A recent summary judgment ruling issued out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Eagle v. Morgan, et al., CIV-No. 11-4303, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143614 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 4, 2012), highlights the need for employers to have clear policies regarding social media accounts established and used on the employer’s behalf. While plaintiff Dr. Eagle was president of defendant Edcomm, a banking education company, she created a LinkedIn account and used that account to promote Edcomm’s banking education services, foster her reputation as a businesswoman, reconnect with family, friends, and colleagues, and build social and professional relationships. Edcomm contended that it had an unwritten informal policy of “owning” the LinkedIn accounts of its former employees after they left the company. Dr. Eagle was terminated and subsequently denied access to her LinkedIn account by Edcomm, which had accessed her account, changed her password and altered her LinkedIn profile to display the company’s new president’s name and photograph while retaining some elements of Dr. Eagle’s profile. Dr. Eagle ultimately regained control of her LinkedIn account but nonetheless sued Edcomm and its employees, alleging, among other things, violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Lanham Act, and invasion of privacy by misappropriation of her identity.
On October 4, 2012, the district court granted Edcomm’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss Dr. Eagle’s federal claims. Holding that a reasonable jury could not find that Dr. Eagle had suffered a “legally cognizable loss or damage in the brief period in which her LinkedIn Account was accessed and controlled by Edcomm,” the district dismissed her CFAA claim. The district court concluded that Dr. Eagle’s claim of lost business opportunities and damage to her reputation were “speculative” at best and “not compensable under the CFAA,” and that even if types of damages were recoverable, she failed to present any evidence to quantify these damages. The district court also dismissed Dr. Eagle’s claims under the Lanham Act, finding that she had failed to produce any evidence of a likelihood of confusion to the public by switching her name and photo with that of her successor. However, the district court retained jurisdiction over Dr. Eagle’s remaining state law claims as well as Edcomm’s counterclaims (a conversion claim over a laptop and a misappropriation claim that asserts that Edcomm was the rightful owner of the LinkedIn account).
Given the rapidly evolving standards regarding employee/employer use of social media websites for marketing and business development (both for the employer’s business and the employee’s reputation), employers should take a proactive role in developing clear guidelines regarding the creation, control and ownership of business-related social media accounts. Policies stating, for example, that the company owns the social media site can help employers avoid disputes with departing employees. In addition, during exit interviews with departing employees, employers should consider inquiring generally about the employee’s social networking activities as they relate to his or her employment. Ask employees whether any client or customer information exists on their social networking accounts. If it does, request that this information be removed immediately. If an employer learns of an employee’s social networking activity that it believes violates a non-solicitation or other restrictive covenant, consider sending a cease and desist notice, including a specific request for the removal of any and all offending information. Finally, be prepared to adapt to changing norms, laws, rules and regulations affecting or regulating the use of social media sites.