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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A lawyer for Uber [UBER.UL] told a federal judge on Thursday he intended to file a petition to compel arbitration in the Waymo trade secrets theft case, citing an agreement signed by a former Waymo employee who is at the heart of the case.
Waymo, the self-driving division of technology giant Alphabet, sued ride services company Uber last month, alleging it stole proprietary trade secrets and used them to quickly scale up its autonomous vehicle program.
In both parties' first appearance before U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco, Arturo Gonzalez, a lawyer for Uber, said an employment agreement signed by Anthony Levandowski when he worked at Waymo has a "very broad arbitration provision" that should be used. Levandowski now works for Uber.
Arbitration is a private process that is a faster and less expensive way to resolve disputes than going to trial. In an arbitration, the case is heard by an arbitrator mutually agreed upon by the two sides. The arbitrator has the sole authority to make a ruling, and generally speaking, the arbitrator's decision cannot be appealed.
In its lawsuit, Waymo said that before leaving the company Levandowski downloaded more than 14,000 confidential documents about Waymo's work on Lidar, a key sensor used in autonomous technology.
In discussing how Waymo's request for a preliminary injunction to stop Uber from using the contested technology might be affected by a motion for arbitration, the judge told Gonzalez, "This is not a frivolous motion."
"You don’t get many cases where there is pretty direct proof that someone downloaded 14,000 documents and then left the next day. This is a serious proposition," Alsup said.
Gonzalez explained the intent to seek arbitration by saying, "I don’t know if the court has wondered why is it that individuals (mentioned in the complaint) are not defendants. Here’s the answer, because there is an employment agreement that has a very broad arbitration provision."
"We intend to file permission to file arbitration within two weeks" Gonzalez added.
Waymo lawyer Charles Verhoeven confirmed that Levandowski had signed such an agreement that included non-disclosure provisions.
Waymo's lawsuit set in motion what many in Silicon Valley's self-driving sector predict will be an acrimonious, high-profile trade secrets battle between the two tech rivals. Both are vying to be first to bring self-driving cars to the masses in a highly competitive field that includes established carmakers, little-known start-ups and technology giants.
Alsup warned of a "50-50" chance that Levandowski will seek his own attorney when he is eventually deposed by Waymo lawyers, and told Uber to prepare so it would not delay proceedings.
After the hearing, Gonzalez would not confirm to Reuters whether Levandowski already has his own attorney in the matter.
Reporting by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Leslie Adler