Last week, Uber announced that it had fired Anthony Levandowski, the former lead engineer for Google’s autonomous vehicle unit. Uber hired Levandowski to lead its efforts to develop a self-driving automobile. The firing occurred in the midst of a lawsuit in which Waymo, Google’s driverless car subsidiary, alleges that Uber is using trade secrets Levandowski stole from Google to develop Uber’s self-driving vehicles. Uber denies everything.
This trade secrets dispute, which was already a unique high-stakes case, took on another dimension when Levandowski asserted his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination and refused to produce evidence and give testimony related to the 14,000 files Waymo claims Levandowski stole. Last month, the court ordered Uber to “exercise the full extent of [its] corporate, employment, contractual and other authority” to force Levandowski to return the allegedly stolen materials to Waymo. The court noted that the Fifth Amendment does not prohibit a private employer from firing an employee who refuses to waive his Fifth Amendment rights. In a letter sent two weeks before he was fired, Uber told Levandowski that it viewed compliance with the court’s order as a condition of employment. Levandowski’s lawyers argue that the court’s order violates long-standing legal authority that does not permit the government to compel an employee to choose between his constitutional rights and his employment.
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