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Kai-Fu Lee's California case put on hold

A federal judge says that a California action over the controversial Google hire should be stayed until after a trial in Washington is held in January.

A federal judge on Thursday issued a definitive ruling putting on hold Google's effort to move the Kai-Fu Lee case to California.

In a decision issued late Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Whyte ruled that Google's effort to move the Kai-Fu Lee case to California will have to wait until after a trial is held in Washington state court in January.

In staying the case, the judge did not completely shut the door on hearing Google's case, should it lose in Washington.

Google announced in July its plans to hire Lee to head up its China research lab. Microsoft immediately filed suit in Washington against Lee and Google, arguing that Lee was violating a one-year noncompete agreement that was part of his contract with Microsoft.

Google filed its own case in California, asking a judge to strike the noncompete clause. That matter, which has since been moved to federal court, is the one that Whyte has now put on hold.

Under California law, agreements like the one Lee signed are generally unenforceable. However, Whyte ruled on Thursday that Google and Lee can raise that issue in front of the Washington court, which would then have to weigh any conflicts between the laws of California and those of Washington.

"This decision means that our case against Dr. Lee will proceed in Washington on its current schedule," a Microsoft representative said in a statement. A Washington judge initially barred Lee from joining Google, but last month issued a more narrowly focused order that prevents Lee from doing certain work, but allows him to start recruiting for Google in China.

"We would have preferred a ruling on the merits from the California case, but look forward to continuing to litigate the case before the Washington court," Google litigation counsel Michael Kwun said in a statement.

Whyte had said in a preliminary ruling two weeks ago that he was leaning toward granting Microsoft's request for the stay. He then heard testimony from both sides and took the matter under advisement.