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 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].