What Employers Can Do to Get the Laptop Back

If a departing employee refuses to return his laptop, in many states an employer cannot deduct the value of the laptop from the final pay, or at least without employee authorization.  And the laptop itself in many cases is the least significant aspect of the loss as documents, intellectual property and confidential information most likely went with it.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) may provide some relief.  In Lasco Foods, Inc. v. Hall and Shaw Sales Marketing & Consulting, 2009 WL 151687 (E.D.Mo. 2009), the court held that the employer satisfied the "loss" and "damage" elements of the CFAA by showing that the employees at issue refused to return a computer when requested and deleted information from the computer.  Significantly, the court noted that  "loss" within the meaning of the CFAA included the cost of investigating or remedying damage to a computer, and the cost incurred because service was interrupted. In this case, the employer had to conduct a forensic investigation to determine what was lost.

Under this decision, deletion of information from a single laptop could constitute damage under the CFAA.  Notably, the court did not consider the availability of the information elsewhere, such as on the company's network, as a factor.  Moreover, the Lasco court considered withholding the laptop to be an "interruption in service" under the CFAA because the company could not use its property.  Finally, the cost of hiring an expert constituted a "loss."

Under Lasco, the CFAA can be an effective way for employers seeking to retrieve laptops and confidential or proprietary information from departed employees.