Employee’s Claims Against Employer for Unauthorized Use of Social Media Accounts Move Forward–Maremont v. SF Design Group
[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]
Maremont v. Susan Fredman Design Group, Ltd., et al., 10 C 7811 (N.D. Ill.; Dec. 7, 2011)
I blogged about a case earlier this year where a plaintiff sued her former employer for improperly accessing the plaintiff’s social media accounts. (Here’s my earlier post on the case: “Employee’s Twitter and Facebook Impersonation Claims Against Employer Move Forward.”) I thought the case was dismissed due to plaintiff’s inaction, but it looks like the case is still trudging along.
The basic facts: Susan Maremont worked for the Susan Fredman Design Group as the director of marketing. Maremont created a blog and Facebook account for SFGD. She also created Facebook and Twitter accounts that the court says are undisputedly her personal accounts. Maremont suffered an accident. While she was in the hospital, SFDG continued to access and post from Maremont’s accounts. (The court is never 100% clear on which of the two Facebook accounts SFDG posted from.) Maremont returned to work briefly on a part-time basis, and during this time she thanked her temporary replacements “for their amazing posts on [the blog] in [her] absence.” Subsequently, Maremont apparently changed her mind and sued for alleged misuse of her personal accounts. [The order says that Maremont stored her account access info on the SFDG server, although the folder in which she stored this info was ‘locked’ and she never gave authority to anyone to access it. This was Maremont’s version of the facts. The order does not say exactly how SFDG got access to the passwords (SFDG could have obtained the passwords through accessing the folder on the SFDG server, or it's possible that the computer Maremont used to create the accounts--which were SFDG computers--remembered them).]
SFDG brings a motion for summary judgment, which the court largely punts for lack of evidence on damages.
Lanham Act claim: Maremont’s Lanham Act claim requires her to show that she had an intent to commercialize her identity. The court says that she satisfies this requirement, noting that “it is undisputed that Maremont created a personal following on Twitter and Facebook for her own economic benefit . . . ” However, Maremont also must show that she was somehow damaged by her unauthorized affiliation with SFDG. The court gives Maremont additional time to marshal evidence as to how she was damaged. Maremont tells the court that she will bring an expert to testify as to the damages issue.
Stored Communications Act claim: As to the Stored Communications Act claim (which Maremont added later on in the lawsuit) there is no dispute that SFDG accessed Maremont’s accounts:
there is undisputed evidence in the record that Defendants accessed Maremont’s personal Facebook account and accepted friend requests at least five times from September 23, 2009 through November 24, 2009. Moreover, evidence in the record reveals that Defendants posted seventeen Tweets to Maremont’s personal Twitter account during the relevant time period.
This probably amounts to unauthorized access of “a facility through which an electronic communication service is provided.” However, the court says that in order to be entitled to statutory damages under the SCA, Maremont has to show that she suffered some “actual damages.” (See Van Alstyne v. Electronic Scriptorium.) Because of the dearth of evidence on the damages issue, the court declines to grant summary judgment at this juncture. (Although the court’s discussion of whether the SCA requires actual damages as a prerequisite to relief is not extensive–and as Van Alstyne acknowledges, there is mixed authority on the issue–the ruling is significant in this regard.)
Right of Publicity claim: The right of publicity claim fails because SFDG did not pass itself off as Maremont, even though it posted tweets through Maremont’s Twitter account. The first of the objectionable tweets explained Maremont’s absence and linked to a blog post by Susan Fredman. Additionally, upon returning to work on a part-time basis, Maremont “thanked” SFDG’s guest editors for their efforts. Thus, the court concludes that SFDG did not misappropriate Maremont’s likeness.
Common Law Privacy claim: Maremont also brought a common law privacy claim, which appeared to be based on the “intrusion of seclusion” tort. The court says that she has to show that defendants intruded into a matter that was private and which the plaintiff attempted to keep private. The court says that Maremont cannot satisfy these elements:
there is no dispute [that] . . . the matters discussed in Maremont’s Facebook and Twitter posts were not private and that Maremont did not try to keep any such facts private. In short, Maremont fails to point to any private information upon which Defendants intruded.
This is a messy dispute, and some of the facts don’t seem clearly developed by either the court or the parties. For example, there were two Facebook accounts involved (one for SFDG and one which Maremont uses personally), but later in the discussion, the court doesn’t specify which Facebook account it is talking about. Second, the court notes that “there is no evidence in the record concerning the actual Facebook postings and their content.” This is a strange evidentiary omission by the plaintiff.
Then there’s the issue of actual damages. Maremont has a Herculean task in proving that her affiliation with SFDG as a result of a smattering of social media posts somehow had a negative financial effect on her. How exactly was she damaged by this association? It’s not as if SFDG said anything negative about her. Maremont’s claim is that while she was in the hospital, SFDG continued to post and make it look (to the untrained eye) that Maremont continued to handle SFDG’s social media efforts. Would a prospective client really refuse to hire Maremont because of these posts? Did this somehow diminish Maremont’s earning capacity? I’m not sure what Maremont’s expert is going to say, but he or she better come up with something good.
The court’s analysis of the invasion of privacy issue also threw me for a loop. The court concludes that the information contained in the posts were public, so there’s no violation by SFDG when it posted to Maremont’s accounts, but this didn’t seem to be the crux of Maremont’s invasion of privacy claims. Maremont should be arguing that when SFDG accessed Maremont’s accounts, SFDG could also have accessed private facts stored in the account, such as private messages, DMs, photos, and other information in the Twitter/Facebook accounts that were not public. The court’s analysis makes me think that the court didn’t understand that Twitter or Facebook accounts can contain other information than what’s actually publicly “posted” through the account. (Of course, Maremont would have faced a challenge when it comes to damages. She may not have had a standing problem, but she would have to show that she suffered damage as a result of the intrusion, and it’s fair to presume from the court’s dismissal of her claim that she failed to put forth adequate evidence on this issue.)
This case, along with the PhoneDog case (and Ardis Health) highlight the inherent ambiguity in ownership over social media accounts. Property-wise, it’s tough to slot the accounts in a particular box. There also seems to be differing expectations on the part of the employer and employee. The employee obviously wants to take the account with her when she leaves, but the employer would like to continue to take advantage of the goodwill built by the account. There is a solution, and that’s to have a written policy in place! A policy is not a cure-all, and I think it’s equally important to have a discussion up front about whose account this is and what happens when the relationship terminates. (This is a mini-version of the “blog ownership question” that Eric has harped on.)
As with the PhoneDog case, this is another dispute where the attorney’s fees expended could eclipse the value of the case. If the facts as alleged are true, SFDG stepped way over the line in accessing Maremont’s accounts, but Maremont’s damages are probably minimal. (Ironically, I would think the invasion of privacy claim would be one of the strongest, but the court kicks this claim.)
As a final note, it’s worth comparing the result in this case to In re Rolando S., the case where a California appeals court found that a juvenile violated California’s identity theft statute when he took someone’s Facebook account for a joyride. Here, SFDG gets dangerously close to this line, although it was not clear that the posts in question purported to be from Maremont. As I mentioned in my initial post on the case, depending on what jurisdiction you are in, meddling with someone’s social media account in this context could result in e-personation liability.