An interior design firm will have to defend allegations that its owner hijacked a hospitalized employee's personal social media accounts for marketing purposes, a federal judge has ruled.
Jill Maremont, a marketing director at the Chicago-based Susan Fredman Design Group, filed suit in Chicago federal court against the company and owner Susan Fredman last year, alleging that Maremont's personal Twitter and Facebook accounts were illegally accessed and used without her consent to promote the company.
The woman alleges the accounts were accessed while she was recovering from a brain injury she sustained after being hit by a car while running an errand for work.
Maremont had become well known in the Chicago interior design community and built a following on Facebook and Twitter based on her work at the firm. She also developed Facebook and Twitter accounts for the company, and stored access information for all the accounts in a password-protected folder on her work computer, which she alleges she never authorized anyone at the design firm to access.
In addition, Maremont said in the suit, she specifically "asked Fredman and her employees to refrain from posting updates to her Facebook page and Twitter account" while she was hospitalized.
The suit accuses the company and Fredman of using her identity to fabricate an endorsement of services, violating her privacy and her right of publicity and violating the federal Stored Communications Act.
However, attorneys for Fredman and the company argued that there no false endorsement and Stored Communications Act violations since Ms. Maremont was not harmed financially by the actions. They also argued there was no violation of Maremont's publicity or privacy rights because the accounts' content was publicly available and was linked to the design firm's website and blog.
On Dec. 7, U.S. District Court Judge Amy St. Eve ruled that the false endorsement and Stored Communications Act claims could proceed to trial. Although Ms. Maremont promoted the company on her personal accounts as part of her marketing strategy, St. Eve said "it is undisputed that Maremont created a personal following on Twitter and Facebook for her own economic benefit and also because if she left her employment at SFDG, she would promote another employer with her Facebook and Twitter followers."
The woman satisfied requirements to bring a false endorsement claim "because she has a protected, commercial interest in her name and identity within the Chicago design community," the judge concluded. The ruling could be revisited, pending the outcome of hearings to ascertain whether Maremont suffered any actual financial damage as a result of the company's actions.
However, Judge St. Eve dismissed allegations that Maremont's right to publicity and privacy were violated, finding that the company never actively attempted to impersonate her and that she had made no effort to keep the content of the accounts private.