By: William J. O’Sullivan
Here’s a to-do list for your last day at work. (1) Pack up your family photos. (2) Brag to your co-workers about the great benefits you’ll be getting at your new job. (3) Steal and destroy company property, without even getting up from your chair.
Well, maybe that last one’s a bad idea.
The company property that we’re talking about is computer data. It’s in “your” computer, the one that sits on “your” desk. But of course you know the computer isn’t really yours, nor is the desk. Well, neither is the data. And if you steal some (by copying it without permission), or destroy some (by deleting it without permission), you may find yourself, and your new employer, in a world of hurt.
Under Connecticut law, taking, deleting, or tampering with someone else’s computer data without permission can be both a crime and a tort (that is, a civil wrong). If you do so, you risk both criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit. If you violate the computer-crime law, your old employer can file a criminal complaint and sue you, depending on the circumstances, for actual damages, unjust enrichment, punitive damages and an award of attorneys’ fees.
If you take data for the benefit of your new company, it gets even worse. Your old employer might sue the new employer for damages, claiming that the new employer knows what you did and is benefiting from the stolen data. The old employer might also seek an injunction against you and the new employer, to prevent any unjust enrichment from the use of the data. And the court might appoint an expert, called a receiver, to physically inspect your new employer’s computer files, to see if any of your old company’s data shows up there.
None of this will get you off to a flying start in your new job. Few things poison a new employment relationship as thoroughly as a lawsuit that accompanies the new employee. Nor will the new company appreciate a receiver nosing around its computer files and reporting to the court about what he finds.
You may have doubts about who really owns the data that’s accessible through your company computer. Here’s a rule of thumb: everything belongs to the company.
Of course, the legal issues aren’t always so cut and dried. For example, if you’re an independent contractor, there might be some open questions about who owns what data. Similar questions might arise as to data that you put into your laptop or home computer with the company’s permission.
The point is, think before you act. Better yet, get professional advice first. Don’t wait to get sued before finding out what your rights and obligations are.