Plaintiff pro se Linda Eagle, the former president of banking education company Edcomm, Inc. ended up empty handed even though she prevailed on the merits of her claims of invasion of privacy by misappropriation of identity in her federal lawsuit filed over the alleged hijacking of her LinkedIn account by her former employer following the termination of her employment.
As indicated in our prior blog post, Edcomm was acquired by another company and subsequently terminated Eagle, along with other key executives. Eagle then sued Edcomm for allegedly taking control of her LinkedIn account, blocking her from accessing it, and replacing some information on her LinkedIn page with information about the new CEO, Sandi Morgan. Eagle claimed that, by re-populating the profile with information relating to the new executive under a URL that included Eagle’s name, the company created confusion with Eagle’s roughly 4,000 contacts and misappropriated her identity for the company’s gain.
On March 12, 2013, U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter ruled that while Edcomm was liable for three state law claims of (1) unauthorized use of name in violation of 42 Pa.C.S. Section 8316, (2) invasion of privacy by misappropriation of identity, and (3) misappropriation of publicity. Various other claims by Eagle and counterclaims by Edcomm were dismissed. Eagle v. Morgan, No. 11-403 (E. D. Pa. March 12, 2013).
In finding for Eagle on her claim of of unauthorized use of name, the court found that she presented sufficient testimony that the name of the “triple doctorate-holder” Laura Eagle had commercial value given her investment in developing a reputation in the banking education industry. Moreover, Edcomm used the name without her consent for commercial or advertising purposes. Similarly, Eagle also established invasion of privacy by misappropriation of identity because, by updating her LinkedIn account with the newely appointed interim CEO’s information, Edcomm ensured that someone searching for Eagle on LinkedIn would be directed to a page with information about Morgan and Edcomm. Finally, Judge Buckwalter determined that the claim for misappropriation of publicity was legitimate on the grounds that, by blocking Eagle from accessing her LinkedIn account and then altering it with Morgan’s information, instead of merely creating a new account for Morgan, Edcomm deprived Eagle of the commercial benefit of her name.
The court, however, found that Eagle had failed to show she was entitled to compensatory damages with a “fair degree of probability.” Specifically, the court found that Eagle could not point to a specific business deal she lost out on due to her temporary lack of access to her LinkedIn contacts. In addition, at trial, Eagle did not call any employee of Edcomm or anyone else with personal knowledge who could provide evidence of the defendants’ state of mind to support her claims of malice or reckless indifference relating to the use of the LinkedIn account. The district court therefore held that Eagle was not entitled to punitive damages. There is no indication that Eagle sought injunctive relief and indeed, according to the record, was only deprived of full access to her account from June 20, 2011 to October 7, 2011.
The decision in Eagle highlights that the ownership of social media accounts and attendant issues are becoming increasingly prominent in litigation. The case law in this area is rapidly evolving. In addition, this lawsuit should serve as a reminder for companies to consider developing social media policies and agreements detailing who owns social media accounts and who has what rights to access social media accounts post-employment.