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).

Adverse Action

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.

By Brian A. Wadsworth

Seyfarth Synopsis: In her appeal to the Fifth Circuit, Plaintiff Bonnie O’Daniel argues that the trial court wrongly concluded that it was unreasonable for O’Daniel to believe that a complaint about discrimination based on sexual orientation constituted a protected activity. The EEOC recently joined the fray by filing an amicus curiae brief, which argues that it was reasonable for O’Daniel to believe that opposition to sexual orientation discrimination constituted protected activity.

The EEOC argues that O’Daniel need only “reasonably believe[]” the opposed conduct was unlawful and that O’Daniel’s belief was reasonable when viewed in the context of recent decisions reached by the Southern District of Texas, Second Circuit, Seventh Circuit, and the EEOC. The EEOC also cites the ongoing national debate regarding sexual orientation issues as another reason O’Daniel’s belief was reasonable.

Plaintiff Bonnie O’Daniel filed suit against her employer, Plant-N-Power, and its parent company (Defendants) in the Middle District of Louisiana alleging, amongst other things, retaliation on the basis of her sexual orientation—heterosexual. O’Daniel alleged that Defendants terminated her employment because of one of her Facebook posts. In the post, she included a photograph of a man wearing a dress at a Target store and expressed discontent with his ability to use the women’s restroom and/or dressing rooms. O’Daniel alleged that this offended the President of Plant-N-Power, a member of the LGBT community, and that the president subsequently suggested O’Daniel’s termination.

Defendants responded to the lawsuit with a motion to dismiss and argued that O’Daniel’s retaliation claim failed in part because she did not “plead any protected activity … under Title VII.” By consent of the parties, a magistrate judge heard Defendants’ motion to dismiss. The magistrate judge ultimately agreed with Defendants and dismissed O’Daniel’s retaliation claim because it was “unreasonable for [O’Daniel] to believe that discrimination based on sexual orientation constitutes protected activity” and cited the Fifth Circuit’s 1979 holding in Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp. to support its holding. The trial court noted that while Title VII may protect gender-non-conformity, O’Daniel did not allege discrimination on this basis. O’Daniel appealed the magistrate judge’s decision to the Fifth Circuit.

On May 2, 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed an amicus curiae brief with the court, taking issue with the trial court’s finding that it was “unreasonable” for O’Daniel to believe that opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation was a protected activity. In arguing this, the EEOC pointed out that the employee need only “reasonably believe[] the opposed conduct was unlawful.” The EEOC maintains that, “given recent appellate decisions …, the EEOC’s view that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination, and the rapidly changing legal landscape,” O’Daniel had a reasonable belief that discrimination based on sexual orientation was impermissible.

The EEOC pointed to a number of decisions in the Southern District of Texas, the Second and Seventh Circuits, as well as holdings from the commission itself, to demonstrate that the “law on sexual orientation discrimination” had evolved and that at least some courts prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in employment. In addition, the EEOC noted the ongoing national debate regarding sexual orientation issues and the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions endorsing the right of gay and lesbian individuals to be free from discrimination in Obergefell v. Hodges and United States v. Windsor. Given this context, O’Daniel—“a layperson without legal expertise”—could “reasonably conclude that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination encompasses discriminatory conduct based on sexual orientation.” This would extend, in the EEOC’s view, to discrimination on the basis that an employee is heterosexual.

The EEOC similarly noted that Fifth Circuit precedent did not preclude an individual from harboring a reasonable belief that sexual orientation is unlawful. To argue this, the EEOC distinguished Blum, in which the Court held that “[d]ischarge for homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII.” The EEOC argued that Blum was decided on the issue of pretext and not on whether Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Moreover, according to the EEOC, there were post-Blum decisions that recognize that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sex stereotyping, to include Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins and EEOC v. Boh Brothers Construction, Co. Thus, O’Daniel could have relied on these post-Blum holdings to arrive at a reasonable conclusion that Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Defendants have not yet filed their appellate brief.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Labor & Employment Team.

