Are Employees’ LinkedIn Contacts Considered Your Trade Secrets?

By Eric B. Meyer

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.

Late last month, I learned of another case (a hat tip to TechDirt), in which a former high-level executive and her prior employer are currently duking it out to see who owns the connections on the executive’s LinkedIn page. I’ve got more on this story, and whether LinkedIn contacts are even trade secrets at all, after the jump below.

A fight over LinkedIn connections

The case is Eagle v. Morgan. You can find a copy of Linda 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 pagethis 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.

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The court held 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.

Tomorrow: I’ll discuss who actually owns the LinkedIn account you maintain for your employee?

Eric Meyer will be leading a group of HR pros in a panel discussion on Social Media in the Workplace – Where is it Today, Where is it Going Tomorrow? at the TLNT Transform conference in Austin, TX Feb. 26-28, 2012. Click here for more information on this event. 

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.

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2 Comments on “Are Employees’ LinkedIn Contacts Considered Your Trade Secrets?

  1. Very interesting discussion John.  Logically it makes sense to me that individuals own their personal connections and of course their LinkedIn accounts, but this case will definitely bring some legal eyes to the topic.  Look forward to learning more.

  2. Agree Josh & John. I would be hard pressed to have seen the courts take the company’s position on this but as you suggested…I am sure more legal eyes will now begin setting up some type of policy to have employees signing away their rights to the company?! Another act of attorney’s running companies and not management (sorry to all my attorney friends).

    If a company is to try and take this action, an employee could simply use their personal email address rather than continue to be held as an asset of their own company rather than using the company email domain. Gotta love social media under the scrutiny of feeble minded company leaders who are trying to control versus manage with transparency.

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