What if a laid-off employee refuses to return his laptop to the company?

QUESTION:

What should I do if a laid-off employee won’t return his laptop to the company? It has confidential information on it, and it’s a company laptop.

ANSWER:

Ethan Stone

Ethan Stone

by Ethan Stone, Stone Business Law

First, a quick but important clarification: I’m not your lawyer and this answer doesn’t establish a lawyer-client relationship. I’m giving a generic answer to a generic question to educate the users of this site. The information below is general in nature and should not be understood as a substitute for personal legal advice.

There are several approaches that might make sense, depending on the specifics of the situation. Unfortunately, you shouldn’t take any of these actions without consulting with a lawyer about your specific situation, since all of them depend a lot on the specific facts and involve the application of various laws and regulations or your chances in court.

If the employee is still getting any severance benefits, take a look at the release agreement he (hopefully) signed when he left. If it’s well drafted, it should give you the right to cut him off if he refuses to return company property. Depending on the agreement and your state’s employment laws, you might also be able to sue him to get back what he’s already received. If there’s a lot of severance still to come, that can be very effective.

Another approach is to try the “nuclear option” and look into making a criminal complaint to the police for theft of trade secrets. You need to talk to a lawyer before you do this to evaluate the specifics of your situation, including whether there are, in fact, trade secrets involved. You should only do this if you are prepared to see the person prosecuted. Once you start the process, the ultimate choice won’t be yours. You should never threaten to report someone to the police, as opposed to informing him that you’ve done it. That can constitute extortion which is itself a crime. The disadvantages of this route are obvious. The advantage is that it can produce a dramatic result at relatively little cost.

Finally, you could just sue the guy for misappropriation of your property and/or trade secrets. If you win, you will ultimately be able to get the sheriff to go in and seize the property (you might be able to get it seized in the interim, but you’d have to talk to a litigator about that possibility). The problem with this route is that it isn’t fast and can be fairly expensive. On the other hand, if the guy doesn’t have the money to defend the suit (and you have enough to bring it), he might fold fairly quickly.

Good luck.

Comments & Advice:
  1. Mike says:

    I was fired from a Fortune 500 company and was treated quite unjustly. On top, they didn’t pay me my proper severance.

    I have yet to return the company laptop after 4 months. It does not contain any confidential information.

    They asked for it about 3 months ago, but have never heard from them since.

    Can I just keep the darned thing?

  2. Steve says:

    Hi Mike,

    If the laptop is the property of the company and not the employee, then an employee who keeps the laptop if permission to keep it has been revoked could be liable for theft and the company is within its rights to begin civil action against you.

    Steve

  3. J.R. says:

    I was laid off three months ago after being promoted to a new position that the company realized three weeks too late that it had no use for (due to an unsurprisingly incompetent move made by company executives during negotiations with a client organization – I could go on all day, were this the time or the place.) They’ve neither asked for my company laptop, nor provided any means of shipping it back.

    Is there any penalty I could face from keeping this device? And if so, do I have no legal recourse to charge them for the safekeeping of their property for the three months they neglected to retrieve or request it’s return?

    Right now, the device is securely stored in it’s original packaging, unopened and having never been used even once (the job dissolved before I ever even began my new role – I’ve never so much as removed the tape). I assume that if I can be held legally liable for the condition of the device upon it’s requested return, I must be able to hold them legally liable to compensate me for safeguarding their property after they stopped compensating me. Is this accurate? Otherwise, they are simply permitted to use my home as a secure property storage location for an indefinite period of time and to bill me for any harm that befalls the property I am involuntarily safeguarding due to their negligence rather than my own refusal.

    To the point: Are there circumstances that result in the simple forfeiture of property when a company/organization neglects to request and retrieve it or causes an undue burden on a former employee by requiring them to protect it for a considerable length of time without reimbursement?

  4. Tim says:

    I recently left a so called partnership in a lawn service company.. I asked for what pay was due to me and got a run around…I had a phone that was provided and a hedge trimmer still when I left. I contacted my partner/boss to let him know I had these items and he could pick them up.. he then threats me with thief of company items. .what can he really do since I told him to pick up the phone and hedge trimmer.. I also keep the texts of our conversation. .

  5. joey says:

    Everyone who posted above who did not return company equipment is guilty of theft. You are all just lucky the corporation did not file a criminal complaint. You got fired and your pissed, so your only recourse is to steal from them? Id put you in jail in a San Diego second.

  6. cokesoaker says:

    if criminal charges are brought, how can a company prove that you have certain items of the companies?

  7. Bobblewag says:

    What if the company will not give you your final paycheck. Can I sell these items to recoup my money owed?

  8. Roger Clarke says:

    I’m in field sales for large company. We have people quit with out notice and keep our equipment- not a laptop, but an inventory scanner that has no value to them. What can I do as a local manager to get our equipment back?

  9. Siraan says:

    Nop Joey…

    To begin with, i for instance, did NOT steal anything from the company that i was laid off from…

    BUT, i’d have lots of recourses to chose from :

    #1. Applying to a competitor,
    #2. breaking the firewall that accesses to their intranet, and making a massive data dump into a server hosted in in Kuala lumpur and making the contents acessible to all competitors in the industry,
    #3. Designing a crude nuclear device, powerful enough to obliterate several building blocks of the company,s premises… not that difficult, really…
    #4 Expose the company ( emails with documental proof to Reuters, NYSE, NASDAQ, etc ) about the concealed way they run the tests so as to hide the true ammount of harmful engine emissions…

    …see !?

    I did not do anything alike, because i am not a psych.. pardon me, “an employee with an insane level of hatred and bitterness, with relation to management disloyalty to people that help build their profits” .

    I only stressed that people when they get “pissed off” ( a.k.a. feeling betrayed ) they have several levels of progressive rescourse, in terms of sheer drastic retribution, and/or creativity, it does not take a “manager” or a “CEO” or an expert in HR Legal issues to cause havoc at an insane scale…

    and actually, to bring it up into context, stealing a computer because one is pissed off, is quite inelegant, it is akin to taking a stupid pawn, when one could probably be going for the Grandest Check mate, …EVER.

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