Many of us are still trying to get our minds around the transformative effect of social media sites on the workplace, on litigation and, for purposes of this post, the trade secret practice area.
Social media’s impact has been both practical and substantive. On the practical side, when a a non-compete case comes through the door, one of the first things that I do is check to see if the potential defendant has a LinkedIn profile for background information. More often than not, my client has already scoped that profile out because the client remains “connected” to the former employee and can monitor, to some extent, the employee’s contacts and connections. The Virginia Non-Compete Blog, whose clients are generally employees on the receiving end of non-compete disputes, has likened this curiosity to a form of “cyber-stalking,” effectively using the analogy of a break-up and resulting matrimonial dispute to illustrate that point (it’s a great example, as Facebook and other social media have become an evidentiary boon to the matrimonial bar). As a result, it counsels its clients to take a hiatus from social media sites to avoid potential disagreements during this period of high tension, which is good advice.
Substantively, LinkedIn continues to be a topic of discussion in the trade secret community. I wrote a post last month on the Sasqua Group decision out of the Eastern District of New York and its potential impact on the protection of customer lists. Another issue recently raised in the context of LinkedIn is who truly owns the connections information that is listed within LinkedIn’s site. A case that was closely watched last year, TEKsystems, Inc. v. Hammernik, et al. (0:10-cv-00819-PJS-SRN) (D. Minn. 2010), addressed this issue — namely, whether a defendant’s use of LinkedIn was a violation of his non-solicitation agreements.
In that case, TEKsystems accused one of the defendants of using LinkedIn to solicit TEKsystems’ contract employees and clients and identified approximately 20 TEKsystems contract employees that were solicited using LinkedIn. While that defendant admitted using LinkedIn to communicate with those individuals, he denied otherwise having communicated with them. He also argued that TEKsystems’ and its employees’ use of LinkedIn and Facebook for recruiting, promotional and other purposes voided any claim that any information posted on those sites was a trade secret or confidential.
No ruling was ever issued on the LinkedIn issues as the parties entered into a stipulated order enforcing the non-solicitation agreement and requiring the return of TEKsystems’ documents; however, the case generated tremendous interest as the first case to attempt to sort out these issues.
At the end of the day, the same fundamentals that apply to protecting trade secrets in other areas apply to the use of LinkedIn. First, to the extent that a company uses a non-solicitation or non-compete agreement, that agreement should specify that post-employment communications to customers made through an online social networking website including LinkedIn or Facebook constitute a violation of that agreement. This step will preserve the client’s contractual remedy, whatever the trade secret status of the contact information.
Second, any employment or non-solicitation agreement should include a confidentiality provision that expressly defines confidential information to include client identities and contact information and that it is the property of the employer. That provision should unambiguously state that confidential information may not be used or disclosed for any purpose other than on behalf of the employer, including through the use of social media, and again, identifying LinkedIn.
Finally, employers should develop, disseminate, and, if necessary, train employees on company policies addressing the use of social media. Through these policies, employers should make sure that their employees understand which information is considered confidential and what information constitutes a trade secret. This will require companies to be vigilant about their employees’ use of social media and that they monitor that use from time to time to ensure that employees are complying with their written agreements and the company’s policies. Many companies have already created social media officers who are responsible for ensuring the creation and implantation of these social media policies. In the absence of follow-through to ensure compliance, a court may deem that failure as proof that trade secrets do not exist or are not sufficiently important to warrant protection.