State could play pivotal role in Kai-Fu Lee case

An attorney with experience in noncompetition lawsuits said Monday that Microsoft Corp. has a good chance of winning its case against Google Inc. and Kai-Fu Lee, despite the fact that Google is attempting to get a court in its home state of California to nullify the basis for the suit.

Courts on Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft’s home turf are more willing to enforce noncompete clauses than courts in California, where there is an overall reluctance to enforcing these kind of agreements, said Robin Meadow, a partner in Los Angeles-based law firm Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland LLP.

Because Microsoft has already fast-tracked its original suit against Google and Lee in Seattle’s King County Superior Court before Google filed in a San Jose, California, court to block that suit — and won a preliminary ruling in the Seattle court — Microsoft has a slight edge that could ultimately prevent Lee from working at Google for a year, he said.

“Typically, whoever gets to court first gets the [decision],” Meadow said. “It’s very likely that whatever happens in Washington will drive the ultimate result [of the case].”

Another issue working against Google is that if Microsoft does win its case in Washington, that case can be applied as reason to throw out Google’s suit in California, he said. This is because a Washington state judgment is binding in California, but the reverse is not true until an appeals process takes place, Meadow said. Only after that process will a California judgment be binding in another state, but a judgment in a Washington court can be binding in California as soon as it is handed down, he said.

“As a practical matter, it’s almost impossible for Google to get a judgment on this case,” Meadow said. “If Microsoft goes to judgment [in Washington] they have an expedited trial [there]. If Microsoft wins — and the standard factors favor Microsoft — it can use that judgment to defeat Google’s attempt to [block the suit in California].”

Microsoft filed suit on July 19 after Lee, a former Microsoft employee, joined Google to spearhead new research and development efforts in China, a move the software giant said violated a noncompete agreement signed when he was hired at Microsoft.

Google countersued Microsoft two days later in a California state court in an attempt to have the noncompete clause invalidated. Still, on July 29 the Washington court slapped Lee with a temporary injunction that prevents him from engaging in competitive work at Google, particularly with regards to search engine business practices in the Chinese market, effectively preventing Lee from doing the job he was hired to do.

To complicate matters further, Microsoft also filed papers on July 29 requesting the California suit be moved to a federal rather than a state court. Google’s headquarters are located in Mountain View, California, in Santa Clara County, where the city of San Jose also is located.

In court filings, Microsoft has argued that Lee was “privy to confidential and proprietary information and trade secrets related to search strategies” and learned about Microsoft’s confidential plans to make money from its search technologies.”

Papers filed by Google and Lee opposing these charges refer to the case as “a shocking display of hubris” on Microsoft’s part, and said that Lee had “only the most tangential connection to search and no connection whatsoever to Google’s work in this space.”

Google and Lee are scheduled to appear before the King County Superior Court on Sept. 6 to make arguments against the current injunction against Lee.

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