Thursday, November 14, 2013

Does social media change the meaning of “solicitation?” (redux)

Earlier this year, I asked the following question: “Does social media change the meaning of solicitation?” I concluded that absent a contract directly defining social media connections as a “solicitation,” “passive” social media activities, such as “continuing an already existing online relationship via social media” will not violate a non-solicitation agreement.

In my earlier post, I was discussing whether maintaining already existing Facebook friends violated a non-solicitation agreement. Yesterday, the National Law Journal brought us the next evolution of this issue: whether a LinkedIn profile update alerting connections about a new job constitutes a “solicitation of business” in violation of a non-compete agreement. According to the order issued by a Massachusetts trial court judge in KNF&T Inc. v. Muller [pdf], the answer is no.  

In that case, Charlotte Muller’s former employer claims that she violated the no-solicitation covenants in her non-competition agreement by posting her new position on her LinkedIn profile, which, in turn, notified her hundreds of contacts of her job change. Her old company claimed, “To the extent this notification has been sent to current KNF&T clients, this notification constitutes a solicitation of business in direct violation of her non-competition agreement.”

The trial judge addressed the LinkedIn issue in a footnote in his order denying the company’s request for a preliminary injunction:

The same reasoning applies to the evidence that Muller currently has a Linkedln profile disclosing her current employer, title, and contact information, and counting among her “Skills & Expertise” such things as “Internet Recruiting,” “Temporary Staffing,” “Staffing Services,” and “Recruiting.” There is no more specific mention of any of KNF&T’s “Fields of Placement” than this. So long as Muller has not and does not, prior to April 12, 2014, solicit or accept business in the Fields of Placement for herself or others (including her new employer), she will not have violated the covenant not to compete.

In other words, the company’s own agreement doomed its argument that the LinkedIn update constituted a breach.

How do you protect your company if you want to include social media announcements of a new job as violations of a non-solicitation agreement? Draft the agreement accordingly:

“Solicitation” includes, but is not limited to, offering to make, accepting an offer to make, or continuing an already existing online relationship via a Social Media Site, or updating an account or profile on a Social Media site to communicate to, publicize to, or otherwise advise online connections or relationships about a new position of employment with an employer other than the Employer to this Agreement. “Social Media Site” means all means of communicating or posting information or content of any sort on the Internet, including to your own or someone else’s web log or blog, journal or diary, personal web site, social networking or affinity web site, web bulletin board or a chat room, in addition to any other form of electronic communication.

We’ve yet to see a case in which a judge has been asked to uphold such an agreement. It should go without saying, though, that you have a much better chance of enforcement with the language than without. More importantly, however, this case illustrates that social media is not creating new laws, but is merely creating new applications of existing laws to an evolving communication and technology tool.