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Employee quits, then emails docs to herself? That’s not theft, but may be something more

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

A federal court has rejected an employer’s claim that by emailing a series of documents to herself before quitting, a former employee committed theft. The same court did, however, say she may have breached a confidentiality agreement.

Recent case: Hollie was vice president of marketing for an insurance firm. She signed a noncompete, confidentiality and employment agreement when coming on board. Together, the agreements barred Hollie, should she leave, from direct competition and use of confidential information obtained during employment.

Hollie quit but, before her last day, she downloaded customer lists and other information that could potentially be used to compete. Then she filed an overtime lawsuit.

The former employer responded with a breach-of-contract lawsuit, alleging trade secret violations. It also alleged that the act of sending company filed to her personal email account was a tort of conversion—essentially theft—under Minnesota law.

The court concluded no theft had occurred because the employer still had access to the information. Hollie had merely copied them. Plus, electronic files are not physical, and conversion requires taking something tangible.

However, the court did conclude that sending customer lists may have violated her agreement to keep trade secrets confidential. (Jacobs v. Gradient Insurance Brokerage, No. 15-3820, DC MN, 2016)

Advice: If you need to protect your customer lists and other trade secrets, insist that employees sign a binding confidentiality agreement. Consult your attorney to craft an effective agreement.

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