Google countersuit moves to federal court

Microsoft moves suit in the Kai-Fu Lee case from California state court to federal court, which could help it avoid local bias.

In a likely effort to remove local bias in favor of Google, Microsoft is attempting to shift Google's countersuit in the Kai-Fu Lee case from a California court to federal court.

A July 29 court filing by Microsoft technically means the case has moved to federal court. But Google can still ask a federal judge to let the case surrounding the ex-Microsoft executive proceed in state court, according to a legal expert.

Late last month, Microsoft filed to switch to federal court Google's request that a California judge invalidate Microsoft's noncompete agreement with Lee, who was hired by Google to head its China operations. In its filing with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Microsoft argued that the dispute qualifies as a federal case in part because the two companies are based in different states.

Microsoft may be seeking to reduce the possibility that pro-Google sentiment in Santa Clara County would influence the state court, said another attorney who's followed the case. Federal judges are not elected, and potential jurors for the federal court located in San Jose, Calif., would hail from a wider geography, he said. Google is based in Mountain View, Calif., a city in Santa Clara County.

Neither Microsoft nor Google immediately responded to requests for comment. (Google representatives have instituted a policy of not talking with CNET reporters until July 2006 in response to privacy issues raised by a previous story.)

The change in court venue adds another twist to a bitter and legally complex dispute between two of the tech world's biggest players.

After Google announced Lee would lead its Chinese operations last month, Microsoft sued both of them in a Washington state court. Microsoft claimed Lee was violating a noncompete clause of his employment agreement in accepting his new job.

A Washington judge has ruled that until at least September, Lee cannot perform work at Google that competes with what he did at Microsoft--including planning for the Chinese search market.

With its California request, Google appeared to be trying to take advantage of a state rule that frowns on noncompete contract clauses.

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