Virtual Conversion

This month marks the 30th anniversary of my law school graduation.  It wasn’t easy going to law school when I was 8, but I got through it.  I wish.

In any event, no matter how many years pass, I will always remember how clueless I felt as a first year law student.  There was just a lot of terminology I’d never heard before.  For example, “torts.”  Every first year law student has to take the course, but I’m still not sure I know exactly what the term means.  The course itself, however, was pretty interesting. It covers private wrongs that people visit on one another.  So think about negligence cases – rear end collisions, slip and falls, that sort of thing.  That’s “torts.”  Students who do well in the course go on to successful careers as plaintiff’s lawyers.  I’ll let you speculate what my grade was. 

But one concept in torts is a little more obscure than some of the others.  And that’s “conversion.”  Prior to law school I’d never heard of it outside of the religious context.  But it’s actually almost self-explanatory.   “Conversion” is the civil equivalent of “theft.”  If I “convert” something that you possess, into something I possess, you have a civil claim against me.  The key element is that I deprive you of the possession of the item.  That’s kind of simplified, but I think my Torts professor, Father McCafferty (did I mention I went to Notre Dame?) would approve.

Which brings us to a recent case from a federal court in Oregon.   Before he left his job, a former employee copied documents from his employer’s computer system and took them out the door with him.  The former employer sued, and included a claim for conversion.  The employee filed a motion to dismiss the conversion claim, arguing that the documents still existed on the employer’s computer, so nobody deprived anyone of possession.   

The court wasn’t impressed with the employee’s argument.  In the court’s view,  the employer took steps to ensure that only specific employees had access to the confidential information contained in the documents.  The employee’s actions were “inconsistent with [the employer’s] control  over the information.”  That was sufficient to state a conversion claim. 

The employer alleged other claims in the suit, including misappropriation of trade secrets and a violation of the federal Stored Communications Act.  But as any plaintiff’s lawyer (those students who got “A’s” in Torts) will tell you, the more claims the better.  If you are an employer and you find yourself in this position, here’s one more arrow in your quiver.