Wednesday, September 16, 2009, 9/16/2009 09:15:00 AM

Sarasota-Based Contact Lens Manufacturer Accuses IT Specialist of Trade Secret Theft

By Todd

Sarasota's HeraldTribune.com is reporting that contact lens manufacturer Benz Research has filed a lawsuit against a former employee, claiming that he stole trade secrets with the intent of selling them to competitors.


The Manatee County-based company's suit targets Neil W. Sturgis, who worked at Benz as an information technology specialist for a little more than a year.

"The misappropriation of Benz Research's trade secrets by Sturgis were done willfully, maliciously and for the purpose of injuring Benz Research," the lawsuit filed in circuit court in Manatee County says. "Benz Research asks that this court award it actual damages and any unjust enrichment caused by Sturgis's misappropriation."

Sturgis has not yet filed a response and could not be reached by the Herald-Tribune for comment.

The 27-page lawsuit against him shows the lengths to which Benz goes to protect its businesses and the swiftness with which it reacts to any perceived breach of trust.

Benz, which produces components and materials used in the manufacture of soft contact lenses, said it has invested heavily in equipment, mechanical design and automation software during the past 20 years.

"The formulae, specifications, sub-processes, procedures and equipment all took years to develop and are valuable trade secrets," Benz said in the suit, emphasizing the security measures it takes at its secure plant in southern Manatee County.

"Even mail delivery and delivery of supplies are restricted to particular areas," the lawsuit states. "In the interior of the facility, key cards are required for entry to particular areas to which only employees working in that area have access."

Computer systems also are protected by access codes and employees are required to sign agreements in which they promise never to reveal Benz's trade secrets.

The problem is that as an IT specialist, Sturgis was one of only two employees on staff who had access to the company's most sensitive information.

"Sturgis had access to every computer at Benz via his administrative passwords," the lawsuit states. "Sturgis also had access to Benz's Windows computer system and all Benz's personnel accounts from his home personal computer via a remote access password. No other Benz employee had such access."

Sturgis had so much access to the company's computer systems, in fact, that he knew he was going to be fired before executives told him.

"On or about June 2, 2009, Sturgis told Staci Blackwell, a Benz employee, that he had been reading the e-mails at Benz and that he knew he was going to lose his job," the lawsuit states.


"On June 3, 2009, Sturgis called in sick and never returned for full-time work."
Sturgis already was on probation with the company at that time. Executives had told him in February that he needed to improve his attitude and productivity, the suit states.

It was after that February evaluation that Sturgis allegedly began downloading trade secrets onto mobile storage devices and taking the devices home, the lawsuit says.

When asked about the downloads, Sturgis said he was just removing "personal" files, the lawsuit says.

Benz executives later demanded that Sturgis return the storage devices. When he did, executives found that they had been scrubbed. A forensic computer expert hired by the company determined that the devices had been connected to Sturgis's work computer for 4.5 hours.

"To copy Sturgis's personal files onto a flash drive would only take a minute or two, not anywhere close to over four and a half hours," Benz's suit says.
This is yet another example of IT professionals who have premiere access to key company information utilizing that access in a manner adverse to the interest of their former employer. That said, we'll predict this case ends with a settlement: a preliminary and permanent injunction consented to by the IT professional. Let's face it - this guy is certainly toxic to the interests of any reasonable competitor. He will likely not obtain an IT job from a company manufacturing contact lenses and this case will fade away. Just our prediction.

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