Uber threatened to fire engineer at center of Waymo trade secret lawsuit

Uber has issued a sternly worded letter to Anthony Levandowski, the engineer at the center of a lawsuit alleging theft of trade secrets from Google parent Alphabet’s self-driving technology unit Waymo. The gist? Comply with the court’s orders or risk being terminated.

Levandowski is the former technology lead for Google’s autonomous vehicle unit and co-founder of self-driving truck startup Otto, which Uber acquired for $680 million last summer. He is also accused of downloading tens of thousands of confidential documents related to Google’s proprietary LiDAR design before leaving the company and founding Otto.

That is at the center of Waymo’s case, which was filed in February and accuses Uber of misappropriating its trade secrets and infringing on patents related to its self-driving vehicle program. The suit is going to trial and there’s the possibility of a criminal case being opened up as well.

But in the meantime, Waymo has argued that discovery in the case has been held up by Levandowski refusing to answer questions related to the alleged theft of proprietary data. Levandowski has repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment in the case, citing the potential for criminal action that could lead to self-incrimination.

Last week Judge William Alsup ordered that Uber “exercise the full extent of [its] corporate, employment, contractual, and other authority” to force Levandowski to return any downloaded materials to Waymo.

Following that, Uber on May 15 sent a letter  to Levandowski giving him a choice between “deny[ing] ever having taken any downloaded materials from Google” or hand over any materials he might have taken from Google. If he failed to comply, he would risk termination of his employment.

[A]s you know, your employment at Uber is on an at-will basis. See A. Levandowski Employment Agreement, Aug. 17, 2016 ¶ 5(a) (“August 17, 2016 Employment Agreement”). As a condition of your employment at Uber, you must comply with all of the requirements set forth in this letter. 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 and such termination would be for Cause.

If you comply with these requirements, your employment at Uber will continue on an at- will basis. For the avoidance of doubt, Uber retains the sole right to determine whether you are in compliance with the requirements set forth above.

In his own filing, Levandowski’s attorneys argue that the Court’s order to Uber and Uber’s own threats would violate his constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination.

“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,” it says.