Social media can be risky business. Whether an organization embraces or ignores social media, it or its employees probably already have a presence on a social network. That simple reality can be costly for an organization without proper measures in place to deal with the risks of social media misconduct. Readers of this blog are familiar with cases where business saw their reputations marred by employees who post embarrassing photos online about work mishaps or found themselves in legal trouble for firing an employee who vented on Facebook about a co-worker.
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Facebook comments about condition of company vehicles are protected under the NLRA; a Facebook rant about fake problems with the company car, not so much – Butler Medical Transport, LLC, 2013 WL 4761153 (N.L.R.B. Div. of Judges)
A recent decision by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) gives employers insight on when they can and cannot fire an employee for their social media conduct outside of work. Particularly interesting is the fact that this decision involved two separate terminations, one of which the ALJ found illegal, and the other not.
The Norvell Termination
William Norvell worked as an emergency medical technician for an ambulance company, Butler Medical Transport (Butler). While on his personal computer at home, Norvell read a post by a co-worker (Zalewski) on her Facebook page stating that she had been fired. Zalewski attributed the firing to a patient report to management that she complained about the condition of Butler’s ambulances. Several people, including another Butler employee, posted comments inquiring into the incident, to which Zalewski responded with more posts about the patient’s report. Norvell responded to Zalewski with this comment:
“Sorry to hear that but if you want you may think about getting a lawyer and taking them to court.”
Another person posted a comment suggesting that Zalewski find a job with another ambulance company. After Zalewski asked where the company was located, Norvell posted the location and added, “You could contact the labor board too.”
Butler’s HR director obtained hard copies of these posts, and in consultation with the COO, decided to terminate Norvell. The HR director told Norvell that he was being terminated for violating Butler’s bullet point list of work rules, one of which prohibited employees from using social networking sites that could discredit Butler or damage its image.
The ALJ determined that Norvell’s Facebook posts were protected concerted activity. By advising Zalewski to see a lawyer or contact the labor board, Norvell was “making common cause” with a co-worker about a matter of mutual concern to the employees, i.e., the condition of Butler’s ambulances. Norvell’s posts had protected status even though they were accessible to people outside of the company because Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) extends to employee efforts to improve the terms and conditions of employment through channels outside of the employer-employee relationship. The ALJ did not find posts to be so disloyal, reckless, or maliciously untrue as to lose their protected status. The termination of Norvell based on his Facebook posts therefore violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.
The Rice Termination
Another Butler employee, Michael Rice, posted this comment on Facebook:
“Hey everybody!!!!! Im fuckin broke down in the same shit I was broke in last week because they don’t wantna buy new shit!!!! Cha-Chinnngggggg chinnng-at Sheetz Convenience Store,”
Butler terminated Rice for making this post. At the trial hearing before the ALJ, Butler produced maintenance records showing that Rice’s vehicle was not in disrepair when he made the post. Rice had also testified at his unemployment insurance hearing that his post referred to a private vehicle rather than a Butler ambulance. There being no evidence to the contrary, the ALJ determined that Rice’s post was not protected by Section 7 because it was maliciously untrue and made with the knowledge of its falsity. As a result, Rice’s termination was not illegal.
Legality of Work Rules
Also under scrutiny was the legality of two of Butler’s work rules, one prohibiting the “unauthorized posting or distribution of papers,” and the other requiring employees to acknowledge that they “will refrain from using social networking sights [sic] which could discredit Butler Medical Transport or damages its image.” Butler argued that the rules were not official company policy because they were stated in a bullet point list. The ALJ rejected the argument as making a distinction without a difference. Butler relied on the bullet point rules in terminating Norvell and Zalewski, and new employees were required to acknowledge receipt of the list. As such, employees could reasonably understand that they would be disciplined for failing to follow the rules on the list. The ALJ found that the rules violated Section 7 activity because they prohibited employees from communicating to others about their work conditions.
LegalTXTS Lesson: This case doesn’t break new ground, but it does contain a few important reminders for employers grappling with how far they can go in regulating the social media activity of employees.
1. A policy by any other name … is still a policy. Butler’s failure to convince the ALJ that the bullet point list was not company policy should serve as a reminder that if a company communicates a rule to its employees in writing, expects them to follow the rule, and disciplines them if they don’t, the rule is effectively a policy. It doesn’t matter that the rule appears in a document whose title doesn’t include the word “policy,” or that the wording of the rule is informal.
2. Write it right. Given how easily a supposedly informal rule could qualify as a policy, a company should take care in articulating its work rules in the form of an official written policy. Consult with counsel to make sure the wording doesn’t inadvertently violate the law.
3. Don’t go overboard. The NLRB has consistently frowned upon work rules that flat out prohibit employees from posting content on social media that damages the reputation of their employer, or worse yet, bars them completely from speaking to others about work-related issues, whether on social networking sites or other media. (For examples, see the related posts below). Reject categorical bans on employee speech in favor of rules that focus on creating or avoiding specific results.
4. Context matters. Before disciplining an employee for a social media post, understand the context in which the post was made. Is the post about a work-related issue that other employees have discussed before? Does the post call for co-workers to take action? Asking such questions helps management determine if the post is protected under the NLRA.
