Judge denies Uber’s request for stay in Waymo suit

The judge in the lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, the self-driving car subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, denied Uber’s request for a stay pending its appeal for arbitration. That means the case is still on track to go to trial in early October, as previously planned.

In court today, District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California re-affirmed the court date, put a limit on new discovery requests and urged both parties in the case to figure out their differences on that front.

Finally, Alsup defended his earlier order for Uber to do everything in its power to get Anthony Levandowski, the engineer at the center of the case, to comply with discovery requests and to return any confidential material he may have taken from Waymo before leaving the company.

Waymo alleges Levandowski stole trade secrets related to its autonomous driving technology, which were later used in the creation of his own self-driving truck startup Otto. Because Uber acquired Otto for nearly $700 million last summer, the implication is that those trade secrets found their way into Uber’s own autonomous driving unit.

Uber had previously argued — unsuccessfully — that the lawsuit should head to arbitration due to a clause in Levandowski’s employment contract. It later appealed that decision and was seeking a stay in the case while the appeals process was underway. Alsup’s ruling this morning effectively denied a pause in the proceedings while waiting for an appeals court to hear the case, and also re-affirmed an October 2 court date for the trial to get underway.

With less than four months between now and the scheduled proceedings, Alsup also urged both parties to limit the scope of the suit, put a limit on discovery requests and move forward in complying with existing requests.

Speaking to the counsel for Waymo, Alsup also suggested the company severely curtail — or drop entirely — the patent claims it’s making as part of the case.

“I think you’re going to lose on all these patent claims unless you pull a rabbit out of a hat,” Alsup said. “You’re the one who wants the trial date… You’re the one who should streamline this.”

Otherwise, he argued, “you’ll burn up a lot of time and effort for things that will end up as a distraction.” Instead, he suggested Waymo counsel spend more time and energy trying to obtain the documents Waymo claims were part of the due diligence process in the Uber-Otto acquisition to find out what Uber knew and when.

On the flip side, Alsup said Uber’s defense would depend on showing that the alleged trade secrets Waymo has accused Levandowski of stealing were not secrets after all, but part of the public domain and something that any good autonomous engineer would know.

Much of today’s hearing was focused on the discovery aspect of the case, which Alsup has (for the most part) turned over to Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley. Still, Uber counsel argued that the nature of Waymo’s discovery process was onerous, citing 265 requests that it is already trying to respond to, as well as additional follow-ups it expects.

In response, Alsup once again referred all document discovery requests to the magistrate and the special master, and told the parties there should be no more document requests until further notice. 

Finally, Alsup turned to the topic of Levandowski, specifically the argument that the court’s order compelling Uber to get him to turn over any documents taken from Waymo unconstitutionally violated his fifth amendment rights against self-incrimination.

Following a court order, Uber threatened Levandowski with termination if he did not comply with its investigation and return any Waymo-owned materials to his previous employer. When he failed to comply by Uber’s deadline, the company followed through on its threat and fired Levandowski late last month.

Because of this, Levandowski’s counsel argued that an agent of the government was forcing a private citizen to choose between his Fifth Amendment rights and continued employment.

After hearing from counsel for Levandowski, Uber and Waymo, Alsup ruled from the bench. The issue was moot, he said, because “Uber had its own investigation going and for its own reasons found that Mr. Levandowski should be fired for not complying with that investigation.”

Alsup implored those in court to consider what kind of mischief would arise if people working at private companies could claim the Fifth Amendment when party to any internal investigation and could remain employed while not complying with those investigations.

“A private employer… can say to its employee, ‘Either you comply with this investigation or we can terminate you,’ ” Alsup said. As a result, he said he continues to stand behind the previous order and would not change anything about it.