By Esther Slater McDonald, Paul Yovanic Jr. and Thomas E. Ahlering

Seyfarth Synopsis: In light of the uncertainties surrounding lawsuits alleging violations of the Illinois Information Biometric Privacy Act (BIPA), the Northern District of California has taken a firm position on a plaintiff’s Article III standing. U.S. District Judge James Donato delivered opinions in In re Facebook Biometric Info. Privacy Litig., Case No. 15-CV-03747; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30727 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 26, 2018) and Gullen v. Facebook Inc., Case No. 16-CV-00937; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34792 (N.D. Cal. March 2, 2018), denying Facebook’s motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction in both cases. The court held that plaintiffs’ Article III standing was satisfied through mere collection of biometric information.

The decisions provide plaintiffs the ability to get their feet in the door and threaten businesses and employers alike. The court dismissed Facebook’s argument that Article III standing requires “real-world harms,” stating that the argument exceeds the law. Instead, the court held that a plaintiff has standing when they are deprived of procedures that protect statutorily protected interests, similar to the procedures outlined in the BIPA.

The In Re Facebook Decision

In In Re Facebook, plaintiffs allege that Facebook violated the BIPA when it unlawfully collected and stored biometric data on Facebook users without prior notice or consent. 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30727, *4. Plaintiffs’ claims arise out of Facebook’s “Tag Suggestions,” which identifies other Facebook users through scanning uploaded photographs. Id. Plaintiffs allege that Facebook creates and stores digital representations of people’s faces based on the geometric relationship of facial features unique to each individual. Id. Facebook moved to dismiss the class action, asserting that plaintiffs lacked standing under Article III because the collection of biometric information without notice or consent did not result in “real-world harms,” “such as adverse employment or even just anxiety.” Id. at *13.

The court denied Facebook’s motion to dismiss, holding that Facebook’s standing argument exceeds the law. Id. In support of its decision, the court looked to the plain language of the BIPA stating, “BIPA expresses the judgments of the Illinois legislature about the rights of Illinois citizens with respect to the collection of personal biometric data by corporations and businesses.” Id. at *10. There, the court pointed to the subsections of the BIPA in so much that it “vested in Illinois residents the right to control their biometric information by requiring notice before collection and giving residents the power to say no by withholding consent.” Id. at *11. Since the plaintiffs in this case were never offered the opportunity to withhold consent, the court rejected Facebook’s argument and found standing satisfied under the allegations. Id. at *12.

The Gullen Decision

The Gullen case was consolidated with In Re Facebook. The primary difference between the two actions is that the Gullen plaintiff is not a Facebook user, and he challenges Facebook’s practices as to non-users. See 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34792, *2. Similar to the In Re Facebook plaintiffs, the Gullen plaintiff alleges that Facebook stores non-user biometric data when it scans photographs to recommend additional user “tags.” Id. In denying Facebook’s motion to dismiss for lack of standing, the court relied on the reasoning in In Re Facebook, holding that standing is satisfied when there is an unconsented storage of biometric data. Id.

Analysis And Implications

Judge Donato’s disregard for real-world harm creates uncertainty on an otherwise untested statute. His decisions are inapposite to recent Illinois Appellate Court decision Rosenbach v. Six Flags Entertainment Corp., 2017 IL App (2d) 170317, which found that actual, real-world harm must be established to be considered an “aggrieved person” under the BIPA. Id. at ¶ 23. Where, Rosenbach closed the door to claims that did not involve some sort of actual, real-world harm, Judge Donato seems to have reopened that door (for purposes of Article III standing), leaving businesses and employers vulnerable to BIPA claims for collection of biometric data, regardless of whether the plaintiff is aggrieved. It is possible, though, that other courts may blunt the practical impact of Judge Donato’s opinions by holding that they do not address whether real-world harm is required to state a claim. While a mere technical violation of the BIPA may open the courthouse doors (at least in federal court), BIPA’s “aggrieved person” language may require a plaintiff to show a real-world harm to remain in court and state a claim under the statute.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Wishing you a wonderful holiday season. 

