We have cautioned before in our blogs and on our website that one of the worst mistakes an employee can make when leaving a job is to email information of any sort from a work computer to a home computer in the weeks leading up to the last day of employment. If you do so, even if you think the information you’re sending home is purely personal, your employer will inevitably suspect that you are attempting to steal a trade secret, customer lists, product information, or some other kind of information the employer may label as “proprietary or confidential.” And the result, particularly if you’ve signed a non-compete or confidentiality agreement, can be very ugly.
This lesson was recently highlighted in news reports about a Pfizer marketing executive against whom a Pennsylvania federal court issued a “temporary restraining order,” in the days immediately after she left her job with Pfizer. In the legal action brought by Pfizer against this employee, it accused her of having sent “at least 42 emails containing confidential information to her personal email account and copied 600 files to a USB drive before her departure, violating an existing employee agreement she signed regarding sensitive company information,” according to a March 1, 2017 report by Law360.
Upon being presented with these accusations, presumably supported with some evidence of the electronic transmissions and downloading by the employee, a Pennsylvania federal judge, without giving the employee notice that he was doing so, entered a temporary restraining order against her, finding that, “there is a real danger that, if given advance notice, defendant will either disclose or destroy the confidential information and trade secrets at issue.”
Employees should also be forewarned that employers will often leave no stone unturned – and spend enormous amounts of money –in searching for every potential communication containing company information that a departing employee may have sent to herself or others prior to leaving employment. In a case we recently handled for an employee, his employer undoubtedly spent far more than $100,000 in retaining attorneys, filing suit, and hiring a very expensive “forensic” computer search firm to search every email, text message, and phone message our client sent in the months preceding his leaving the company. While it ultimately found nothing and had to dismiss its case, it was a harrowing and expensive procedure for our client who had to defend himself against the company’s legal action and turn over access to all of his personal computers, cell phones, iPads, etc. to be searched by the forensic experts in order to be vindicated.
In fact, just as this blog was about to be published, I learned, again from Law360, that this Pfizer employee’s case had been settled as a result of an agreement reached that would allow Pfizer to bring in an independent computer forensic specialist to examine all of the employee’s computer and other electronic devices. The agreement also provides that the judge in the case will retain jurisdiction over it for the next three years to resolve any disputes that may arise. While this Pfizer employee was able to “settle” this dispute, I am sure that she has incurred and will likely continue to incur substantial legal fees and costs in conjunction with the litigation and its ongoing resolution.
So, if you are contemplating leaving your employer and seeking alternate employment, a word to the wise: think twice before hitting that “send” key.