By Samantha L. Brooks and Karla Grossenbacher
Seyfarth Synopsis: Employees’ use of their personal social media accounts in ways that could impact an employer’s business present challenges to employers.
In this case, a Maryland state government employee claimed that she was retaliated against for a Facebook post where she referred to a Maryland gubernatorial candidate as an “a**clown.” In granting a preliminary injunction and reinstating an employee’s job duties, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland held that reassignment of the employee’s duties three days after the Facebook post was retaliation for protected speech, particularly where the employer could not demonstrate how the post harmed the employer. Thomson v. Belton, No. ELH-18-3116, 2018 WL 6173443 (D. Md. Nov. 26, 2018).
The plaintiff served as the public information officer for the Natural Resources Police (NRP), a subdivision of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). She was a public employee and not a political appointee. As the public information officer, plaintiff acted as a spokesperson for the DNR, responded to media inquiries, administered the NRP’s social media accounts, and issued press releases, among other duties.
On September 17, 2018, while in her home, using her own electronic device and her own Facebook account, she responded to a Facebook post of a colleague by referring to Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous as an “a**clown.” Plaintiff’s comment was prompted by Mr. Jealous’ decision to veto a reporter’s participation as a panelist in the only gubernatorial debate with Governor Larry Hogan. The following day, plaintiff’s supervisor asked her whether she had posted “*a**clown” on Facebook. She acknowledged that she had, offered to delete the post, and immediately did so of her own volition. Of note, plaintiff’s Facebook post did not violate the DNR’s social medial policy. Less than one week after the post, plaintiff was stripped of the majority of her media-related duties and they were reassigned, although she was permitted to draft press releases. Neither her title nor salary were changed.
On October 9, 2018, plaintiff filed suit against Mark Belton, Secretary of the DNR, in his individual and official capacity alleging violations of plaintiff’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. She also filed a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and/or Preliminary Injunction which, upon agreement by the parties, was treated as a Motion for Preliminary Injunction.
The defendant argued that plaintiff was demoted because of protracted performance issues, and not because of the Facebook post. Specifically, the defendant highlighted three instances where plaintiff had failed to communicate the happening of newsworthy events, including the discovery of a chest containing human bones at a beach in Ocean City, Maryland, the drowning death of a child, and a news article that reported a motor vehicle accident involving an NRP officer which resulted in the death of a family pet.
Since plaintiff was a public employee, the Court considered plaintiff’s claim under the Connick/Pickering standard, i.e. (1) whether there was an adverse action, (2) whether the employee was speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern, (3) whether the employee’s interest in speaking on the matter of public concern outweighed the government’s interest in managing the workplace, (4) and whether the employee’s speech was a substantial factor in the adverse action. Thomson, 2018 WL 6173443 at *15. See Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968) and Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983).
The Court found that the plaintiff was subject to an adverse action. Prior to the reassignment of her media-related duties, plaintiff’s most important and most significant duties involved direct contact with the media. After reassignment, she was prohibited from such direct contact. The Court found that her new role — without the media duties — was less prestigious and less interesting. Id. at 21. The Court also noted plaintiff’s reassignment was neither trivial nor de minimus solely because plaintiff’s pay and some responsibilities remained unchanged.
Matter of Public Concern
The Court noted that plaintiff’s comment pertained to a matter of public concern. The Court further noted that discussion about political candidates — including plaintiff’s one word Facebook comment — fell within the realm of First Amended protected speech. The Court held that plaintiff’s comment was “in response to the posts of others on the issue of the candidate’s decision to veto a reporter from serving on the panel for a key election debate. This suggests that she was participating in an online public discussion . . . .” Id. at *22. Finally, the Court noted that plaintiff was speaking as a private citizen and not in the course of her official duties.
Employer’s Interest in Managing the Workplace
Defendant did not provide any evidence that plaintiff’s speech harmed NRP or DNR operations. The only harm the defendant could identify was that calling a political candidate a derogatory name and using inappropriate language was contrary to goals of the NRP. The Court held, however, that “inappropriate language unrelated to the employee’s employment, and spoken outside the workplace, does not intrinsically harm the employer’s interests.” Id. at 27.
Speech was a Substantial Factor in Adverse Action
The Court held that the reassignment of plaintiff’s duties was in retaliation for her Facebook post. The temporal proximity of plaintiff’s job assignment, just three days after Facebook post, clearly demonstrated that plaintiff’s protected speech was a substantial factor in the reassignment of her duties. Id. at 24. Of note, the Court noted that the record did not corroborate defendant’s claims that plaintiff had performance issues.
The court ultimately held that plaintiff was entitled to a preliminary injunction requiring the immediate reinstatement of plaintiff’s job duties.
Private Employer Takeaways
Have a social media policy! Employees who work for private, non-governmental employers do not generally have First Amendment protection for their speech in the workplace. Before taking any action based on an employee’s speech on social media, employers should first consult their social media policies to determine whether there has been a violation of the policy. Employers should also determine if the employee has some other interest at issue, such as speech that could implicate the protections of Title VII, speech that could violate the employer’s EEO or anti-harassment policy, or speech that implicates an employee’s rights under various union regulations, before taking any action.
Document, document, document! Employers must remember to document performance deficiencies or mistakes. If employers need to justify a personnel action or if litigation ever arises, it will be important to have a contemporaneous record of performance issues.
Those with questions or concerns about any of these issues or topics are encouraged to reach out to the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employee Relations, Social Media Practice Group, or Workplace Policies and Handbooks teams.