Who Owns Contact Info, Retiring Salesperson or Company?

By Carrie Mason-Draffen Newsday

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Interesting Q&A regarding a retiring employee's responsibility to turn over client information once he or she has left the company. Newsday

DEAR CARRIE: I have been a salesman at the same company for more than 20 years, and I plan to retire soon. I call on clients in person or by email or telephone. I have accumulated most of my clients' email addresses and cellphone numbers on my smartphone because the company doesn't provide any electronic equipment. I use my phone to contact clients when I am out of the office, which is about 80 percent of the time. Still, the company has not paid anything toward the phone's purchase or the monthly fee to maintain it. The same holds true for my home computer, which I use for business. When I retire, what are my legal responsibilities as far as turning over the clients' email addresses or cellphone numbers? -PORTABLE DATA?

DEAR PORTABLE DATA: First, find out whether you signed an agreement with your employer that covers this situation, said employment attorney Carmelo Grimaldi, a partner at Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein & Breitstone in Mineola, N.Y. Employers often protect themselves and their proprietary information by having their employees sign agreements, typically at the time of hire. Those contracts often contain detailed clauses about confidentiality, non-disclosure or the return of company information or property, Grimaldi said.

Such agreements may also include restrictive covenants such as employees' promise not to solicit the company's clients for a specific period of time after leaving the company, he said.

"In the absence of such an agreement, the retiring employee does not have to download and furnish to his employer content from his phone or his computer, both of which he maintained at his sole expense," he said.

Even in the absence of an agreement, employees must be careful not to reveal information that may be deemed proprietary or confidential, that is, information entrusted to them that is not known to the general public, Grimaldi said.

For example, if the employee was provided with a confidential list of unpublished customer contact information, such as cellphones, that he copied and downloaded to his computer, the company may argue that the employee cannot personally use such information or provide it to third parties, Grimaldi said.

"If the retiring employee desires to use or sell such information, or has (signed) an agreement containing any ... restrictive covenants, he should first consult with an attorney to determine if he is legally prohibited from doing so," Grimaldi said.

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