Another Uber Lesson: Firing an Employee at the Center of Scandal

By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 23, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Uber has more problems than an old car and it's starting to break down -- legally.

Drivers have sued the company for overtime and other complaints. Contractors have sued for unpaid bills. A competitor has sued for stealing technology.

But if ever there were a legal spot between a rock and a hard place for Uber, it's between the company and its engineer Anthony Levandowski. The former Google worker allegedly stole self-driving technology and took it to Uber, and a judge is not happy about it.

Discovery Orders

In a suit by Google's driverless division Waymo, a judge has ordered Uber to "exercise the full extent of its corporate employment, contractual and other authority" to force Levandowski to return any materials he took from Waymo. The company has until high noon May 31.

The problem is, Levandowski has claimed a Fifth Amendment privilege against cooperating with discovery. Uber, stuck between the judge's orders and its employee's privilege, has responded with its own orders.

"Uber takes its obligations under the Order very seriously, intends to comply fully, and expects you to do the same," Uber's general counsel Salle Yoo told Levandowski in a letter.

Yoo spelled out the specific discovery demands and added a Trumpish threat. Waive your Fifth Amendment and attorney client privileges or, "You're fired."

Fifth Amendment

Earlier in the litigation, Levandowski's privilege claims may have been a little fresh to articulate but now they are definitely ripe. Judge William Alsup has referred the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"The Court takes no position on whether a prosecution is or is not warranted, a decision entirely up to the United States Attorney," Alsup wrote in his order.

The judge offered few details on his decision, but has said in previous hearings that there was "strong evidence" that Levandowski took the technology. Uber doesn't deny Levandowski downloaded the files, and Waymo is pursuing him individually in separate arbitration proceedings.

Once the arbitration, civil, and possible criminal cases are over, maybe Levandowski will sue Uber for firing him in response to his privilege claims. That assumes, or course, that he is not in jail and Uber is still in business.

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