California Court Rules LinkedIn Contact List May be Trade Secret
A federal district court in California rendered a decision that potentially makes LinkedIn contact lists and other information trade secrets of the employer. In the ruling on cross motions for summary judgment in the case of Cellular Accessories for Less, Inc. v. Trinitas, LLC, the Central District
Facts of the CaseThe defendant, Trinitas, is a Texas business founded by David Oaks who is a former employee of the California-based plaintiff, Cellular Accessories. As an employee of Cellular, Mr. Oaks had signed an "Employment Agreement and a Statement of Confidentiality" that generally promised not to use or disclose proprietary or confidential information related to Cellular. Shortly before his termination in 2010, Mr. Oakes emailed himself a file containing the contact information for more than 900 personal and business contacts ( the "ACT" file) and another file that contained direct contact information for the purchasing agents of certain clients; information on clients' billing preferences, procedures, and past pricing requests; and at least one Cellular internal strategy document. In addition, Mr. Oakes maintained his LinkedIn contact information and contact list after his termination. Mr. Oakes then started Trinitas, a direct competitor to Cellular in the corporate mobile phone accessory market. Cellular filed suit in California alleging violation of the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act (CUTSA), along with several common law claims. Both sides moved for summary judgment.
Federal Court RulingThe information in the ACT file and the LinkedIn contact list are the main points of contention in this lawsuit, and the issue is whether they constitute trade secrets under California law. In regards to the ACT file, the federal court ruled that a customer contact list can be considered a trade secret if information exists that cannot be derived through openly accessible sources. The court agreed with Cellular that an issue of fact exists as to whether the customer list constitutes a trade secret due to the amount of effort and methods used to compile the list. The court also agreed with Cellular that an issue of fact exists in regards to whether the LinkedIn contact list also constitutes a trade secret under California law. Mr. Oakes claimed that his LinkedIn contacts were hardly a secret since Cellular encouraged its employees to use LinkedIn. In addition, Mr. Oakes' contacts are automatically viewable to his other LinkedIn contacts. Cellular's counter argument was that Mr. Oakes had deviated from the default LinkedIn settings in sharing his contacts, and this illustrated that LinkedIn was not automatically configured to show a person's LinkedIn contacts to all his other contacts. The court declined to take judicial notice of the relevant functions of LinkedIn, and there was insufficient information as to whether Oakes' LinkedIn contacts were public (and whether this was done with the approval of Cellular). There is no indication as to whether Oakes argued that his LinkedIn account was not the property of Cellular in the first place.