Once the decision is made to quit and join a competitor, employees sometimes will delete information on the company laptop issued to them. Various explanations are offered by employees for the deletions. Employees will claim that the deletions were personal photos or information. Or, that the deletions were done only after hard copies of the documents were placed in the company files. Or, that there wasn’t any information on the computer when the computer was issued and that they were only returning the computer in the same condition as when they received it. Employers, on the other hand, immediately become concerned that the employee deleted information in an effort to gain a competitive advantage. Or, that the information was deleted by the employee in an effort to punish the employer. If the employer concludes that valuable information was deleted, it may retain a computer forensic expert to recreate the information. On a more subtle level, employers often try use the deletions to diminish sympathy for the employee and show that the employee was a “bad” person. We’ve been involved in several civil cases where these kind of allegations have been made, and the allegations have played a major role in how the cases were resolved.
A recent Colorado Supreme Court case, People v. Stotz, demonstrates how an employee can be exposed to criminal liability if he elects to delete information from his employer’s computer system. In Stotz, the defendants were all former employees of an electrical testing company who had resigned and accepted jobs with a competitor. Once the employees left, the electrical testing company discovered that information was missing from laptops used by the former employees. A computer forensics expert was retained and determined that thousands of documents had been copied and then deleted from the laptops.