A federal district court in California held in Cellular Accessories For Less, Inc. v. Trinitas LLC that whether LinkedIn contact information can be an employer's trade secret is a factual dispute that must be decided by a jury.
Cellular Accessories For Less employed David Oakes as a Sales Account Manager for six years, and Mr. Oakes signed employment agreements that affirmed that he would protect Cellular’s proprietary information, including its “customer base.” Shortly before Cellular terminated Mr. Oakes, Cellular alleges that Mr. Oakes e-mailed to himself a computer file that contained contact information for 900+ of Cellular’s customers, maintained his LinkedIn contact information following his separation and e-mailed to himself additional information concerning customer billing and pricing preferences. Mr. Oakes subsequently started a mobile phone accessory company that competed directly with Cellular.
Cellular filed a lawsuit against Mr. Oakes and his new company for, among other things, breach of contract, trade secret misappropriation and unfair competition. Mr. Oakes moved to dismiss the trade secret misappropriation claim, claiming that the at-issue customer data was not a trade secret under California’s Uniform Trade Secret Act.
The court first determined that a customer list can constitute a trade secret only if the information contained in the list is not easily and publicly available, and the creator of the list used significant and sophisticated efforts to compile it. In this case, Cellular presented evidence that it expended a significant amount of time and money to build the customer list, including by hiring employees to specifically cold call companies to get past “gatekeepers” and locate the right procurement officer. Mr. Oakes asserted that much of this work was performed by LinkedIn, whose algorithm suggested contacts automatically. But the court concluded that the jury would have to decide whether the efforts and methods to compile the list were sufficiently difficult and sophisticated to qualify the list as a trade secret. In addition, the court found that data regarding customer billing and pricing preferences could have sufficient independent economic value to constitute a trade secret.
With regard to the LinkedIn contact information, the court determined that whether Mr. Oakes’ LinkedIn contacts, cultivated during his employment with Cellular, were Cellular's trade secret should also be decided by a jury. The primary dispute involved the extent to which Mr. Oakes’ LinkedIn contacts were viewable to other LinkedIn members or users. The court chose not to independently review the functionality of LinkedIn profiles and how profile information was viewable, but instead acknowledged that the parties disputed how Mr. Oakes’ LinkedIn contacts could be made public (with or without permission of Cellular) and held that a jury should decide the matter.
This case not only serves as a reminder for departing employees that they must exit cleanly from a former employer, but it also raises the interesting, and evolving, issue as to how much an employer can assert ownership of and otherwise control an employee’s business-related social media conduct. We will continue to monitor the case.