Samuelson: I Didn’t Want Move to Know My Business

April 14, 2016

Errol Samuelson, a top Zillow executive accused of stealing trade secrets from Move Inc., said in court Wednesday that the documents he wiped from Move computers when he resigned from the company in 2014 pertained to personal details about his life that he wanted to shield from public knowledge.

Errol Samuelson, Zillow's chief industry development officer, speaking to a Seattle courtroom on Wednesday.

Move and the National Association of REALTORS® filed suit against Zillow and Samuelson after he jumped ship from realtor.com® in March 2014. The lawsuit alleges that Samuelson deleted thousands of e-mails, texts, and documents from his Move-issued laptop, iPhone, and iPad, as well as thumb drives containing Move documents, to cover up an effort to funnel trade secrets to Zillow. Move and NAR later included former Move executive Curt Beardsley in the suit after he followed Samuelson to Zillow.

During a court hearing Wednesday into evidence destruction—which also saw Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff take the stand—Samuelson said the documents he deleted were related to personal information about his family, finances, and medical history, including the fact that he could be at risk of developing a rare and terminal hereditary health condition that contributed to the death of his mother. There were also documents revealing Samuelson’s personal tax information dating back to 1999 and his living will, as well as e-mails revealing that he and his sister hired a private eye to investigate the woman their father remarried, he said.

“I didn’t want anyone or any employer to know this information,” Samuelson said. “To me, it’s personal stuff—it’s my stuff—and it’s not Move’s or anyone else’s business.”

However, Samuelson also testified that he deleted Move documents that might be embarrassing to some of his former Move colleagues, including internal investigations regarding harassment claims, drinking at work, soliciting prostitutes, as well as emails in which an employee calls the CFO a bad name.

Samuelson’s testimony didn’t address why he attempted to hide conversations with Zillow while still employed at Move, or why he failed to comply with court orders to return all Move documents in his possession after Move filed suit, Move and NAR say. Samuelson used a “burner” phone specifically to communicate with Zillow and then wiped the phone of its data, and shortly after he joined Zillow, the company announced a lucrative merger with Trulia—a deal Move had been trying to strike with Trulia itself. Move and NAR say this is evidence Samuelson was telling Zillow about Move’s confidential business strategies.

Later Wednesday, Rascoff testified that he and his company operate “with very high ethics,” despite saying he was not familiar with his company’s Code of Conduct document and that he didn’t know violations of the Code were supposed to be reported to him.

“Do you believe culture starts at the top?” plaintiffs’ attorney Richard Stone asked Rascoff. Stone then showed an e-mail in which Rascoff bragged to real estate influencer Stefan Swanopoel about hiring Samuelson and Beardsley away from Move, writing: “When you mess with the bull, you get the horns.”

Move and NAR’s lawyers also challenged Rascoff’s assertion that he held ethical behavior in high regard by presenting several e-mails in which Rascoff disparaged the CEOS of competitive websites, including Redfin and realtor.com®. In another e-mail, he called MLSs “sheep” that follow each other around and called Beardsley their “shepherd.”

“Sometimes I say things that aren’t eloquent, and I should watch my word more carefully,” Rascoff said after Stone showed him the e-mail.

Move and NAR are asking Judge Sean O’Donnell to enter a default judgment against Zillow in the evidence-destruction hearing this week, arguing that Beardsley and Samuelson have destroyed so much evidence that it’s impossible to have a fair trial because of lost facts in the case. The trial is scheduled for June.

—By Graham Wood, REALTOR® Magazine