By Jamie Jung -
Surprisingly, HSA’s different practice areas often collide with one another. A recent federal court decision addressed a point of law that touches upon both the employment law arena as well as the intellectual property arena. In Eagle v. Morgan, the court addressed the ownership of LinkedIn connections on a former employee’s account. 2001U.S. Dist. LEXIS 147247 (E.D.Penn. Dec. 22, 2011).
Although the case is located in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, it is still worthy of attention by all employers across the nation. Dr. Linda Eagle, a founder of a company called Edcomm, was fired after new owners bought the company. After being fired, the company took over her LinkedIn account, locked her out and changed her name and picture to someone else at the company. The company alleged that because it had a policy of creating and maintaining employees’ LinkedIn accounts, it therefore owned the account and its connections.
Both Eagle and Edcomm brought suits against each other, alleging a number of different claims and violations. One of the issues involved the LinkedIn account. Edcomm alleged that Dr. Eagle, who had regained control of her LinkedIn account after initiating her lawsuit, had misappropriated Edcomm’s connections on the LinkedIn account. With regard to the account and the connections, Edcomm brought claims for misappropriation and violation of Pennsylvania trade secret law, as well as other claims based on other actions occurring during the termination.
Dr. Eagle moved to dismiss all the claims. The court dismissed Edcomm’s trade secrets claim. It held that the connections could not be trade secret if they were posted on the internet.
With regard to the issue of misappropriation of the LinkedIn account, the answer was less definitive. The court refused to dismiss the claim. Under Pennsylvania law, to determine whether an idea has been misappropriated, the courts looked to three elements of common law misappropriation: (1) the plaintiff “has made substantial investment of time, effort, and money into creating the thing misappropriated such that the court can characterize the ‘thing’ as a kind of property right,” (2) the defendant “has appropriated the ‘thing’ at little or no cost… and (3) the defendant “has injured the plaintiff by the misappropriation.” Eagle v. Morgan, 2011 U.S. Dist LEXIS 147247 at *36-37 (quoting Riordan v. H.J. Heinz Co., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114165 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 8, 2009)). The court relied on Edcomm’s allegations that its personnel, not Dr. Eagle, had developed and maintained all connections and most of the content on Dr. Eagle’s account and those actions were taken solely at Edcomm’s expense and exclusively for its benefit. Id. at *38.
Another case, PhoneDog v. Kravitz, is pending in the Northern District of California and addresses similar issues with regard to a former employee’s twitter account and followers. 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129229 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 8, 2011). More information on that case can be found here: http://www.tradesecretslaw.com/2011/11/articles/trade-secrets/social-media-and-trade-secrets-collide-whose-twitter-is-it-anyway/
Ownership of social media accounts and contacts seems to be a hot issue going forward. Employers who wish to claim ownership to an employee’s social media accounts should consider their level of involvement in maintaining those accounts, as well as how their own social media policies address those issues. Employers or employees with questions should contact an employment attorney.