December 28, 2011
Another Set of Parties Duel Over Social Media Contacts -- Eagle v. Sawabeh
[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]
Eagle v. Morgan, 11-4303 (E.D. Pa.; Dec. 22, 2011)
Background: Dr. Linda Eagle, who holds a Ph.D. in communication and psychology, teamed up with Clifford Brody and founded Edcomm. They were later joined by Davi Shapp. Eagle maintains a reputation in the field of “banking training,” and has “cultivated relationships with thousands of individuals and organizations.” In October 2010, Sawabeh Information Services entered into an agreement with Eagle, Brody, and Shapp to purchase Edcomm. Sawabeh proposed to retain the three as executives, but abruptly terminated them in June 2011. This prompted a flurry of litigation.
The Lawsuits: Eagle sued the principal of Sawabeh and others working in concert with them (in Pennsylvania), alleging that defendants improperly accessed and continued to use Eagle’s LinkedIn account. Defendants turned around and asserted counterclaims, alleging that Eagle misappropriated a telephone number that had been assigned to Edcomm and improperly caused AT&T to transfer this number to Eagle personally. Defendants also asserted that Eagle misappropriated a laptop, as well as the LinkedIn “connections” associated with Eagle’s LinkedIn account (which defendants allege was maintained by Edcomm for the Edcomm's benefit).
In a separate lawsuit (in the Southern District of New York), Sawabeh asserted securities fraud and breach of contract claims against Eagle, Brody, and Shapp, alleging that the principals failed to disclose Edcomm’s obligation to make a substantial severance payment to Brody, and further failed to disclose that Edcomm transferred all of its IP to Brody in an earlier transaction. In this lawsuit, the court recently denied a motion to dismiss brought by defendants. (Sawabeh v. Brody, et al., 11-civ-4164 (S.D.N.Y.; Dec. 16, 2011).) [For some unknown reason, the courts don't seem to have a problem with the maintenance of two separate lawsuits arising out of the same transaction. I would have thought that consolidation was a no-brainer here.]
The parties have widely divergent views on the background facts, so it's hard to assess the viability of the claims. For example, Edcomm alleges that it created and maintained LinkedIn accounts for its employees, and as a matter of policy, employees were expected to turn over their LinkedIn accounts when they left Edcomm. Eagle disagrees, but also has to contend with a very unhelpful fact: Eagle committed the ultimate no-no and provided her LinkedIn password to someone at Edcomm.
(For what it’s worth, this looks like the account in question. The court entered a TRO prohibiting defendants from accessing the LinkedIn account. The order expired of its own accord, and none of the filings in the docket reflect any additional action by the parties with respect to this issue. Although it’s hard to tell, judging from the account, it looks like Eagle continues to use the account and defendants likely agreed to not interfere with this usage.)
Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings as to the Counterclaims:
Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: The CFAA claim was premised on Eagle’s alleged improper access of Edcomm’s AT&T account and misappropriation of Edcomm’s number. The claim is somewhat strange in that it doesn’t really identify what computer Eagle gained “unauthorized access” to. The court seizes on this and says that, in simpler terms, the counterclaims allege Eagle walked into an AT&T store and convinced AT&T to transfer Edcomm’s number to her--this does not involve the "access" of any computers. Along the way, the court also tackles the issue of whether Edcomm sufficiently alleges damages, and whether Eagle’s access was truly “without authorization” because she was once an employee of Edcomm and ostensibly had authorization to access the account. As to damages, the court says that Edcomm’s allegation that it suffered loss of business relationships as a result of Eagle’s transfer of the number does not count towards the jurisdictional threshold (“Nothing in these allegations avers any loss related to the impairment or damage to a computer or computer system, any remedial costs of investigating or repairing computer damage, or costs incurred while the computers were inoperable.").
Trade Secrets: The trade secret claim had a fatal weakness in that it was premised on information that obviously was not a trade secret: (1) the AT&T account information, and (2) the identities of clients and instructors. Eagle persuasively argued that Edcomm’s website disclosed the identity of more than 1,000 clients and the instructor identities were publicly available on their LinkedIn profiles. The court also says that the AT&T account information could not be a trade secret because it doesn’t have any “independent economic value” that would be of use to competitors. The arguably valuable asset in question is the telephone number, and there’s nothing secret about this.
