The modern legal issue of balancing privacy rights and the use of social media sites continues to be determined by emerging cases, such as the one faced recently by a federal court in Illinois concerning a LinkedIn group.
In that matter, a company offered a variety of marketing and media services to its customers. In 2010, the company launched a LinkedIn group called “the CIO Speaker Bureau,” a private online community of chief information officers and senior IT executives interested in participating in or speaking at company events.
The names of Bureau members and the communications between members were not generally available to the public at large. Membership in the Bureau was controlled by the company.
A former employee, who was the point person for this LinkedIn group, resigned in 2014 and began working for one of company’s larger customers. The former employee refused to change his contacts for the social media account, including the Speaker Bureau LinkedIn group.
The former employer sued for misappropriation on grounds that the list of members in the private online community was a trade secret. The former employee filed a motion to dismiss arguing that since the Linked In group was announced though a press release, it could not be a trade secret.
The Court disagreed, noting that the former employer did not claim the group’s existence to be secret–only its contents. Further, the company argued that the group contained the names of 679 current or potential customers, which information “would be extremely valuable to its competitors because these members would be good candidates for some of the services and products offered by the company.” In addition, the company asserted the Bureau was developed over four years through great expenditures of time, cost and effort.
At this early stage in the case, the federal court denied the former employee’s motion to dismiss and concluded that the lawsuit plausibly alleges that the membership list was a valuable secret commodity. Further resolution of this issue will occur in the future, the court added.
At the same time, the Court concluded that the former company did not allege sufficient facts that the LinkedIn group’s private communications were trade secrets under Illinois law. The federal court ruled that the company must allege facts supporting the inference that a message from a company sharing its business needs is somehow the former employer’s secret.