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Lawsuit alleges confidentiality breach by former employee

A departing employee copied more than 1,400 of her company's computerized files and promised to deliver them to a competitor, an Amherst real estate appraisal firm said in a lawsuit that it filed last week.

Nearly all of the files from Northeastern Appraisal Associates Residential contained confidential information about the company's business, according to the State Supreme Court lawsuit.

The company sued Ann M. Eckman of Fredonia, the company's former marketing director, accusing her of breaking a signed confidentiality agreement.

"A current competitor with all of this information could steal Northeastern's entire business," the company said in its lawsuit.

"The information that Ms. Eckman stole from Northeastern would enable a competing appraisal management company to gain an unfair competitive advantage with respect to Northeastern's customers, most of whom are lenders," said attorney Gregory Zini, who represents the company. "Absolutely no information related to or identifying any borrower or property is in her hands."

On Dec. 8, Eckman told Robert L. Vacanti, president of Northeastern Appraisal, that she was resigning from her job, effective last Friday, according to the lawsuit.

Four days later, Vacanti confronted Eckman about copying the files, and she admitted doing so, according to the lawsuit.

The next day, Dec. 13, she delivered a backdated notice of resignation, according to the lawsuit.

Vacanti fired her "nearly immediately thereafter."

The nine-count lawsuit accuses Eckman of breach of contract and fiduciary duties and misappropriation of trade secrets among other allegations.

"Just because Mr. Vacanti says something in a lawsuit doesn't mean it's true," said attorney Richard A. Grimm III, who represents Eckman.

"The whole thing is just completely overstated and overblown," Grimm said. "Ms. Eckman is looking forward to defending herself. We don't want to detail evidence in the media. At the end of the day, this will be much ado about nothing.

"She has no intention of using confidential information against her former employer."

In November, Eckman won a seat on the Pomfret Town Board in Chautauqua County.

Later that month, according to the company, she copied 1,381 computerized files onto a removable disk.

She copied 48 more files in December, for a total of 1,429, the company alleges.

In November, Eckman sent one of Northeastern's business competitors an email that "promised to deliver Northeastern's confidential information to the competitor," the company alleges.

The email passed through Northeastern's server, the company says.

Eckman, as Northeastern's marketing director for seven years, had signed a confidentiality agreement not to disclose trade secrets and other information.

Northeastern has more than 300 clients, including eight lenders in Western New York.

Among the files that company officials believe she copied are those containing pricing information, formulas for rotating assignments among appraisers, appraiser ratings and appraiser turnaround times.

The files also include sales activity reports, an outline for training and documents related to sales presentations to current and prospective customers, the company says.

After making digital copies, Eckman deleted all of the files from Northeastern's computer, "apparently to add insult to injury," according to the lawsuit.

"In other words, [the] defendant stole critical, confidential information regarding Northeastern's pricing, costs, methodology, marketing and training; has promised to deliver that information to a competitor, and then destroyed that information on Northeastern's servers," the company says in the suit.

A business competitor "could go after all of Northeastern's customers and all of Northeastern's appraisers with the confidential information that is in the defendant's hands," according to the lawsuit.

Northeastern asked the court for a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction and a permanent injunction prohibiting Eckman from using the confidential information in any way or disclosing the information to others.

The company also wants her to identify those to whom she gave the files.

In addition, the company seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.