IRobot Seeks Sanctions Against Robotic FX in Alabama Case; In Other News, the DeLorean Has at Least Two Remaining Fans
Having won a partial injunction against Robotic FX in a Massachusetts court, attorneys for iRobot last week turned their attention to the firm’s separate Alabama lawsuit against its rival. In a motion filed on Wednesday, iRobot asked that Robotic FX be held in contempt and sanctioned for founder Jameel Ahed’s destruction of evidence after the Alabama court had issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting Robotic FX “from failing to preserve all evidence, information, data and documents” concerning the patents, technology, and allegations at issue in the case. Such sanctions, iRobot attorneys said, could run from financial penalties to a summary judgment against Robotic FX.
Like the case in Massachusetts (a full trial of which is slated to begin no later than April 7, 2008), iRobot’s case against Robotic FX in Alabama charges, essentially, that Robotic FX’s Negotiator robot is a knock-off of iRobot’s PackBot. But where the Massachusetts case focuses on trade secrets and confidential information that iRobot says Ahed obtained while working at the Burlington, MA-based firm and used in building the Negotiator, the Alabama case focuses on two iRobot patents the company says the Negotiator infringes upon.
IRobot sought and won the temporary restraining order on August 20 after detectives it had hired observed Ahed taking a large duffle bag from Robotic FX’s headquarters on the night of August 17 (the day the lawsuits were filed) and tossing dozens of items from the bag into a dumpster on August 18. On the 21st, U.S. Marshals, accompanied by iRobot attorneys and forensic specialists, served Robotic FX with the restraining order and searched the company headquarters, Ahed’s home, and the home of Kimberly Hill, Ahed’s girlfriend and Robotic FX’s Chief Operating Officer. Ahed would ultimately admit that, in addition to leaving some of the items detectives found in the dumpster (he suggests at least one item might have been planted), he had also shredded some 100 data CDs and erased a number of hard drives from Robotic FX and personal computers by the time the Marshals arrived. But last week’s request for sanctions focuses on a laptop that Ahed hid under a bed—with a disk-wiping program still running—when he and Hill reached her apartment (the last of the three sites searched) ahead of the marshals.
iRobot’s argument for sanctions, in a nutshell (from a brief supporting the motion): “Mr. Ahed, after being served with this Court’s TRO, therefore, attempted to continue his course of action by hiding his destruction of evidence—an action which would have itself effectively destroyed the evidence of his spoliation conduct. The TRO was entered to maintain and preserve evidence. Mr. Ahed’s efforts to conceal his destruction of evidence violated both the spirit and terms of the TRO.”
In the brief, iRobot attorneys request that the judge award monetary sanctions “for at least the costs and fees incurred to perform the significant legal and investigative costs that iRobot was compelled to undertake as a consequence of Robotic FX’s willful destruction of evidence.” What’s more, they add: “Mr. Ahed’s course of conduct warrants imposition of additional sanctions including at a minimum imposition of adverse inferences regarding iRobot’s claims and even extending to an issuance of a default judgment against Robotic FX.”
In other words, they are saying that the judge could declare an iRobot victory because of Ahed’s actions. But since the judge who issued the restraining order (to whom the request for sanctions seems to be addressed, although we haven’t been able to confirm this) is not the one assigned to actually hear the patent-infringement case, the iRobot attorneys sought the court’s guidance on how to present their requests for these “merits-related” sanctions.
As we at Xconomy have come to expect from the filings in this case, last week’s offerings are chock full of quirky details and attorneys’ wry observations. One of my favorites from this batch is a footnote to the section of the brief describing the shredding of the CDs and wiping of hard drives: “To put Mr. Ahed’s actions in perspective, destruction of a mere 60 megabytes of data from a hard drive has been described as being ‘the equivalent of 29,297 typewritten pages.’…Here, Mr. Ahed destroyed at least six thousand times as much data. If this information was printed and stacked, it would reach more than ten miles into the sky. If Mr. Ahed had shredded this paper at the rate of one page per second, it would have taken him five and one-half years to destroy it—even assuming he worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (and took no breaks to buy new shredders).”
Also worth a read are a couple of recent depositions from Robotic FX employees Eric Weber and Matthew Bethke. The depositions were included to show that Weber and Bethke evidently were never told to preserve evidence, which iRobot attorneys deem “troubling.” But they also paint a portrait of life at Robotic FX in the days after the filing of the lawsuits, with employees scrambling to ready robots for the U.S. military’s “xBot” competition (which Robotic FX would ultimately win, beating iRobot out for a $279.9 million contract) even as U.S. Marshals and iRobot attorneys poured into the firm’s tiny basement workshop.
Weber’s deposition also reveals that both he and Ahed are avid owners of DeLorean cars. Indeed, between 11 pm and midnight on the night of August 17, when Weber was soldering and cleaning his workspace in the basement and Ahed was, presumably, upstairs gathering the items that would wind up in the dumpster the next morning, the pair took a break and went outside to talk cars. An iRobot attorney asked Weber if they discussed anything else. His answer: “We’ve always been fans of the DeLorean and we always talk about ways to improve it, bring it back. Usually goes on for hours until somebody gets in the way and says, ‘you guys need to do something else. You guys are spending too much time on an old relic.'”
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