NLRB dishes out confusion on social media policies
NLRB sanctions employees who fire employees for online “protected concerted activity”
DirectTV’s work rules invalidated by NLRB
FC 250 Grand Marshal, Paula Deen (Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway)
Lisa Jackson’s discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit against Paula Deen settled last Friday, but not before Deen tried to remove Jackson’s attorney, for publicly disparaging her on social media. A court order filed hours before the settlement reveals that in March, Deen’s lawyers filed a motion for sanctions against Matthew C. Billips, the lawyer who represented Jackson (read the motion here). The motion alleges that Billips made offensive remarks about Deen on Twitter. Some of the more eyebrow-raising tweets included:
“I’ve been doing Paula Deen, in a strongly metaphorical sense”
“I plan on undressing [Deen]” (in reference to an upcoming deposition of Deen)
“Now talk about fun, suing Paula Deen is a hoot!”
In another Twitter conversation about Deen’s diabetes, Billips allegedly referred to Deen’s food with the hashtag #buttercoatedbuttercookies.
Based on Billips’ tweets and his discovery practices, Deen’s lawyers asked the court to disqualify him from continuing to represent Jackson. As the August 23 court order shows, the judge declined to disqualify Billips, but it was open to imposing some form of sanctions against him. The judge has indicated that the settlement will not stop the court from sanctioning Billips despite Deen’s lawyers attempt to withdraw their sanctions motion in light of the settlement. Billips has 20 days as of Friday to show why he should not be sanctioned.
This cautionary tale that teaches litigants (and their attorneys) not to discuss pending cases on social media. Posts on social networks like Facebook and Twitter can be publicly accessible, are potentially discoverable, and can be the basis for a defamation lawsuit. There’s little to be gained and much to lose by talking about a lawsuit online. For that reason, lawyers now commonly instruct their clients in their retainer agreements not to discuss the case with anyone on social media, even family and friends. Lawyers would do well to follow their own advice.
A New York court overturns the termination of a public school teacher for posting offensive comments on social media – Rubino v. City of New York, 106 A.D.3d 439 (May 7, 2013)
The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division recently ruled that the firing of a fifth-grade public school teacher for making inappropriate comments on social media was too harsh of a penalty. After a difficult day at class, the teacher posted comments alluding to a tragedy involving an unknown student at a different school. The court’s opinion is sparse on details, but according to a Huffington Post article, the teacher wrote: “After today, I am thinking the beach sounds like a wonderful idea for my 5th graders! I HATE THEIR GUTS!” The beach reference alluded to the drowning of a 12-year old girl on a school trip to Long Island beach the day before. The comments were only visible to the teacher’s private network of friends, who did not include any of her students or their parents. The teacher deleted the comments three days after posting them. She denied making the comments when she was initially confronted about them, but later confessed at her disciplinary hearing.
The court agreed that the comments were “clearly inappropriate” but it noted that the purpose of the comments was just to vent. The teacher did not intend the public to see her comments, and she expressed remorse over making them. She had no prior disciplinary history in her 15-year career. Given the record, the appellate court found the termination to be “shocking to one’s sense of fairness.” The appellate court upheld a lower court order setting aside the termination and sending the case back down for imposition of a lesser penalty.
LegalTXTS Lesson: Not all courts have been as kind toward teachers who vent on social media as the New York Appellate Division. In fact, in In re O’Brien, a court in neighboring New Jersey upheld the firing of a first-grade teacher under similar circumstances earlier this year. One difference might be that the teacher in Rubino expressed remorse for making the comments whereas the teacher in O’Brien did not. Whether that factor alone accounts for the different outcomes is questionable. One thing the cases do share in common is that the teachers in both thought that no one outside of their network of “friends” would see their comments. With apologies to Las Vegas, Rubino and O’Brien teach that what happens in an employee’s social network doesn’t always stay in his or her social network.
Recent amendments to the Hawaii Rules of Professional Conduct include language allowing lawyers to advertise on social media. The amendments conform the language of Rules 7.2 and 7.3 to their counterparts in the current version of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Amended Rule 7.2(a) explicitly includes “electronic communication” as a permissible way to advertise legal services. The comments to the amended Rule are more direct, noting that “electronic media, such as the Internet, can be an important source of information about legal services, and lawful communication by electronic mail is permitted by this Rule.” Although the amended Rules don’t define “electronic communication,” the term appears broad enough to include social media.
The amendments place limits on soliciting clients on social media, however. Rule 7.3 currently prohibits a lawyer from contacting potential clients in person or by telephone to solicit business for personal monetary gain unless the potential client has a family, close personal, or prior professional relationship with the lawyer. Amended Rule 7.3 adds “real-time electronic contact” to the list of forbidden solicitation methods. What “real-time electronic contact” means has yet to be examined in a reported case, but the term could conceivably apply to text messages, instant messages, Skype, and posts on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
Tech-savvy lawyers will also appreciate the deletion of the requirement in current Rule 7.2(b) that a lawyer keep records of every advertisement for two years. Lawyers who promote their services by posting online content frequently could find compliance with the requirement impractical. The amended Rules omit the retention requirement for all forms of legal advertising.
The amended Rules take effect on January 1, 2014.