I can almost guarantee Noah Kravitz did not see this coming: Getting sued by his former employer for $340,000 because his former employer, PhoneDog, claimed his Twitter followers were a “trade secret.” PhoneDog is a company that reviews mobile devices like phones and tablets. Kravitz was a writer for PhoneDog from 2006 until his resignation in 2010. At the time Kravitz resigned, he had approximately 17,000 Twitter followers on his handle “PhoneDog_Noah.” When he quit, he changed the Twitter handle to “noahkravitz” but kept the 17,000 followers.
PhoneDog claims that Kravitz’ Twitter followers were a “customer list” and “trade secret” that belonged to the company and brought suit in July 2011. Specifically, PhoneDog sued for misappropriation of trade secrets, intentional and negligent interference with prospective economic advantage, and conversion (theft). Kravitz sought to have the claims thrown out of court because he claimed the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. The court basically denied Kravitz’ motion and is allowing the suit to move forward.
This case is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it highlights the intersection of social media and the workplace. Are these Twitterers following Kravitz or the company? Does that matter? Who owns the Twitter account if Kravitz set it up on his own and was simply doing his employer a favor by tweeting a promotion once in a while? Can Twitter “followers” be a customer list given how fluid they may come and go and given the fact that most of them have likely never done business with PhoneDog? And how is it fair if these questions are answered in Kravitz’ favor but he has to pay tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees to establish he was in the right? This is all food for thought when any employee is venturing out into the social media universe on behalf of their employer. And it is a call for employers to make sure they have a well written social media policy that communicates the understanding of what constitutes company property, intellectual or otherwise.
Second, as this article points out, Kravitz claims that the company’s lawsuit was brought only after he sued the company for failing to pay him his earned compensation following his resignation. While this may appear like a clear case of retaliation, Kravitz may not have a cause of action if he were to sue in Minnesota. Minnesota’s Whistleblower Statute only provides protection for current employees. Because the retaliation in question took place after he quit, he would have no viable claim. Furthermore, Minnesota’s wage and hour statutes also do not have an anti-retaliation cause of action on which Kravitz could base a claim.
I will leave you with a few additonal thoughts about social media and the internet:
1. Anything you do on your company’s computers (email, internet searches, facebook, twitter, etc.) is not private. It is the company’s computer, internet connection and email server that is in use, not yours. You have no expectation of privacy. Assume that your employee is reviewing everything you do on your work computer and act accordingly.
2. Things you put on social media about your employer may come back to haunt you. I would guess at least one of your “friends” is a coworker. Status updates like “My boss suckz!!!” have an uncanny knack for finding their way back to your boss. When you are fired for this, please spare me the phone call. You don’t have a claim.
3. Don’t have your settings set to “public” while your profile picture is of you doing a keg stand at the frat house. Employers are constantly sifting through social media and other information on the internet to find out about job applicants and current employees. They use this information to find a reason to disqualify you from consideration, not to see if there are any other awards or accomplishments you inadvertantly left off your resume.
4. And finally, if Mr. Kravitz and PhoneDog have taught you anything, keep your personal social media accounts and email addresses seperate from your work accounts.