Not Returning Company Laptop: What Happens?

Here’s what happens if you don’t return a company laptop:

Unless there was a prior agreement in place that you could keep the laptop upon separation from employment, this would probably be against company policy and qualifies as employee theft. 

The company may hold any compensation due to you along with serious civil and criminal legal ramifications.

So if you want to learn all about the consequences of not returning the company laptop, then this article is for you.

Let’s get started!

Not Returning Company Laptop: What Happens? (All the Info)

What Is Employee Theft?

Midsection of woman with laptop on staircase.

In most states, employee theft is the unlawful taking of money or property from an employer with the intent of stealing. 

The employee also has the intent to deprive the company of their rights to the laptop for their own permanent use. 

This is also viewed as robbery. Depending on the amount of the laptop, it could also be classified as grand theft. 

Every state has its individual amounts on what is classified as grand theft.

There are some employees who claim their laptop was lost. 

If the company has tracking software, they may be able to determine if the laptop is still in the employee’s possession, resulting in a charge of theft. 

The company may choose to work with the employee on obtaining the laptop, but depending on the length of time, they may proceed with legal options.

It is not uncommon for an employee to attempt to keep a company laptop, especially if they have been with the company for a long time. 

In these instances, the employee may have a lot of personal data and information on the laptop and was also using it for personal reasons. 

They may even attempt to pay the company for the laptop at a discounted rate because they do not want to go through the hassle of removing their personal files. 

While this may be one resolution, the company does not have to agree with the employee and may still request their property be returned.

Why Would Companies Want to Pursue Civil or Criminal Actions Against the Employee?

Lawyer and client holding papers and discussing.

Some companies have proprietary software they use for their organizations. 

That means the employee may still have access to that software and could possibly sell those trade secrets to a rival competitor. 

Laptops can be very expensive depending on the brand. 

Once the cost of the different software and programs is added to the total cost, it would be in the best interest of the company to recoup that loss.

What Are the Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases?

There are distinct differences in both. 

In civil cases, there are disputes over contractual agreements. 

If the employee is found responsible for keeping the laptop illegally, there may be a judgment for damages that also include lost income the company experienced due to the laptop being unable to be used. 

Depending on the severity of the case, the court can also issue an injunction, and award attorney’s fees.

Criminal cases are where the employee would be charged with a crime such as theft of the laptop. 

Punishment in this case usually results in fines, but it could be more severe based on the amount of the laptop and software involved. 

If there were company secrets on the laptop that resulted in extreme damage, the employee could possibly go to jail. 

For instance, if the company secrets were worth millions of dollars and were acquired by someone else, the judge may find the employee liable and criminally at fault.

What Kind of Civil Punishment Can the Company Pursue?

Gavel on the lawyer's desk

There have been cases where an employee is disgruntled and intentionally causes damage to the laptop. 

In this instance, they would be held liable for damages that can be pursued in civil court based on the amount of damage. 

If the laptop cannot be fixed, the employee may be sued for the entire amount of the laptop, plus damages and other compensatory costs.

Compensatory damages are usually calculated based on the total replacement costs of the laptop, attorney’s fees, filing fees, court costs, and any other losses, such as if a company has suffered damages because the laptop was needed for another employee to get their work done and could not. 

This would be a loss of work, which could be calculated based on the hours of work the employee lost at their rate of pay. 

The employee may argue that the employer’s costs are not comparable to what they were paid, but the employer may have the other employee working in a different area at a different rate of pay.

What Kind of Criminal Punishment Can the Company Pursue?

Companies that pursue criminal charges against an employee have a few options. Depending on the cost of the laptop and accessories, you may be charged with a misdemeanor or felony. 

In fact, there are states that view laptop theft as a categorical felony, meaning that the value of the laptop doesn’t matter, making theft itself a felony. 

As an employee, refusing to return the laptop when requested would fall into the category of theft.

Employees who wipe the laptop of files and other proprietary materials may face additional charges because it shows malicious intent on the part of the employee. 

If the laptop is not returned to its original condition, this is grounds for the company to add to its original claim.

Are There Cases Where an Employee Was Penalized for Not Returning a Company Laptop?

Employee moving out from office after termination.

Absolutely. 

There are many cases of this kind. 

For instance, in the Children’s Hospital Corporation d/b/a Boston Children’s Hospital v. Isin Cakir, an employee asked the procurement person to order a MacBook, claiming that the supervisor authorized it as a gift as thanks for a grant submission. 

When the employee was terminated, the hospital requested the return of the laptop via written letter. They also requested all the files, hard drives, and metadata. 

The employee refused and deleted the files. 

As a result, the employee filed a lawsuit against the hospital claiming discrimination and other issues. 

The hospital counterclaimed with arguments of replevin and conversion.

While the employee thought they would win the case, the hospital prevailed and avoided a trial. 

How did this happen, and what are replevin and conversion? 

Replevin is when the items are more than $40 and were unlawfully taken even when the rightful owner should have possession. 

In this case, it was the hospital. 

Conversion is when someone (the employee) refuses to return property when asked, causing damages to the owner.

Does the Agreement Have to Be In Writing?

Employee contract signing.

If you have an employment contract, chances are everything is spelled out in detail on what your employment entails, including any rules surrounding company property. 

If you are issued company property after you are already employed by the company, most companies have a form you need to sign indicating you have received the property.

Employees using the laptop for personal use must be aware that this is not their personal property, and they may already be in violation of company policy by having personal files or doing personal work on the laptop. 

Employees must adhere to the original agreement that should state how the equipment is to be used and when it should be returned.

Why Would the Company Be Able to Withhold Money Due to Me?

Employee looking shocked while reading paper handed to her.

It really depends on the state you live in. In some states, companies cannot withhold any compensation due to employees and they must be paid regardless of whether they return company property. 

In fact, it may be illegal. 

Again, when you are hired, your employment contract may have verbiage in it indicating the steps they will take if company property is not returned. 

There may be direct language addressing electronics or it may be general language about company property as a whole. 

Unless there is a clause or addendum that separates the laptop, it will fall under the jurisdiction of the company property clause.

What Types of Defenses Would Apply to Laptop Theft?

lawyers in business suit discussing with a female client.

If the company pursues criminal action, you may be forced to hire an attorney to assist with helping you resolve the case. 

There are a few defenses that may come into play. Some of these defenses include: 

  • Mistake of fact
  • Lack of intent
  • Obtaining or using for lawful purpose
  • Lack of evidence
  • Incorrect amount of loss. 

The attorney may be able to resolve the case without it going to trial. The best solution would be to return the property in good condition.

Are There Any Other Ways an Employer Can Seek to Get Their Property Back?

A young employee in the office says goodbye to a colleague after termination.

When things escalate, many companies take the legal route, but some companies begin the process by placing the employee on an unpaid suspension pending the return of their property. 

By doing things this way, the employer will still have the employee on the books while not paying them. 

Once the property is returned and checked for damages or unlawful activity, such as deleting important files, the employer has the right to terminate the employee’s contract and pay their final paycheck.

How long does an employer wait before getting the authorities involved?

Every employer has their own timeline for how long they are willing to wait before their property is returned. 

If the laptop is an essential part of their operations, the window for the employee to return it will be very small.