A LinkedIn profile update alerting a user’s contacts about her new job did not necessarily constitute a solicitation of business that ran afoul of her non-compete agreement, a Massachusetts trial judge has ruled.
KNF&T Inc. v. Muller was filed last month in Suffolk, Mass., Superior Court against former KNF&T vice president Charlotte Muller and her new employer, Panther Global Group Inc. KNF&T, which does business as KNF&T Staffing Resources, claims Muller violated her one-year non-compete agreement in several ways.
One concerns Muller’s LinkedIn update, which notified more than 500 contacts about her new job at Panther, including contacts she established during nearly eight years at KNF&T. “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,” KNF&T alleged.
In late October, Massachusetts Associate Justice Thomas P. Billings denied KNF&T’s bid for a preliminary injunction. He wrote that Muller was not prohibited from recruiting information technology workers “or anyone else in a field in which KNF&T does not recruit.”
According to the order, Muller’s new job involves information technology recruiting. KNF&T specializes in administrative and office support; clerical; secretarial; legal secretarial and paralegal; bookkeeping; accounting/finance; and human resources.
In a footnote, Billings addressed the LinkedIn issue. He noted that Muller’s update about her new job was full of generic terms like “Staffing Services” and “Recruiting.”
“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,” Billings wrote.
KNF&T also claimed that Muller improperly contacted one of its customers on behalf of Panther and recommended one of its employees for a position at a third company. Additionally, the company pressed contract and unfair-competition claims against Panther for giving Muller the regional vice president job before her non-compete agreement expired.
KNF&T’s lawyer, Thomas Tucker of a Duxbury, Mass., said he argued during the preliminary injunction hearing that the LinkedIn posting was equivalent to a letter soliciting business.
Tucker was not aware of any cases directly on point concerning LinkedIn profiles. Of the general issue of the enforceability of non-compete agreements, he hoped for guidance from an appellate court, “because lower courts are all over the place.”
Muller and Panther’s lawyer, Mark Szal of the Boston-based Szal Law Group, declined to comment because the case is pending.
Russell Beck of Boston’s Beck Reed Riden, an expert in trade-secret and non-compete law who isn’t involved in the case, said Massachusetts law on what constitutes solicitation in the world of social media is still developing. But the preliminary injunction order seems to allow the type of announcements courts previously allowed in trade newspapers, he said.
“Merely announcing your new job on LinkedIn, without more, is generally not going to be considered a violation of most non-solicitation agreements,” he said. “The fact that a LinkedIn announcement reaches a narrow, perhaps relatively-targeted audience, or remains visible for an extended period, does not change its fundamental character.”
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at email@example.com.