The Minnesota Supreme Court has affirmed an arbitrator’s eye-popping award of $525 million plus prejudgment interest totaling $96 million and post-award interest in a trade secrets dust up between Seagate Technology, LLC and Western Digital Corporation, et al. Seagate Technology, LLC v. Western Digital Corporation, et al and Sining Mao, No. A12-1994 (Minn. October 8, 2014).  The Court’s decision is replete with lessons about the legal boundaries, risks, and protections for litigants in arbitration. It is notable also for the magnitude of the award which was, in part, the consequence of falsified evidence.

Seagate designs and manufactures hard disk drives for computers. Sining Mao was a senior director for advanced head concepts at Seagate working on technology that involves incorporating tunneling magnetoresistance (“TMR”) in to read heads to improve storage capacity. When he was hired by Seagate, he signed an employment agreement which included a requirement to preserve the confidentiality of trade secrets and to return company documents. The employment agreement contained an arbitration clause which stated, in part, that the “arbitrator may grant injunctions or other relief in such controversy” arising out of the agreement.  Arbitration was subject to the rules of the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”).

Mao left Seagate in September 2006 to join Western Digital, a competitor. Seagate then commenced a district court action seeking injunctive relief and alleging misappropriation of trade secrets related to TMR technology.  Western Digital invoked the arbitration clause of Mao’s employment agreement with Seagate, and the district court stayed the lawsuit pending arbitration.

Things started to go south for Western Digital and Mao argued that three of the alleged trade secrets had been publicly disclosed before Mao left Seagate because they were included in a PowerPoint presentation he gave at a conference.  Seagate argued that Mao had fabricated and inserted additional PowerPoint slides containing the information after the fact to make it appear as if this information had been made public.  The arbitrator found that “[t]he fabrications were obvious. There is no question that Western Digital had to know of the fabrications and yet continued to represent to the Arbitrator that Dr. Mao did in fact insert the disputed slides at the time of the conferences.” The arbitrator found that the fabrication and Western Digital’s complicity was an egregious form of litigation misconduct that warranted severe sanctions.

Specifically, the arbitrator precluded any evidence or defense by Western Digital and Mao disputing the validity of the three trade secrets or any defense to the allegation of misappropriation or use of the three trade secrets, which resulted entry of judgment on liability and monetary damages in the amount of $525 million, calculated based on an unjust enrichment method. Western Digital brought a motion to vacate the award in district court. The district court granted the motion in part, finding that the arbitrator exceeded the scope of his authority under the arbitration agreement.  The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the district court on the ground that Western Digital had waived its right to challenge the arbitrator’s ability to issue punitive sanctions by not raising the issue with the arbitrator himself (and because Western Digital had earlier sought sanctions against Seagate in the same matter).

The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals although based on a different analysis. The Supreme Court held that Western Digital did not waive its right to challenge the Arbitrator’s authority under Minnesota statutes regarding arbitrations and requests for vacatur, specifically Minn. Stat. Section 572.19.   The high Court then went on to conclude that the arbitrator did have the authority to impose the disputed sanctions, looking at the employment agreement, AAA arbitration rules, and case law.

The Court noted that:

Some believe that arbitration has benefits, potentially including faster resolution and less expense than the judicial system as well as a higher degree of confidentiality. But the benefits come with costs, including significantly less oversight of decisions, evidentiary and otherwise, and very limited review of the final award. Here, despite the best efforts of experienced appellate counsel to argue otherwise, Mao and Western Digital’s decision to demand arbitration necessarily limited the availability of the protections and advantages of the judicial system.

It is unclear if a district court could have reached the same result as the arbitrator in the Seagate case, but the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision suggests that arbitrators can have greater discretion than judges.  The case certainly highlights the fact that arbitration may not always be the best forum, depending on which side of the dispute you are on.