Are employees’ LinkedIn contacts considered your trade secrets?

Over the past several weeks, you probably read about this case involving a company suing one of its former employees whom it alleges misappropriated a Twitter account and, along with it, 17,000 Twitter followers that the company believes it owns. A video about the case follows below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hV2lCnG5VA

A fight over LinkedIn connections.

The case is Eagle v. Morgan. You can find a copy of Ms. Eagle’s complaint here. And the defendants’ counterclaim complaint here.

Here are the basic facts according to the pleadings that the parties filed:

  • Dr. Linda Eagle is the former founder of Edcomm, Inc.
  • Dr. Eagle created a LinkedIn page — this one, actually — which she used to promote both herself and Edcomm.
  • One of the defendants assisted Dr. Eagle in maintaining her account and had access to Dr. Eagle’s LinkedIn password.
  • Edcomm was sold and Dr. Eagle was fired.
  • The new owners changed Dr. Eagle’s LinkedIn password, removed Dr. Eagle’s name and picture from the LinkedIn page, and represented that she had resigned. They left all other information the same. (Dr. Eagle has since regained control of her LinkedIn page).

The defendants claim that Dr. Eagle’s LinkedIn connections belong to them and that Dr. Eagle effectively stole those connections. The defendants also claim that Dr. Eagle now reaps the benefit of the time and effort that the defendants previously put into maintaining her LinkedIn account. (The new owners contend that former employees of Edcomm were required to utilize an Edcomm template when creating LinkedIn accounts, use an Edcomm email address, and permit Edcomm to monitor their Linkedin pages).

In October, Dr. Eagle filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. Effectively, she asked the court to apply the law solely to the facts pled in the defendants’ counterclaim complaint and her response. Below, I address whether Dr. Eagle stole company trade secrets.

LinkedIn connections are not trade secrets.

To qualify as a trade secret, the subject information must not be generally known in the wider business community or capable of being easily derived from public information. Put another way, trade secrets must be particular secrets of the complaining employer and not general secrets of the trade in which the employer is engaged. 

The court held here that LinkedIn account connections do not qualify as trade secrets, because they are generally known in the wider business community or are capable of being easily derived from public information. Think about how many 1st degree connections Dr. Eagle may have on LinkedIn with employees at Edcomm. Each of those 1st degree connections can see all of Dr. Eagle’s other 1st degree connections. Heck, I went on to Dr. Eagle’s LinkedIn page and could see that she was a 2nd degree contact of mine. Consequently, I could determine our common connection.

For more on why LinkedIn contacts are not trade secrets, check out Heather Bussing’s post at HRExaminer: It’s No Secret: Why Contacts Aren’t Trade Secrets.

And, tomorrow, I’ll discuss who actually owns the LinkedIn account you maintain for your employee?

Updated:
  • Susan Stobbart Shapiro

    Do you think it changes the equation if the employee is required by his employer to opt for her LinkedIn contacts to be visible only to the employee on LinkedIn?  Assuming that selecting that setting would effectively prohibit the employee’s LinkedIn contacts from being public (i.e. prohibit the employee’s contacts from seeing her other contacts), it should provide an argument that the employer set policies to keep those contacts “secret”.  I’m not sure it would carry the day, but it would be interesting to argue.

    • http://www.theemployerhandbook.com/ Eric B. Meyer

      Thank you for the comment, Susan. I suppose that the employer’s argument would be stronger under your fact pattern. But that would also defeat the purpose of social networking, IMHO. 😉
      ________________________________

  • Just Us

    Just brushing up on this social media stuff, but it seems the court limited its holding to the AT&T account information and did not actually address the LinkedIn page . . . “Given Defendant’s limitation of its claim, the Court focuses solely on whether Edcomm’s
    AT&T account information, including Edcomm’s EIN number, constitutes a trade secret”

    • http://www.theemployerhandbook.com/ Eric B. Meyer

      Thanks for the comment.

      Check out page 23 of the opinion:

      “As set forth above, neither the telephone number NOR THE LINKEDIN ACCOUNT CONNECTIONS qualify as trade secrets, as both are either generally known in the wider business community or capable of being easily derived from public information.” (my EMPHASIS).

      • Just Us

        Seems like dicta. LinkedIn was never facially brought up in the counter-claim, which is why the court focused the majority of the opinion on the AT&T account. There is actually very little analysis regarding LinkedIn. At least that is my humble opinion.

        • http://www.theemployerhandbook.com/ Eric B. Meyer

          You’re right. Probably dicta. But likely correct.