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Man accused of using LinkedIn to steal clients

Ex-employee must disclose online contacts, rules UK court

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An ex-employee of recruitment firm Hays has been ordered to disclose details of his profile at social networking site LinkedIn. Mark Ions set up a rival agency and is accused of using LinkedIn to steal clients. He says Hays encouraged his use of the site.

Ions worked for Hays Specialist Recruitment for six and a half years before leaving to run his own agency, Exclusive Human Resources, which he set up almost three weeks before resigning.

Hays alleges that while still an employee Ions copied and retained confidential information about clients and contacts of Hays. The firm says that Ions used that information for his own venture and that he breached his contract of employment. Hays went to the High Court in London to seek pre-action disclosure from Ions and his firm, i.e. an order to disclose information that Hays could use as the basis of a subsequent lawsuit.

Hays examined Ions' email account after his departure and found evidence that Ions had invited at least two Hays clients to join his network at LinkedIn, a social networking site that focuses on professional relationships. It suspects him of inviting many more.

Ions told the court that he had been a member of LinkedIn for over a year, with the encouragement of Hays. LinkedIn is widely used by recruitment firms and Ions said that others in Hays were also members.

In a letter to Hays' solicitors, Ions offered to delete "the entirety of the Hays linked contacts" from his LinkedIn network though he did not say how many there were. Hays demanded full details and warned him to preserve this evidence. Ions then said he had arranged for the whole of his old LinkedIn network to be deleted. He said he had no other copy of the list and could not recreate it. The US operator of LinkedIn agreed to preserve the data pending the outcome of the case.

Ions argued that all the information was put on the site during the course of his employment. Mr Justice David Richards wrote, "His case, denied by Hays, is that it was done with Hays' consent and that once uploaded and once the invitation to join his network is accepted, the information ceased to be confidential because it was accessible to a wider audience through his network."

His lawyer said it was not Ions' action in uploading email addresses to LinkedIn, but the invitees' acceptance to become connections which resulted in the information which resulted in the information becoming available on his network and it is not then confidential but publicly available, at least to his other connection.

"In my view, this breaks down at the first stage," wrote Justice Richards, dismissing that argument. "If the information was confidential, it was Mr Ions' action in uploading the email addresses which involved a transfer of information to a site where at least the details of those addresses who accepted his invitation would be accessible by him after his employment had ceased."

"The evidence suggests that he may have done so, not for the benefit of Hays but for the benefit of his post-termination business," he wrote. "If so, even if confidentiality in the information was thereafter lost, Hays may well have a claim against Mr Ions."

Later in the judgment, Justice Richards observed of the email addresses, "Even if he uploaded them with authority, it is difficult to imagine that the authority was not limited to using them in the performance of his duties as an employee of Hays."

Ions was ordered to disclose his LinkedIn business contacts requested by Hays and all emails sent to or received by his LinkedIn account from Hays' computer network. Ions was also ordered to disclose all documents, including invoices and emails, evidencing his use of the LinkedIn contacts and any business obtained from them. Ions was told to ask LinkedIn for the documents.

Hays' additional request for a copy of Ions' entire database of clients was rejected as being "simply a fishing expedition" and "plainly too wide."

Copyright © 2008, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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