As we begin the traditional start of the holiday season and before the crush of the end of the year is upon us, we wanted to take a moment to thank you – the readers of the Employment Law Lookout Blog – for your loyal readership and feedback.  We strive to make our reports entertaining and helpful and hope that you find them so.

We are also pleased to announce that the Firm’s Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference has been updated and is now available for your review and use.  Please see below for how to register to receive both an on-line as well as hard copy of this publication.

On behalf of the entire Seyfarth blog team, thank you.  Have a safe, happy and peaceful Holiday Weekend.

Now Available! Seyfarth Shaw’s 2017-2018 Edition  of the Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference

There is no denying that social media continues to transform the way companies conduct business. In light of the rapid evolution of social media, companies today face significant legal challenges on a variety of issues ranging from employee privacy and protected activity to data practices, identity theft, cybersecurity, and protection of intellectual property.

Seyfarth Shaw is pleased to provide you with the 2017–2018 edition of our easy-to-use guide to social media privacy legislation and what employers need to know. The Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference:

  • Describes the content and purpose of the various states’ new social media privacy laws.
  • Delivers a detailed state-by-state description of each law, listing a general overview, what is prohibited, what is allowed, the remedies for violations, and special notes for each statute.
  • Provides an easy-to-use chart listing on one axis the states that have enacted social media privacy legislation, and on the other, whether each state’s law contains one or more key features.
  • Offers our thoughts on the implications of this legislation in other areas, including trade secret misappropriation, bring your own device issues and concerns, social media discovery and evidence considerations, and use of social media in internal investigations.
  • Concludes with some best practices to assist companies in navigating this challenging area.

How To Get Your Desktop Reference

To request the 2017–2018 Edition of the Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference as a pdf or hard copy, please click here.

 

 

By Hillary J. Massey and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: While employees who have recently taken leave may be terminated for legitimate reasons, establishing a non-retaliatory termination can be challenging. The timing of the termination alone can support causation, and even a well thought out and justified termination may raise issues of fact that would prevent quick resolution in court. The 11th Circuit recently addressed such a case.

In Jones v. Gulf Coast Health Care of Delaware, LLC, No. 16-11142 (11th Cir. Apr. 19, 2017), Rodney Jones brought suit against his former employer, Accentia Health and Rehabilitation Center of Tampa Bay (Accentia), a long-term-care nursing facility, in Florida state court.  Jones alleged that in suspending and later terminating him, Accentia interfered with the exercise of his rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and retaliated against him for asserting those rights. Accentia removed the action to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, and moved for summary judgment on both of Jones’s claims.

FMLA Leave

Jones, who was Activities Director for Accentia until he was fired in 2015, initially was approved for 12 weeks of FMLA leave for shoulder surgery. The day before Jones was scheduled to return to work, his doctor reported that he would not be able to return to work and resume regular physical activity for an additional 7 weeks. The doctor’s report also stated that Jones needed to continue physical therapy.

Jones wished to return to his job and asked his supervisor to allow him to return on light duty. His supervisor, however, refused to reinstate Jones until he submitted an unqualified fitness-for-duty certification.  Thus, Jones did not ask his doctor for a light-duty certification and instead requested additional time off from Accentia.  He was granted another 30 days of non-FMLA medical leave in order to complete his physical therapy.

Facebook Posts

While on non-FMLA medical leave, Jones twice visited Busch Gardens and went on a trip to St. Martin. Jones sent pictures of the trip to colleagues at Accentia and posted some on Facebook, including pictures of himself on the beach and in the ocean.

Jones returned to work two weeks before the date estimated by his doctor and met with his supervisor at the beginning of the day.  During the meeting, Jones presented his supervisor with a fitness-for-duty certification confirming that he could immediately resume his job.  His supervisor responded by showing Jones the photos from his Facebook page.

