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Apple Sued for Allegedly Poaching Workers for Top-Secret Car Project

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on February 20, 2015 8:08 AM

With all the poaching Apple is accused of doing these days, you'd think it's on an African safari.

It seems like only last month (which it was) that Apple, along with three other Silicon Valley companies, settled a class action lawsuit brought by tech company employees who claimed companies colluded in anti-poaching agreements, which lowered their wages.

Now Apple's getting into trouble for allegedly poaching employees from a car battery manufacturer. These guys just can't win.

What Could It Be?

Over the past few weeks, the Apple rumor mills have furiously chugged away at suggestions that Apple is secretly building an electric car. Where do these wild accusations come from? The Wall Street Journal, which reported last week Apple had "several hundred employees" working on such a device, which "resembles a minivan." Apple apparently hired executives and engineers from Ford, Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, and various other auto design and engineering companies.

Rampant speculation percolated over the weekend, the former CEO of GM weighed in ("They have no idea what they're getting into if they get into that"), and the backlash of "Apple isn't building a car" articles went up (that makes extreme sense, given that Apple doesn't have the expertise to get into the car industry).

Lawsuit Removed to Federal Court

Well, whatever Apple is doing in its Wonka-esque solitude, the lawsuits are coming. A123, a manufacturer of electric car batteries, is suing Apple "for poaching top engineers to build a large-scale battery division," Reuters reports. A123 filed the lawsuit in a Massachusetts state court on February 6, but Apple removed it to federal court.

The complaint alleges that Apple solicited A123 employees to work on its top-secret car project, in violation of the employees' non-disclosure, non-complete, and non-solicitation agreements. At Apple, the employees "are working in a field of battery science, technology, and/or products that is substantially similar if not identical to the field they worked in at A123." The complaint also claims that A123 employees, hired as managers at Apple, then poached other A123 employees.

The major concern, of course, is that the former battery company employees might divulge trade secrets. But employees frequently move between companies in the same industry, and if moving from one company to another were all it took to raise a lawsuit, employees (especially in the tech industry) would get sued all the time. There's no evidence at this stage to conclude the A123 employees are taking specific secrets or inventions with them. They have their own expertise in the field, combined with experience they gained while working at A123, but that belongs to them, not the company. Of course, A123 is also upset that many of its senior engineers left the company, forcing them to scramble to find new ones. Those are the breaks of at-will employment.

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