LinkedIn Contacts Survive Summary Judgment as Alleged Trade Secret

On September 16, 2014, Judge Dean R. Pregerson of the United States District Court, Central District of California issued an Order Denying Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Granting in Part Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (the Order) in the matter of Cellular Accessories for Less, Inc. v. Trintitas LLC.

Cellular Accessories is a dispute between two competitors in the mobile phone accessories business.  One of the plaintiff’s salespersons left to join the defendant.  Before departing, he emailed to himself an ACT database file containing over 900 business and personal contacts.  The salesperson also maintained his LinkedIn contacts after his termination.  

When moving for summary adjudication, the defendant asserted that the plaintiff encouraged its sales associates to use LinkedIn as a way of getting business.  The salesperson also had LinkedIn connections with over 80 of the plaintiff’s customers.  According to the defendant, at no point did the plaintiff instruct its employees that LinkedIn contacts with customers could not be used without plaintiff’s permission.  Likewise, according to the defendant, at no point did the plaintiff assert any type of ownership interest in the LinkedIn accounts held by its employees.

In response, the plaintiff asserted that the fact that the information about its customers is found on LinkedIn does not change the character of information that the plaintiff claimed was confidential and a trade secret.  The plaintiff also argued that:

“Employee’s use of LinkedIn does not expose Cellular’s proprietary information to the public. A LinkedIn account and contact only divulges the personal information that a person makes available. The information divulged does not typically include any information relating to the purchasing requirements of companies. It would not be easy for a person who is not employed at Cellular to determine, just by looking at a Cellular employee’s LinkedIn contacts, which of those individuals is a customer of Cellular.  Not all of a Cellular employee’s LinkedIn “contacts” are customers and not all customers of Cellular are LinkedIn “contacts” with its employees. Networking on LinkedIn is not synonymous with divulging your customer lists and does not disclose Cellular’s proprietary information.”

The court declined to take judicial notice over the functions of LinkedIn, which was important because it created a factual dispute regarding how LinkedIn necessarily operates.  The court also found that there were factual disputes regarding whether the LinkedIn contacts were made public and whether the plaintiff had consented to those disclosures. 

In large part, the court avoided addressing the substantive protections afforded to LinkedIn contacts.  However, there are some important lessons that can be learned from Cellular Accessories.  First, employers should treat customer contact information housed in an employee’s LinkedIn account as confidential.  Second, employees should be instructed to modify the privacy settings for their LinkedIn accounts so that the identities of contacts are not disclosed publicly.  Third, employers should consider reviewing their existing confidentiality agreements to determine whether the protections are sufficient to protect customer and customer contact information housed in employee LinkedIn accounts.  Fourth, employers should consider the feasibility of requiring that employees contact existing customers through a company-owned LinkedIn account.  

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.