Termination

The supervisor then informed Jones that “corporate” believed, based on these Facebook posts, that Jones had been well enough to return to work at an earlier point. Jones was subsequently suspended and given an opportunity to respond to the charges in a letter, but he failed to do so and his employment was terminated.

District Court Judgment

Jones brought suit against Accentia, claiming that Accentia interfered with the exercise of his FMLA rights and retaliated against him for asserting those rights. In February 2016, the district court granted Accentia’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Jones had failed to establish a prima facie case of either interference or retaliation under the FMLA.  Jones appealed.

Appeal

The 11th Cir. affirmed the judgment of the district court with respect to Jones’s interference claim, but reversed the judgment with respect to his retaliation claim.

The 11th Cir. concluded there was no interference because Jones “likely” waived his FMLA right to reinstatement by taking an additional 30 days of leave, he should have submitted a fitness-for-duty certification by the end of his FMLA leave and there was no evidence that Accentia did not implement its FMLA certification policy in a uniform fashion.

As to retaliation, the 11th Cir. reversed, ruling that the short amount of time between Jones’ return from leave and his termination created a genuine issue of fact as to causation. The court also concluded there was a factual issue concerning pretext because Accentia offered shifting reasons for the termination.  Jones was told that he was being fired because he engaged in activities that demonstrated he could have returned to work earlier.  However, during litigation, Accentia offered additional and inconsistent reasons for the termination.

Employer Take-Away

Retaliation claims continue to permeate employment litigation, and often are difficult to defeat with a pretrial motion. When employees go out on medical leave, employers often uncover inefficiencies and performance issues that were not obvious before the leave.  Employers facing such circumstances may want to consider:

  • Waiting a period of time after the employee’s return in order to avoid an inference of causation
  • Placing an employee on a performance improvement plan or other interim step before termination
  • When providing reasons for a termination, using broad terms that encompass various issues
  • Documenting the reasons for a termination in an internal document that is not shared with the employee (if you are working with counsel, mark this document privileged)
  • Training managers, HR individuals and other employees who handle leave issues not to make any comments about the timing of a leave or whether a leave will be difficult for the employer to manage.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Absence Management & Accommodations Team or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

 

 

 

By Ashley Laken

Seyfarth Synopsis: NLRB affirms ALJ’s ruling finding that a union member’s criticisms on Facebook of the union that represented him were protected by the NLRA.

On February 7, 2017, in Laborers’ International Union of North America, Local Union No. 91, 365 NLRB No. 28, the National Labor Relations Board affirmed an NLRB administrative law judge’s ruling that found that the Laborer’s International Union of North America Local 91 violated the National Labor Relations Act by punishing one of its members for criticizing the union’s business manager on Facebook. We had previously blogged about the ALJ’s earlier decision.

The member’s Facebook posts criticized the union’s business manager for allowing a local politician to become a journeyman without first going through the union’s five year apprenticeship program, and the union punished the member by fining him $5,000, suspending his union membership for two years, and taking him off of its out-of-work referral list.

In finding that the union’s actions were unlawful, the Board observed that it is “elementary” that an employee’s right to engage in intraunion activities opposing the current leadership of his union is concerted activity protected by Section 7 of the NLRA, and therefore found that the member had engaged in protected concerted activity by posting his criticisms of the union’s business manager on Facebook.

The Board then examined whether the union’s interests outweighed the member’s Section 7 rights, and found that they did not. The Board reasoned that the member’s Section 7 right to press the union to change its policies outweighed the union’s vague claim that its reputation was damaged. The Board ordered the union to make the member whole for any loss of earnings he suffered as a result of the unlawful action taken against him, including backpay with interest compounded daily and his search-for-work expenses.

The decision highlights that not only are employee criticisms of their employers potentially protected by Section 7, employee criticisms of the labor unions that represent them may also be protected by Section 7.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the author, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employee Relations Team.

 

By Erin Dougherty Foley and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: A new NLRB decision that attempts to define further the boundaries of protected speech under the NLRA.

