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LinkedIn Lockout: Social Media Ownership Wars Wage On

Posted in Privacy

In a highly anticipated case, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania District Court recently held that an individual who creates a LinkedIn account associated with his or her employment owns the LinkedIn account, not the employer. Eagle v. Morgan, Case No. 11-4303 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 12, 2013). However, the Court further found that the former employee could not recover damages against her employer for denying her access to that account, because she could not establish with reasonable certainty any actual losses resulting from the lockout.

Plaintiff Linda Eagle (“Eagle”) co-founded Edcomm, a banking education company, in 1987. In 2009, with encouragement from Edcomm’s co-founder, Eagle created a LinkedIn account using her Edcomm e-mail address to develop business for Edcomm. Edcomm subsequently urged employees to create LinkedIn accounts and to become involved in the account content, though it never required them to do so. Eagle gave her LinkedIn password to fellow Edcomm colleagues to enable them to respond to inquiries and update her LinkedIn account on her behalf.

Another company purchased Edcomm, and terminated Eagle’s employment on June 20, 2011. Immediately after Eagle’s separation, Edcomm employees accessed Eagle’s LinkedIn account, changed the password, and effectively locked Eagle out of her account. Thereafter, Eagle was unable to access her LinkedIn account. She then sued Edcomm, alleging several state law tort claims, including unauthorized use of name, invasion of privacy by misappropriation of identity, and misappropriation of publicity.

The Court sided with Eagle, finding that she owned the LinkedIn account, had an exclusive right to control it, and had been denied the ability to use the account for business activities. However, because Eagle could not establish a single contract, client, or even prospective client that she was unable to procure due to Edcomm denying her access to the account, the Court did not award Eagle any damages.

Because there is such a prevalence of social media in the course of everyday life, it is no surprise that social media is becoming increasingly prevalent in business.  As a result, employers must establish and enforce clear policies and ownership agreements regarding social media accounts used for business purposes. Here, the Eagle Court noted that Edcomm had an “intense interest” in ownership of LinkedIn accounts such as the one at issue in this case, yet had not adopted a clear policy addressing the subject. Effective policies and agreements should clearly state that the employer owns the account, and set forth procedures for returning login and password information if an employee is terminated.