In a closely-watched case, a federal court judge ruled that by taking control of a former employee’s LinkedIn account after she was terminated, a company violated her privacy and publicity rights under Pennsylvania law but awarded her no damages.
Linda Eagle was involuntarily terminated from Edcomm, a banking education company, after another company purchased it. The same day, remaining members of the company accessed Eagle’s LinkedIn account, changed the password, and updated the profile with the name, picture, education, and experience of the new CEO, Sandi Morgan. An online search for “Linda Eagle” would direct a searcher to the URL http://www.linkedin.com/in/lindaeagle but the page displayed information about Morgan.
Eagle eventually regained access to her account but filed suit against Edcomm, alleging misappropriation of publicity, invasion of privacy by misappropriation of identity, and unauthorized use of her name, among other claims.
At trial, Edcomm argued that the company’s social media policy dictated that it owned employees’ LinkedIn accounts, which were established on company computers, with company e-mail accounts, on company time, and at the company’s direction.
U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania S.J. Buckwalter disagreed, finding that no such policy existed and that Edcomm used Eagle’s name without her consent for commercial or advertising purposes.
“By looking for Dr. Eagle, an individual would [unknowingly] be put in contact with Edcomm despite the fact that Dr. Eagle was no longer affiliated with Edcomm and did not consent to Edcomm’s use of her name,” the court said. “In turn, Edcomm obtained the commercial benefit of using Eagle’s name to promote the services of its business. Such actions by Edcomm reflect its improper use of her name for the purpose of advertising and/or promotion.”
Similarly, Eagle’s privacy and publicity rights under Pennsylvania state law were also violated. “Plaintiff had a privacy interest not just in her picture and resume, but in her name,” the court said. “Someone searching for Dr. Eagle on LinkedIn would be unwittingly directed to a page with information about [the new CEO] and Edcomm. Such a scenario could be deemed to be ‘appropriat[ing] to [Edcomm’s] own use or benefit the reputation, prestige, social or commercial standing, public interest or other values of plaintiff’s name.’”
The court – which had earlier struck Eagle’s claims under the Lanham Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – found for the defendant on other causes of action for identity theft, conversion, tortious interference with contract, conspiracy, and aiding and abetting.
However, despite winning several claims, the court declined to award Eagle any damages. Eagle presented testimony from the CEO during her tenure about her annual sales figures – ranging from $1.6 million to $6.6 million – a percentage of which she claimed resulted from her LinkedIn connections. Eagle valued her contacts at $250 per contact, per year, and arrived at lost income ranging from $248,000 to $496,000 for the three months Edcomm controlled her account.
But Judge Buckwalter said Eagle had “not established the fact of damages with reasonable certainty.” Calling the testimony “creative guesswork based on mere speculation,” the court also said the plaintiff failed to connect her alleged damages with Edcomm’s actions. “Plaintiff cannot even name, let alone document, a single lost customer, deal, or transaction,” he wrote.
To read the order in Eagle v. Morgan, click here.
Why it matters: The case presented a thorny issue: who really owns a social media account? Judge Buckwalter called his decision “a somewhat mixed bag for both sides,” with the plaintiff victorious on three counts only to fail to meet her burden to prove damages. The court also declined to rule on the issue of whether a company policy that employees’ LinkedIn accounts are the property of the employer would be legally valid, but did note that such a policy would directly contradict the contract created by the site and an individual user.