In Laborers’ International Union of North America and Mantell, Case No. 03-CB-136940 (NLRB September 7, 2016) the initial question in the case was whether the Union restrained or coerced Frank Mantell in the exercise of a Section 7 right.

The initial question raises another question of whether Mantell engaged in any activity protected by Section 7. Mantell’s Facebook posts concerned perceived unfairness affecting apprentices. Mantell was a journeyman, however, not an apprentice.

Mantell, who was a member of the Union Local 91, posted comments on a Facebook page that criticized the Union for allowing a Niagara Falls city councilman, running for mayor, to obtain a journeyman’s book. The Facebook page was accessible to about 4,000 people, some of whom were members of Local 91.

Local 91’s Business Manager, Richard Palladino, filed internal charges against Mantell. The Union’s executive board conducted a trial on the charges focused on the Facebook posts. The executive board found Mantell guilty of the charges and made a decision to fine Martell $5,000 and suspend his membership for 24 months. This decision was ratified at a monthly Union membership meeting. The Union removed Mantell from the hiring hall’s out-of-work list the next day. Mantell then appealed the decision to the International Union. The International subsequently informed Local 91 that it needed to dismiss the charges against Mantell.

The NLRB Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) noted that the National Labor Relations Act Section 7 provides that, “employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

The ALJ found that Mantell’s Facebook posts were protected under the Act. The decision noted that “issuing a journeyman’s book to someone allegedly ineligible to receive one, affected Mantell in that one more journeyman would arguably impact his opportunities for employment.” As seen in NLRB v. Peter Cailler Kohler Swiss Chocolate Co., 130 F.2d 503, 505-506 (2d Cir. 1942), employees raising concerns about a common cause with fellow employees are, in fact, engaged in protected activity. “Even though the immediate quarrel may not concern them they may be assured that if their ‘turn ever comes,’ they will have the support of those they are then helping.”

The ALJ also rejected the Union’s assertion that Mantell forfeited his protection of the Act by maliciously defaming the Union and the Business Manager. The Union complained that one of Mantell’s comment, in which he suggested that gifts were being given the person running for mayor, was untrue. However, the ALJ concluded that nothing Mantell said in his Facebook posts was maliciously and knowingly untrue, citing MasTec Advance Technologies, 357 NLRB 103, 107 (2011), and allowing the protection of the Act to remain intact.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employee Relations Team.

 

 

 

 

By Scott Rabe and Samuel Sverdlov

Seyfarth Synopsis: With seemingly every employee having access to a smart-phone or other recording device, employers without strong social media policies may be placing themselves at greater risk of creating workplace incidents that could be avoided. 

Just a few weeks ago, a video leaked of Los Angeles Lakers rookie, D’Angelo Russell, recording teammate, Nick Young, describing adulterous sexual encounters with a 19-year-old during his engagement to pop star, Iggy Azalea.  The incident has since been described as a prank that backfired.  But this “prank,” and the ensuing media attention it drew, has caused the Los Angeles Lakers to endure a media frenzy, a fractured locker room, and being booed by their hometown fans.

The Lakers incident is just one of the more recent, and public, examples of the risks employers face when employees introduce audio and video recording devices into the workplace. Viral videos such as this example may tarnish a company’s reputation.  A leaked audio recording may disclose important company trade secrets or confidential information.  Or a video recording may misleadingly appear to reveal unlawful practices at a company that could lead to litigation or other unwanted attention.

Where employers may once have understood the work place to be a semi-private space, that has changed. As a result, information and behavior that could be counted on to remain within the confines of the workplace now has the potential to become very public very quickly, with some pretty hefty consequences.

So what can employers do?

One of the best things an employer can do to hedge against these risks is to create a comprehensive social media policy that explicitly defines employee responsibilities with regard to social media. The social media policy should:

  • be geared towards the company’s business and its workforce;
  • underscore the importance of acting professionally when utilizing social media in connection with work as well as the importance of, where possible, maintaining a separation between personal and professional use of social media;
  • strictly prohibit the sharing of non-public confidential or proprietary information, or trade secrets, on social media;
  • be distributed to new hires at orientation and be regularly provided as a reminder to existing employees;
  • make clear that employees can be disciplined for violating the employer guidelines.

