In the competitive world of beer manufacture and sales, many companies take great pains to protect their trade secrets. The fact that Anheuser-Busch InBev filed suit against a former employee alleging the man misappropriated trade secrets may not be surprising. However, in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the employee argued that the company was trying to silence his whistleblowing efforts with the lawsuit, in violation of California law.
Allegations of fraudulent labeling
The employee worked for Anheuser-Busch InBev from 1998 until June 2012. During his time there he held several quality-control positions, eventually working his way up to director of operations support. The employee claims that between 2008 and 2012, he reported his objections to AB’s alcohol content labeling policies to 20 senior managers. He believed that the company was overstating the alcohol content in its beers.
In early 2013, consumers filed class action lawsuits against AB in several states, including California, alleging that AB inaccurately labeled the alcohol content on 10 of its products including Michelob, Budweiser, Bud Ice and Busch Ice. The allegations in the suits were based on information from former brewery employees who reported that AB adds water to its beers prior to bottling them, which cuts the alcohol content from 3 to 8 percent. The employee became involved with these suits after he resigned from the company because he never received a satisfactory response to his complaints while working for AB.
One of AB’s responses to the consumers’ suits was to file its own suit against the former employee, claiming he misappropriated trade secrets by divulging information to the plaintiffs in the consumer suits. The company argued that he did not follow the proper channels for reporting confidential complaints that the company had established, and that he wanted to instigate lawsuits for personal gain.
The employee responded by claiming that the lawsuit against him was a tactic to silence his whistleblowing, and that the lawsuit should be dismissed because California law prohibits such retaliatory litigation. He noted that AB’s true motives in bringing the suit were made clear when they offered to dismiss the suit in exchange for the names of other employees who provided information for the consumer suits. He also argued that AB failed to include specific details regarding the trade secrets he supposedly misappropriated.
The employee asserted that the confidentiality agreement that he supposedly breached is unenforceable because it prohibits disclosure of even fraudulent or illegal activities, contrary to law.
Speak to an attorney
Protections exist for employees who speak up when they see employers violating the law. Employees should not fear they will lose their jobs or suffer harassment for standing up for what is right. If you have experienced retaliation after whistleblowing activity, talk to a skilled employment law attorney who can help you recover for your losses.