Conversion: The conversion claim was premised on Eagle’s retention of a laptop allegedly belonging to Edcomm. The court allows this claim to proceed.
Misappropriation: The misappropriation claim can either be misappropriation of a trade secret or misappropriation of an “idea.” The court says that the misappropriation based on trade secrets must fail based on the court’s conclusion that Edcomm failed to specify any protectable trade secrets. The court however declines to dismiss the “misappropriation of an idea” claim. The parties had conflicting allegations as to whose investment generated the content on the LinkedIn account. Given these conflicting allegations, the court declines to grant judgment on the pleadings on the misappropriation claim.
Tortious Interference: The court dismisses the remaining claims. Edcomm asserted that Eagle interfered with the contract between AT&T and Edcomm, but the court says that Edcomm failed to adequately allege specific intent and damages. Eagle cared about the number, and the contractual relationship between AT&T and Edcomm was incidental to the number (it's unclear this was terminated anyway). Edcomm also argued that Eagle interfered with relationships with prospective clients, but the court dismisses this claim on the basis that Edcomm’s allegations were speculative. Edcomm failed to point to “one potential contract that would . . . have materialized” absent Eagle’s alleged interference. (The court declines to dismiss an unfair competition claim but this claim piggybacks on the misappropriation claim.)
The dispute raises interesting issues, and as with PhoneDog, OMGFacts, and Maremont cases, illustrate the difficulty of neatly categorizing social networking accounts and the goodwill in those accounts. The obvious question is whether the parties had an agreement addressing Eagle’s competitive efforts and use of her contacts. Judging by the fact that the parties did not mention any contractual terms, it’s fair to say that there was no written agreement dealing with Eagle’s competitive activities. This is somewhat surprising, given that Edcomm was acquired, and to the extent the the key assets in the acquisition were human resources, the parties should have had an agreement in place addressing Eagle's post-acquisition competitive activities.
It looks like the vagaries of Pennsylvania law may have made it harder to bring a conversion claim based on the phone number (the court footnotes that conversion claims are limited to tangible personal property), but at least one court has held that phone numbers can be subject to conversion claims. (Can a Telephone Number Be the Subject of a Conversion Claim?, discussing Staton Holdings, Inc. v. First Data Corp, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48688 (N.D. Tex. May 11, 2010).) Given the current rules on phone number portability, to the extent they are freely transferable, it seems like phone numbers are increasingly similar to domain names, which can form the basis of conversion claims.
The fight over the LinkedIn account was probably the most interesting, but there is little discussion about the fact that LinkedIn terms restrict usage of log-in credentials to the person who created the account. (Eagle's sharing, and Edcomm's access likley violated LinkedIn's terms, as a technical matter.) Also, LinkedIn distinguishes between “company accounts” and “personal accounts.” Personal accounts seem by design to be akin to resumes, and while it makes sense for someone to be restricted from exploiting their contacts for competitive purposes, the personal accounts don’t lend themselves to use by the company. Neither the court nor the parties focuses on this. As an afterthought, my instinct is that parties are often misdirecting their energies with fights over “who owns contacts.” Contacts are personal, and particularly in the social networking context, I would think it would be difficult for one person to take advantage of another person’s contacts. I could see Edcomm sending out a spam message to Eagle’s LinkedIn contacts, announcing that Eagle is no longer with the company and prospective customers should contact Edcomm directly, but apart from this, is it really realistic for Edcomm to continue to exploit Eagle’s contacts?
Although it's tough to say since the case is at the initial stages, the lawsuit in Pennsylvania seems like a small part of the overall dispute, which includes the litigation in the Southern District of New York. In the Southern District case, Sawbeh alleges fraud on the part of Eagle and her cohorts; if the fraud and misrepresentation claims are successful, they will likely dwarf the effect of the battle over the LinkedIn contacts and phone number. Any victory that is achieved in the Pennsylvania litigation may turn out to be pyrrhic, depending on how the New York litigation pans out.