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Solar Panel Data Behind Latest Trade Secret Theft Case

by Chris Brook on Thursday April 2, 2020

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A multimillion dollar solar installation firm is alleging one of its former employees took its data to start a competing firm just 11 miles away.

A North Carolina-based solar power company is alleging a disgruntled former employee quit and on the way out the door, took some of its prized data to start a rival operation.

The company, PowerHome Solar, a solar energy firm based in Mooresville, about 30 minutes north of Charlotte, is publicly alleging that the competitor, Hawk Energy Solutions, formed just 11 miles down the road, in Cornelius, N.C. is based on stolen trade secrets.

Those secrets allegedly include information on PowerHome’s business practices, lists of current customers, pricing models, and other proprietary information.

According to a lawsuit filed recently in North Carolina Business Court, it only took Joshua Hawk – the former employee – three weeks to get his eponymous business off the ground.

On Sept. 17, after he was let go from his job, Hawk, a national project manager there wrote an angry email to employees, telling them “Options are out there… I haven’t even left the parking lot yet and I have another job.”

Three weeks later, on October 9, he formed Hawk Energy and from there, reportedly enticed PowerHome employees to work for him and PowerHome customers to employ his services.

PowerHome says it did its best to keep employees in line. It required Hawk to sign a document in April 2019 that contained nondisclosure and noncompete clauses but that didn’t stop him from taking the company’s information when he left the business.

Specifically, the suit claims Hawk breached the agreement, misappropriated trade secrets, and carried out unfair and deceptive trade practices. It also accuses him of defamation and unjust enrichment, which, in contract law, assumes an individual has become enriched at the expense of another in circumstances that the law sees as unjust.

In the short term, the suit is asking Hawk to turn over company records. An injunction, requested by PowerHome, would offer the company temporary relief and prevent the loss of further employees, customers, sales, vendors, and supplies.

Like any company, PowerHome has a reason to defend its trade secrets: They're the company's bread and butter and they're profitable. According to Solar Power World, a trade publication that covers solar panel installation, development, and technology, the company had $103 million in sales in 2018. Those numbers, which were poised to almost double in 2019, make it the sixth largest residential solar contractor in the country.

Because of that, it’s not that far-fetched that PowerHome is seeking compensatory damages over $25,000, in addition to punitive damages. In North Carolina, only cases in which more than $25,000 is at stake are heard in Superior Court.

Hawk's website still says "coming soon," meaning its unclear if the business is still functioning, but if Hawk were to stay in business, the suit claims the potential damage to PowerHome could be "real, immediate, irreparable and plain."

Tags: IP theft

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Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Data Insider. He is a technology journalist with a decade of experience writing about information security, hackers, and privacy. Chris has attended many infosec conferences and has interviewed hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site which is a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.