An employer may also want to consider putting in place a policy that regulates the use of audio or videotaping in the workplace more generally.   Although the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has said that wholesale bans on video recording in the workplace are unlawful since they could deter employees from exercising rights guaranteed to them under the NLRA, an employer may want to put in place a policy that prohibits surreptitious recording in the workplace or one that prohibits recording of other employees in the workplace without permission. Additionally, employers should be mindful that many states prohibit any kind of video or audio recording where all participants do not consent to being recorded. Given the scrutiny social media policies receive, however, employers are encouraged to consult with counsel before implementing any policy governing the use of audiotaping or videotaping in the workplace.

Employers should also consider making an investment in the education of managers and supervisors regarding best practices for upholding and enforcing the company’s social media and video recording policies. Given the ubiquity of social media today and its importance to employees’ personal and professional lives, there is significant value to employers in having a workforce that is educated on how to use social media effectively while avoiding potential costly pitfalls.

Warning to Employers: Employee audio and video recordings may be protected

The NLRB has taken an aggressive stance in the last few years in connection with its regulation of employer-imposed limitations on social media use. (To read more about the NLRB’s take on social media use, please see our blogs: here and here.)  In particular, the NLRB has taken increasing action against employers who have sought to prohibit employees from engaging in public discourse regarding the terms and conditions of their employment, especially when such discourse occurs on social media.   As a result, employers need to be careful that their social media and related policies do not place undue limitation on the forum or content where employees can engage in discourse regarding their employment.  For example, an employee’s video post to YouTube where she complains about her wages likely would be considered protected concerted action, and the employer could face liability for interfering.

Relatedly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has also made clear that it views the prohibition by an employer of an employee from recording evidence of discrimination by video or audio means may be “retaliation.” This is true even if the employer maintains a workplace policy forbidding such recording.  Thus, employers should be extra careful before disciplining or regulating the conduct of employees who have already raised claims or complaints against the company.

For more information, please contact the authors, your local Seyfarth attorney or a member of Seyfarth’s Social Media Practice Group [http://www.seyfarth.com/SocialMedia].

By Hillary J. Massey

iStock_000048141232_LargeEmployees’ social media activities often play a key role in workplace investigations.

For example, an employee may complain that a coworker sent a harassing Facebook message or posted something offensive on Twitter regarding race, religion, or disability. Employers handling investigations into such conduct should be aware that state laws may restrict employers’ requests for information about an employee’s social media activity.

Fifteen states have passed, and many other states have considered, laws addressing whether and how employers may access employees’ social media accounts. The laws, in varying degrees, prohibit employers from requiring employees and applicants to provide access to their social media accounts through username/password disclosures, by requiring them to open their page in a manager’s presence, or by requiring them to “friend” a manager. While some states explicitly permit access during the course of an investigation into employment-related misconduct, others do not address the issue. Courts have had few opportunities to interpret the laws.

A recent case in Mississippi demonstrates how social media activity may become part of an investigation. Although the case involves a public school, and thus constitutional rights that are not applicable to private employment, the facts are similar to common workplace issues. The case was brought against a school and teachers by the parents of a high school student who was suspended from the cheerleading team as a result of her social media posts. A teacher who had received reports from students that the plaintiff sent threatening Facebook messages to another student required all of the members of the cheerleading squad to give her their Facebook usernames and passwords. She inspected their accounts, determined that the plaintiff’s messages were threatening, and suspended the plaintiff from the team for two weeks.

The lawsuit alleged that the Facebook search violated the cheerleader’s constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of speech. After the lower court refused to dismiss the lawsuit on summary judgment, the appellate court reversed, concluding that the teacher and school were entitled to “qualified immunity” (and thus, not liable) for the Facebook search because the law concerning students’ rights to privacy was not clearly established at the time.

