Wednesday, July 6, 2016
C.A. Revives Suit by Worker Claiming Apple Got Him Fired
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Sixth District Court of Appeal has reinstated a lawsuit by an Arizona engineer who claims that Apple Inc. got him fired from his job because he opposed the company’s anticompetitive conduct.
The court ruled Friday that an employee who sues a third party for interference with his employment contract need not prove that the defendant engaged in tortious conduct beyond the contractual interference itself. A well-known state Supreme Court case requiring such proof when an employer sues a third party for inducing an employee to quit has no application when a fired employee sues, Justice Miguel Márquez wrote.
Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Mark Pierce had sustained Apple’s demurrer to Dan Popescu’s complaint for interference with contract and interference with prospective economic advantage. The judge ruled that Reeves v. Hanlon (2004) 33 Cal.4th 1140 barred the action.
Reeves held that a law firm brought valid claims against associates who left without warning, poached clients, damaged computer files, and failed to leave information about the status of their cases. An at-will employee who leaves his or her employer, the court said, may be held liable for engaging in conduct “proscribed by some constitutional, statutory, regulatory, common law, or other determinable legal standard.”
Popescu alleged that he was terminated from his $200,000 a year job, and lost a year’s severance pay, after Apple accused him of having illegally used the recording capability of his Livescribe Smartpen to record a meeting without Apple’s consent. Popescu was working for Constellium Rolled Products, based in West Virginia, as a product development engineer.
The 2011 meeting in Cupertino, Popescu said in his complaint, involved a complex aluminum alloy that Apple was seeking to develop in order to make the iPhone body thinner and lighter. Popescu said he accidentally activated the recorder on the Smartpen.
The real reason Apple pressured Constellium into firing him, he said, was that he refused to sign agreements that would have barred his employer from selling alloy to any other manufacturer of consumer electronics for five years and required that intellectual property rights concerning the alloy be transferred to Apple. Apple, he said, saw him as “an obstacle to the larger scheme to restrict competition in smartphones.”
Márquez, writing for the Court of Appeal, rejected Popescu’s argument that he was not an at-will employee because he was entitled to severance pay if he was terminated without cause. But even as an at-will employee, the justice said, he had a cause of action for interference with contract.
“Our high court clearly held [in Reeves] that a contract interference claim involving an at-will contract is viable under California law,” he wrote. The trial judge’s reliance on Reeves to hold that Popescu was required to plead an independent tortious act, however, was erroneous, Márquez said.
The Reeves court, he explained, “based its conclusion that interference with an at-will employment relationship was not actionable without an independent wrongful act upon the dual public policy considerations of employee freedom of movement and a business’s right to legitimately compete in the marketplace.” Those considerations, he said, do not apply to the “atypical” situation presented by Popescu, where a third party, not a prospective employer, allegedly induced a business partner, not a competitor, to breach an at-will employment agreement.
Márquez went on to say that Popescu pled a claim for interference with prospective economic advantage by alleging that Apple pressured Constellium to terminate him in furtherance of an “unlawful scheme to misappropriate trade secrets by fraud and false pretenses, to induce the execution of a Development Agreement that violates state and federal antitrust laws, and to violate California’s Unfair Business Practices Act.”
There is no requirement that the plaintiff be directly impacted by the allegedly anticompetitive conduct, the jurist said; it is sufficient that he alleged the disruption of his relationship with his employer as part of that conduct.
The case is Popescu v. Apple Inc., 16 S.O.S. 3352.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company