A picture of a man holding a phone that is logging into twitter.

Court Affirms Employers Ownership of Social Media Account

  • October 22, 2012

On October 4, 2012 the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania [Eagle v. Morgan, Case Number 11-4303 (E.D. PA)] issued a summary judgment ruling that an employer was the owner of the LinkedIn account originally opened in the name of a former employee.

The former employee, Linda Eagle, Ph.D., was one of the initial founders of the employer, Edcomm, a banking and financial services education company.  After Edcomm’s acquisition in 2010, Dr. Eagle continued to serve as Edcomm’s CEO, and remained in that position until the date of Dr. Eagle’s involuntary termination on June 20, 2011.

With the suggestion of her employer, Dr. Eagle opened a LinkedIn account and profile. Under the employer’s policy, employees were required to use their company e-mail address for their LinkedIn profile and employee profiles were established utilizing a company-created template.  Once an employee established the LinkedIn account, the employer maintained a copy of the account’s password.

On June 20, 2011 Dr. Eagle’s employment with her employer was involuntarily terminated.  On the same day the employer accessed Dr. Eagle’s LinkedIn account utilizing the password maintained on file by the employer.  The employer immediately changed the password; thus precluding access to the LinkedIn account by Dr. Eagle.  Upon accessing the LinkedIn account, the employer altered the account profile to display the name and photo of Dr. Eagle’s successor, but failed to alter much of Dr. Eagle’s personal information including her LinkedIn connections and recommendations.

On July 1, 2011 Dr. Eagle filed an action in Federal court alleging a number of state based claims as well as alleging that Edcomm had violated the Lanham Act and the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”).

From the record it does appear that the employer had encouraged and supported the maintenance of social medial accounts by employees, and the company policy does appear to have been that in the event of employment termination, the employer would effectively own the LinkedIn account and could mine the information and incoming traffic, so long as the employer did not pirate the employee’s identity.

While allowing the state law claims to stand, on October 4, 2012 the court issued a summary judgment in favor of Edcomm dismissing the Lanham Act and CFAA counts.  Striking in the court’s opinion is the recognition by the court that the plaintiff had failed to produce any evidence of cognizable damages necessary to support the CFAA claim.  Further, the court cited the plaintiff’s failure to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact as to the “likelihood of confusion,” one of the elements necessary to support the Lanham Act claims.

This case appears to have unique failures from the plaintiff’s presentation of evidence and inadequate responses in the discovery phase, most probably caused by the withdrawal of counsel on at least two separate occasions, and Dr. Eagle’s acting pro se throughout a substantial part of the case.

The opinion serves as a reminder for employers to maintain strong, written social media policies, especially on processing account information in the event of termination of employment.  More effective litigation by the plaintiff could have resulted in a different opinion.

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