Friday, March 29, 2013

Pennsylvania Law on Ownership of LinkedIn Accounts - COTW #136

The latest Case of the Week is the resolution of a case I've covered previously. The case is Eagle v. Morgan (memorandum with findings of fact and conclusions of law here) from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania federal court, applying Pennsylvania state law.

You can read the Court's decision for a full rundown of the facts. The short version: The employee opened a LinkedIn account following the employer's guidelines, using the employer's email account, on the employer's computer, on the employer's time, and the employer had her password. She was terminated, and the employer took control of the account. She lost control of the account for a few months and the employer changed the profile by changing some of the fields to reflect information for the former-employee's replacement. However, the account was technically still under the former-employee's name, had all of the LinkedIn "Connections" of hers, and a search on her name would direct users to her old account.

So, she filed a lawsuit essentially over ownership of the LinkedIn account. Technically, she won. She established that the employer:
  • Violated  42 Pa.C.S. § 8316 - Unauthorized Use of Name
  • Committed the tort of Invasion of Privacy by Misappropriation of Identity
  • Committed the tort of Misappropriation of Publicity
However, she lost on the tort of conversion because the LinkedIn account is not a "tangible chattel" but an "intangible right to access a specific page on a computer" (accordingly, it's not clear if anybody really "owns" a LinkedIn account). The Court also noted that Plaintiff would have established liability for tortious interference with contract . . . if she had sufficiently proven actual damages.

Which brings us to Plaintiff's ultimate downfall. She offered testimony that she had contracts with her LinkedIn connections and argued that the Court should calculate damages as the average dollar amount of contracts per LinkedIn connection, prorated for the months in which she lost control of the account. She failed to really tie lost contracts to the LinkedIn account though. The Court recognized that she established wrongdoing on the part of the employer, but she failed to "establish[] with some reasonable certainty the damages she sustained from that wrongdoing." So, she won $0.

I should note that Plaintiff was pro se (representing herself). I'm actually impressed that she was able to establish liability for "ownership" of her LinkedIn account, especially given the lack of precedent. No doubt future litigants will bring expert witnesses and find a way to more definitively establish damages.

My view on takeaways for employers? When employees leave - let them take their individual social media accounts with them. Note that we are not talking about an organization's social media accounts (like a company profile on LinkedIn, employer's Facebook page, or Twitter account in the name of the employer). I think those should stay with the employer. But there will probably be some gray areas in between.

For more coverage, check out Sara Hutchins Jodka's Employer Law Report.