Uber may fire top self-driving car engineer for refusing Waymo court order

uber self driving

Uber Technologies Inc. has threatened to fire Anthony Levandowski, the head engineer of its self-driving car division, if he does not comply with a court order in the ongoing Waymo v. Uber legal battle.

A former employee of Google Inc.’s self-driving car unit, Levandowski is at the center of Waymo Inc.’s claim that Uber’s self-driving car initiative is using stolen technology. According to Waymo, Levandowski stole more than 14,000 confidential files before leaving to found self-driving car startup Otto, which Uber later acquired for more than $680 million. Levandowski is not a defendant in the case, however, and he refused to turn over some files and declined to respond to a number of questions in the courtroom, citing his Fifth Amendment right to avoid incriminating himself.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup advised Uber that it should compel Levandowski to cooperate with the case at the risk of being terminated, and now it appears that Uber has followed through with Alsup’s suggestion. Uber sent a letter to Levandowski and his lawyers telling him that he must cooperate with the investigation and wave his Fifth Amendment right or else he will be fired.

“We understand that this letter requires you to turn over information wherever located, including but not limited to, your personal devices, and to waive any Fifth Amendment protection you may have,” Uber said in its letter Friday, adding:

“Also, the requirement that your lawyers cooperate with us and turn over information that may be in their possession may invade your attorney-client privilege. While we have respected your personal liberties, it is our view that the Court’s Order requires us to make these demands of you. Footnote 9 of the Order specifically states that ‘in complying with this order, Uber has no excuse under the Fifth Amendment to pull any punches as to Levandowski.’ (Order at 23, no. 9.) Thus, we must demand that you set these privileges aside and confirm that you will promptly comply with the Court’s Order.

“Finally, as you know, your employment at Uber is on an at-will basis. See A. Levandowski Employment Agreement, Aug. 17, 2016 ¶ 5(a) (‘August 17, 2016 Employment Agreement’). As a condition of your employment at Uber, you must comply with all of the requirements set forth in this letter. If you do not agree to comply with all of the requirements set forth herein, or if you fail to comply in a material manner, then Uber will take adverse employment action against you, which may include termination of your employment and such termination would be for Cause.”

Lewandowski’s lawyers accused the court of “unconstitutionally forcing him to choose between his privileges and continued employment,” but Alsup stood by his order. The judge said that Uber must “do whatever it can to ensure that its employees return 14,000-plus pilfered files to their rightful owner.”

Photo: Uber