While there is no “qualified immunity” for private employers, employers may find themselves investigating similar allegations. And, like the teacher, employers may be inclined to demand account information to further their investigations. While this is permissible in some states, the law remains unclear in the majority of states. Thus, employers should consider training managers and human resources representatives who handle such investigations to be sure they understand the limits of their authority.

Seyfarth’s Social Media practice group has prepared an easy-to-use “Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference” as a starting point for employers faced with workplace investigations and other social media privacy issues. Contact the author, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Social Media group with any questions.

By: Jonathan L. Brophy

Employers know all too well, or are learning very quickly, that the intersection of their anti-harassment policies and their employees’ Facebook posts is something of a moving target.  Employers often feel unsure as to how far they can go in investigating an employee complaint of a co-worker’s internet conduct.  The United Supreme Court recently alleviated some of this uncertainty for employers that investigate claims of harassment but then, in the process, also encounter employees who lie about their Facebook posts.  The Court recently refused to review a Tenth Circuit decision Debord v. Mercy Health System of Kansas, Inc., 737 F.3d 642 (10th Cir. 2013), and in doing so, let stand some of the guidance provided by that Court.

The Employee’s Facebook Posts and Termination of Employment

In Debord, the employee posted on Facebook that her direct supervisor had intentionally overpaid employees and that he “needs to keep his creapy hands to himself . . . just an all-around d-bag‼”

The supervisor, who had seen the Facebook posts himself, reported the employee’s comments to the employer’s HR director.  The employee lied to the HR director, on three separate occasions, about posting the comments to her Facebook account, but then later admitted to posting the comments herself.  While the company was investigating her concerns, the employee then sent text messages about the investigation to other employees.

The company then terminated the employee for her dishonesty over authoring the posts while at work and her disruptive behavior during the investigation.  Plaintiff, however, then sued for sex discrimination and retaliation alleging, in part, that the employer fired her because of her Facebook posts.

The 10th Circuit agreed with the trial court that the employer acted lawfully when it fired the employee.  The Court noted that the employee’s Facebook posts did not amount to a legally protected complaint of sexual harassment.  First, the Facebook posts did not comply with the employer’s flexible system for reporting sexual harassment complaints.  Second, the Facebook posts did not provide any notice to the employer.  Finally, the employer did not fire the employee because she posted on Facebook, rather it fired her because she was dishonest about the posts and for being disruptive during the employer’s investigation.

This case scenario presents a couple of key take-aways for employers.

Beware of the Pitfalls of Investigating On-line Conduct

  • No Shoulder Surfing.  Many states now prohibit employers from asking an employee for their social media password or from accessing their social media sites in the presence of the employer.  In Debord, the supervisor and several other employees saw the publicly posted comments and the supervisor reported it—the employer did not actively seek out the social media information.  Be sure to know your jurisdiction’s current rules on accessing employee’s social media.  Seyfarth recently published a desk reference covering this topic.
  •  Balance Your Investigations.  Many states also now prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who refuse to provide access to their social media accounts—but exceptions may exist if the employee’s social media content is relevant to allegations of employee misconduct or employer policies.  Again, it is imperative to be current on the rules that apply in your jurisdiction.

  • Consider If Postings Are “Concerted Activity”.  In September 2011, the National Labor Relations Board concluded that an employer had improperly terminated employees it had perceived as violating the employer’s harassment policy because those employees were engaged in protected concerted activity when they posted comments about their supervisor.  In contrast, in Debord, the employee was not terminated for posting about her supervisor on Facebook, but rather for lying about posting while at work and for her disruptive behavior in the investigation that followed.  When investigating complaints about work made on Facebook, employers must consider whether there are any implications of “concerted activity” raised by the employees’ posts.

Employers should review their social media policies to ensure that the policies provide the most protection for the employer to enforce its anti-harassment, trade secret and other policies, but that the policies also do not unlawfully prohibit protected concerted activity.

Be sure to download Seyfarth Shaw’s Social Media Desktop Guide by clicking here.  Or contact the author or a member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Social Media Practice Group to get more information.