A Federal District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently addressed the issue of ownership of an employers LinkedIn account created by a former employee. In Eagle v. Morgan, Dr. Linda Eagle, founder and former employee of Edcomm, Inc., a banking education company, sued claiming her former employer illegally accessed her LinkedIn account thereby violating both the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”) and the Lanham Act. Dr. Eagle created the LinkedIn page in order to promote herself and Edcomm. She subsequently gave her password to a co-worker to help her maintain the account. Later Edcomm was sold and Dr. Eagle was terminated. Upon her termination, the new owners changed her LinkedIn password, removed her picture from the page and indicated that she had resigned. Dr. Eagle sought $100,000 in damages resulting from lost business opportunities as she could no longer access her LinkedIn messages and retrieve critical client contacts for a period twenty two weeks. Additionally, Dr. Eagle claimed that she had also suffered a loss of reputation and was forced to expend funds in order to reestablish her account. In response to these allegations the company counterclaimed that the LinkedIn account was the property of Edcomm.
Ultimately several of Dr. Eagle’s claims were dismissed. The Court held that Dr. Eagle had failed to prove actual damages, and the damages alleged were too speculative to sustain her claim. Specifically, the Court stated:
None of these allegations suffice to create a genuine issue of material fact as to the existence of cognizable damages under the CFAA for two reasons. Primarily, Plaintiff is not claiming that she lost money because her computer was inoperable or because she expended funds to remedy damage to her computer. Rather, she claims that she was denied potential business opportunities as a result of Edcomm’s unauthorized access and control over her account. Loss of business opportunities, particularly such speculative ones as set forth in the Chatzky Declaration, is simply not compensable under the CFAA….Moreover, Plaintiff’s claims of damage to her reputation and to the relationships she maintained with her clients do not suffice to rescue her claim.
Additionally, the Court dismissed Dr. Eagle’s claim that removing her from the page and replacing her picture and information with that of the interim CEO would create confusion or deceive members of the industry and potential customers in violation of the Lanham Act. The Court found that Dr. Eagle had failed to produce any evidence demonstrating a likelihood of confusion sufficient to withstand summary judgment. However, the Court allowed several state law claims to proceed to trail including identity theft, misappropriation, and intentional interference with business relationships.
The recent determination demonstrates yet another decision in the growing number of cases addressing ownership of social media in the workplace. Employers should strive to implement clear social media policies that establish a process to be utilized in handling accounts once an employee is terminated.
If you or your company have any questions or concerns about these topics and would like further information, please email James G. Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A special thanks to Cynthia Thomas, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for helping with this post.