Dispute over Ownership of Ex-Employee's LinkedIn Account Highlights Significance of Robust Social Media Policies

more+
less-

This case underscores the significance for employers to create and maintain social media policies that address the control and ownership of company-sponsored social media accounts.

On October 4, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Eagle v. Morgan granted in part and denied in part an employer's motion for summary judgment on an ex-employee's federal claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Lanham Act and Pennsylvania state laws for invasion of privacy by unauthorized use of her name, invasion of privacy by misappropriation of her identity, misappropriation of publicity, identity theft, conversion, tortious interference with contract, civil conspiracy, and civil aiding and abetting in an action related to ownership of her LinkedIn account.

Background

The dispute in Eagle v. Morgan essentially concerned whether an employer or an employee owns an account on LinkedIn, a social media website for professional networking. While serving as president of banking consulting and education company Edcomm, Inc., Dr. Linda Eagle created a LinkedIn account to promote the company and to communicate with personal and professional contacts. Under Edcomm's general policy, employees were encouraged to create LinkedIn accounts connected to their company email address; provide a copy of the password to the company; and return control of the account to Edcomm when they left the company.

Edcomm terminated Dr. Eagle and immediately afterward accessed her LinkedIn account and changed its password to prevent her from accessing it. Edcomm then hired another individual to succeed Dr. Eagle; and the company updated the name, password and photograph on the LinkedIn account to reflect that of the new employee. However, the LinkedIn profile continued to display Dr. Eagle's connections, honors, awards and recommendations. During the period of more than 22 weeks in which she lost control over the account, Dr. Eagle could not send or receive communications through the website.

Dr. Eagle sued Edcomm for federal claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the Lanham Act, as well as for claims under Pennsylvania law for invasion of privacy by unauthorized use of her name under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8316; invasion of privacy by misappropriation of her identity; misappropriation of publicity; identity theft under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8315; conversion; tortious interference with contract; civil conspiracy; and civil aiding and abetting. Dr. Eagle's state law claims essentially argue that Edcomm employees worked together to obtain financial benefits for the company through their unauthorized access to and misappropriation of her name and LinkedIn account, for which Dr. Eagle seeks damages for the diminished fair market value and goodwill associated with her name, and for the value Edcomm gained by using her name to promote its services. Arguing instead that Dr. Eagle engaged in unauthorized access to the company's LinkedIn account, Edcomm asserted counterclaims against her for violations of CFAA, violation of the Pennsylvania Uniform Trade Secrets Act, misappropriation, unfair competition, conversion, tortious interference with contract and tortious interference with prospective relations. In an earlier proceeding, the court dismissed each of the defendant's counterclaims except those for misappropriation, unfair competition and conversion.

Edcomm filed a motion for summary judgment on each of the plaintiff's claims under federal and state laws.

As to her claims under the CFAA, which requires proof of damage to or impairment of a computer or computer system, the court found that Dr. Eagle's alleged losses were not compensable. By rendering her incapable of communicating through LinkedIn, Dr. Eagle claimed that Edcomm damaged her professional reputation and caused her to lose potential business opportunities. Concluding that the CFAA does not compensate for losses to reputation, networking or business opportunities, the court granted summary judgment on this claim. Further, the court noted that Dr. Eagle would still not prevail even if the CFAA recognized these losses, for she failed to quantify her alleged damages and failed to causally connect the loss of access to her account to the loss of networking opportunities.

With respect to her claim under the Lanham Act, the federal trademark statute, the court found no evidence of actionable likelihood of confusion between the different individuals presented on the LinkedIn account. Dr. Eagle argued that Edcomm's replacement of her name, photograph and job position with that of her successor confused people who attempted to reach her through the LinkedIn account and prompted them to contact her outside of LinkedIn. The court found that Edcomm's actions resulted in diversion of Dr. Eagle's LinkedIn contacts, rather than confusion about who was affiliated with the account or whether she remained affiliated with Edcomm. Thus, because the evidence showed that Dr. Eagle's contacts understood that the account was now linked with someone else, the court granted summary judgment on this claim.

The court refused to grant summary judgment on the plaintiff's state law claims. While the court declined to address the substance of these claims, the court exercised its discretion to proceed on Dr. Eagle's state law claims in light of the defendant's remaining state law counterclaims for misappropriation, unfair competition and conversion. The upcoming trial date—which has since been postponed—also weighed against dismissal of these state law claims and counterclaims.

What This Means for Employers

This case underscores the significance for employers to create and maintain social media policies that address the control and ownership of company-sponsored social media accounts. Social media raises a wealth of legal and practical considerations, not the least of which are the employee relations concerns that might arise if employees view a company's policy as overreaching. For instance, an individual who has generated valuable contacts through his or her personal LinkedIn account before joining the company might choose not to share those contacts with the employer in order to avoid a later dispute about the ownership of—and perhaps restrictions on the employee's competition for—the contacts associated with the employer's social media account. Likewise, an employee may take issue with an employer's assertion of a property interest in contacts developed through the employee's efforts while working for the company. Without a clear policy that addresses the issues of control and ownership, social media accounts can turn from a valuable corporate asset into fodder for litigation.