Waymo trade secrets have ever been used in the development of our self-driving technology, and we remain confident that we will prove that fact in due course,” Yoo wrote. “Until then, we insist that you do everything in your power to assist us in complying with the order.”
Alsup has asked federal prosecutors to investigate claims made in the case.
The case is Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies Inc., 17-00939, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).