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Our Employee Quit and Took a Laptop: Can We Get it Back?

By John DiGiacomo

The answer will depend on the facts and circumstances, but filing a trade secret misappropriation claim is a possible method by which your business could recover a laptop taken by an employee who quit. As an aside, if the laptop is company property, then it might be considered stolen property. Under those circumstances, a call to law enforcement may be the solution.

But, for our discussion, let’s assume the laptop is owned by the employee — maybe a bring-your-own-device. Even if the laptop is the property of the employee, a trade secret misappropriation case might still allow the company to obtain physical possession of the laptop (at least temporarily). For a trade secret misappropriation claim to be filed, it must be shown that the laptop computer contains company information that is a trade secret. If successful, under the federal trade secrets statute, among other remedies, your company can ask the judge to order a civil seizure of the laptop. The purpose of such a seizure would be to remove any trade secrets or other confidential information from the computer.

Making a case for trade secret misappropriation may not be as difficult as it sounds since trade secrets are defined as any type of information that

  • Has been the subject of reasonable measures by the owner to keep the information secret and
  • That derives independent economic or commercial value from the fact that the information is secret

By this definition, the laptop might contain any number of trade secrets such as customer lists, financial documents/information, scientific data, engineering plans, designs, programs, formulas, information about business plans and methods, etc.

The second legal element that must be proven is misappropriation. Generally, “misappropriation” is defined as acquisition of trade secrets through some use of “improper means” or disclosure or use of a trade secret without consent from the owner of the trade secret. This element might be a bit more difficult to establish legally. Much will depend on what company policies and procedures are in place with respect to confidentiality, non-disclosure and return of information upon separation from employment. If an employee is barred from taking confidential trade secret information with him or her after separation, then the misappropriation claim is stronger. Likewise, misappropriation can be shown if there is any factual indication that the trade secrets are being used or disclosed.

As noted above, if misappropriation can be shown, it might be possible to get a quick order from the court requiring civil turnover of the laptop. In addition to injunctive relief, money damages can also be sought in the form of actual provable damages, disgorgement of profits or other monies obtained by the person misappropriating the trade secrets and more. Under some circumstances, the owner of a trade secret can be awarded exemplary damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees. If you have questions about protecting your trade secrets or litigating a trade secret dispute, contact the trade secret lawyers at Revision Legal at 231-714-0100.

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