Ex-Employee Converted Social Media/Website Passwords by Keeping Them From Her Employer–Ardis Health v. Nankivell

[Post by Venkat, with comments from Eric]

Ardis Health, LLC, Curb Your Cravings, LLC and USA Herbals, LLC v. Ashleigh Nankivell, 2011 WL 4965172 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 19, 2011)

Nenkivell worked for CYC as a “video and social media producer.” Her work included producing videos, “websites, blogs, and social media pages” for CYC and the other two plaintiffs, which were founded by Jordan Finger. Her responsibilities included:

maintaining passwords and other login information for websites, email account, and social media accounts, a well as for third-party servers where plaintiffs stores content

Fortunately for plaintiffs, Nenkivell signed an agreement with CYC which vested ownership in her work product to CYC and required Nenkivell to return all confidential information at CYC’s request.

In 2010, Finger and Nenkivell developed a service called “whatsinurs,” which the court described as a “social media website for cosmetic products.” Ardis applied for a trademark in Whatsinurs and registered the copyright for the website. Finger sent Nenkivell an agreement for the organization and ownership of the new site, which Nenkivell never signed. Nenkivell was restless and looked around for alternate employment. Plaintiffs were unhappy about this and fired Nenkivell in June 2011. After the termination, Finger requested the laptop, which plaintiffs had provided her, and the access information for the various websites. She declined to provide this. Plaintiffs sued and sought injunctive relief.

The Access Information: The court says that it’s “uncontested that plaintiffs own the rights to the Access Information,” and as a result, Nenkivell’s retention of this information can form the basis of a conversion claim. The court also says that plaintiffs’ inability to access and update their site (“to react to online trends” and effect a new initiative to participate in “‘daily deal’ promotions”) constitutes irreparable harm. The court orders the information turned over to plaintiffs pending resolution of the dispute.

The Laptop: The court declines to order the laptop returned, saying that the laptop is a “mass-produced object,” the loss of which can be compensated by money damages. Plaintiffs also argued that they were entitled to the information on the laptop but the court faults plaintiffs for not fully developing their argument–they relied on confidentiality terms in the agreement and nothing more. Nenkivell also argued that the laptop had continuously synched to plaintiffs’ computer. Plaintiffs argued that they could not be sure of this without seeing the laptop, but this argument does not get much traction with the court.

Display of Whatsinurs Content on Defendant’s Website: Plaintiffs also argued that they suffered irreparable harm from the display of the whatsinurs site’s content on her personal website (as an example of her work). Plaintiffs’ key argument on this score was that a search for “whatsinurs” would display both defendants’ website and the same contents, as displayed on Nenkivell’s personal website. Plaintiffs argued that consumers would be confused as to the source of the website and this would dilute plaintiffs’ “whatsinur” brand.

The court says this argument “is preposterous on its face”:

Not only do defendant’s websites appear below plaintiffs’ in search results, defendant’s [sic] do not purport to be, or in any way give the impression of being, portals for the sale of commercial goods. On both of defendant’s websites, the Whatsinurs content is wholly non-functional, little more than dressed-up image captures. It is clearly labeled as an example of defendant’s “Design” capabilities and surrounded by content from other projects defendant has worked on. It does not compete with plaintiffs’ websites or pose potential issues of confusion.

Plaintiffs argued that Nenkivell’s bad faith raises a presumption of confusion, but the court says that Nenkivell has an innocent explanation and there’s no bad faith. Even assuming that there is a presumption of confusion, the court says that this is alone insufficient to warrant injunctive relief.

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Yet another dispute over access to websites and social media profiles. It look like plaintiffs half-followed the basic advice of having a written agreement in place that documents the relationship between the company and the individual who manages the company’s website and social media profiles. But the agreement in this case was not necessarily clean–the agreement was between Nenkivell and CYC, but one of the other plaintiff entities actually (Ardis) asserted ownership over the “whatsinurs” website. The court does not get into the issue of whether Nenkivell’s development of the “whatsinurs” website was outside the scope of her relationship with CYC and therefore not subject to the agreement, but this seems like an issue that should come up. Social media accounts do not neatly fit into existing categories of property and we haven’t seen many disputes over account ownership fully play out. (See the OMG Facts case for one ongoing dispute.) While an agreement that expressly covers ownership is ideal, it’s interesting to note that the confidentiality provisions of the agreement do the job in this case.

On the web developer/social media producer side, holding any sort of website or social media credentials (or domain names) hostage is legally risky behavior. We’ve seen a slew of cases where this type of behavior resulted in possible liability. In DSPT Int’l v. Nahum, the Ninth Circuit held that holding domain name hostage may be bad faith under the ACPA. Maremont v. Susan Fredman Design Group involved a social media manager who continued to post on the Twitter and Facebook accounts following termination (this case was dismissed for lack of prosecution). Finally, the Ohio Court of Appeals held earlier this year in Eyesoldt v. Proscan that obstructing access to a website and email account can constitute conversion. The contours of legal liability are far from clear, but there is definitely risk when you hold website, email, or social media credentials hostage! Courts have shown a willingness to treat these credentials as intangible personal property that can support a claim for conversion. We all know how important it is to constantly update our social media accounts. It looks like the courts get this.

[Eric adds: some other analogous cases include New Mexico v. Kirby, Mikhlyn v. Bove, In re Rolando S., Ground Zero Museum v. Wilson and TEG v. Phelps.]

The court’s rejection of plaintiffs’ request to have Nenkivell’s “portfolio copy” of the site taken down was interesting. Courts have moved away from automatically granting injunctive relief based on copyright or trademark claims. You have to show actual irreparable harm now. Plaintiffs proceeded primarily based on a trademark theory, and the court’s rejection of their argument that the portfolio copy of the site appearing in search results would cause them irreparable harm will get Eric’s resounding endorsement. Any time a court credits an end user with the shred of common sense necessary to parse the origin of content on the internet is a cause for celebration in his book (and rightfully so).

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Eric’s Comments

1) Kudos to the plaintiffs for having a written agreement that governed the social media credentials, but demerits to them for not learning those credentials before they needed them. If an employee has login credentials to an account that they use for the company, at minimum that employee’s manager should get those credentials too.

2) The judge’s references to the employee “converting” those credentials makes me want to cry. The court had a half-dozen other legal doctrines easily available to order the defendant to turn the credentials over. Calling her retention of those intangible data strings “conversion” was completely unnecessary and adds to the growing confusion on what it means to “convert” electronic information. Perhaps that ship is sailed, but I continue to insist that “conversion” only applies to physical chattel, not intangible assets, and conflating the two inevitably leads to doctrinal meltdowns.

3) As Venkat predicts, I do cheer that mere appearance in search results should be legally irrelevant. However, I definitely don’t like the judge’s reference to the relative placement of the search results. I last “bitched” about that issue in my post on the Bitchen Kitchen case, so check that out.

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