Linda Eagle was one of the founders of Edcomm, a provider of online education services to the banking industry. She joined LinkedIn, using her Edcomm e-mail address but signing a user agreement that provided that the account was hers alone, even if used for an employer’s purposes. Edcomm did not pay for her account and, whiel it encouraged its people to use the service, it did not have an official policy about use of LinkedIn. Eagle gave other Edcomm employees access rights so they could reply to invitations on her behalf and update her profile. After a take-over of the company, Eagle’s position at Edcomm was terminated and her access to her LinkedIn account blocked. It appears that anyone searching for Eagle would, for a period of some weeks, would have been directed to an Edcomm website and the profile of another employee (with some of Eagle’s credentials still listed). Eagle sued, alleging privacy violations, misappropriation of personality, conversion, interference with contract and other wrongs that resulted in foregone sales through loss of her access to LinkedIn contacts. Some of these claims were dismissed, but others proceeded to trial in the Pennsylvania district court: Eagle v Morgan, 2013 US Dist LEXIS 34220.
Buckwalter SJ found there was ample evidence to support Eagle’s claim that Edcomm had used her name for commercial or advertising purposes without authorisation, invaded her privacy and misappropriated her publicity and right to the commercial benefit of her name. Eagle did not establish that there had been identity theft, however, given that it seemed her information had inadvertently been left in the other Edcomm employee’s profile. A claim in conversion failed because a LinkedIn account is ‘an intangible right to access a specific page on a computer’, not a chattel. The claim for tortious interference had some merit, but Eagle could not prove that she had suffered any damages as a result — a problem with her claim more generally. Eagle could not point to a contract, client, prospect or deal that could have been obtained through LinkedIn during the relevant period but which was lost as a result of her being locked out of her account. You couldn’t just divide Eagle’s annual sales by the number of LinkedIn contacts she had in order to arrive at a figure: that was merely ‘creative guesswork’. Her claim for punitive damages failed: there was no evidence to suggest malice on the part of Edcomm; the company may simply have thought it had the right to control Eagle’s account.
Edcomm counterclaimed, arguing that it was Eagle who had misappropriated the account when she eventually regained access to it, and unfairly competed with her former employer. The judge made short shrift of that: Eagle had no policy requiring use of LinkedIn, the user agreement was between Eagle and LinkedIn and there was no evidence to suggest that Edcomm had expended time and money in building up Eagle’s list of contacts.