You’ve adopted a social media policy after hearing all the warnings about employees behaving badly on social media. But do you enforce the policy consistently? Failure to do so can be risky business, as illustrated by a recent federal court decision, Redford v. KTBS, LLC, 2015 WL 5708218 (W.D. La. Sept. 28, 2015). The court in Redford allowed an employment discrimination claim to continue because of management’s uneven enforcement of its social media policy.
The social media policy of KTBS, a Louisiana TV station, instructs employees not to respond to viewer complaints on social media. Chris Redford, an on-air crime reporter for KTBS and a white male, posted a negative comment on his Facebook page in response to a viewer’s comment on a KTBS story. Redford was fired for violating the KTBS social media policy.
Redford sued KTBS for race and sex-based employment discrimination. Redford pointed to KTBS’ treatment of two other employees for their social media conduct. Lee, an on-air personality and an African-American female, responded multiple times to negative viewer comments on the official KTBS Facebook page. She received numerous warnings from management before being fired on the same day as Redford. Sarah Machi, an on-air personality and a white female, responded negatively to a KTBS viewer’s comment on her personal Facebook page, but received no warning or discipline. Based on this evidence, Redford argued that KTBS fired him not for violating the social media policy, but to prevent a potential lawsuit by Lee for race or sex discrimination. According to the court, Redford had a viable claim that he was treated less favorably than Lee and Machi because of his race or sex.
KTBS argued that it took no action against Machi because she posted her comments on her personal Facebook page, which was set to “private” so that only her Facebook friends could access it. Redford’s Facebook page did not have privacy filters turned on, and he often used his page to promote his work at KTBS. Since KTBS apparently considered comments posted on an employee’s “private” Facebook page to be outside the scope of its social media policy, the court reasoned that KTBS’ stated reason for firing Redford could be pretextual if Redford’s Facebook page was considered “private.” This issue had to be resolved at trial, so the court denied summary judgment to KTBS on the pretext issue.
Redford is a good reminder of the importance of consistent enforcement of social media policies. Even-handed enforcement is made easier by clearly spelling out the scope of the policy. If the policy makes a distinction between “company” and “personal” pages, for example, describe the specifically and consider providing examples. Ambiguity and inconsistency are your worst enemies when it comes to enforcing a social media policy.
Employees can get carried away on social media. US Airways learned this the hard way when its employee responded to a customer complaint on Twitter with an obscene picture of a woman and a toy jet. An apology and deletion of the tweet followed an hour later (an eternity in cyberspace). US Airways claims its employee made an “honest mistake,” and the incident has not spawned a lawsuit, but one can imagine situations in which the malicious online statements of an employee land the employer in legal trouble.
So what’s an employer to do? Thankfully, employers can find some solace in Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act (“CDA”), as a recent Indiana case illustrates. In Miller v. Federal Express Corp., an employee of a non-profit organization, 500 Festival, Inc. (“500 Festival”), and an employee of FedEx separately posted comments on media websites criticizing the plaintiff’s leadership of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, which he ran from 1994 to 2008. Although the employees posted the comments using aliases, the plaintiff traced the comments back to IP addresses assigned to 500 Festival and FedEx and sued them for defamation.
The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the defamation claims against 500 Festival and FedEx based on the Section 230 of the CDA. Congress passed Section 230 to protect companies that serve as intermediaries for online speech from liability for harmful content posted by third parties. A defendant claiming Section 230 immunity must show that: (1) it is a provider or user of an interactive computer service; (2) the plaintiff’s claim treats it as the publisher or speaker of information; and (3) another information at issue was provided by another content provider. Satisfying these three elements immunizes the defendant from suit, although the author of the offensive content could still be held liable.
It’s not difficult to see how Section 230 applies where, for instance, the operator of an online discussion forum is sued for defamation based on a comment posted by a forum member. The operator easily qualifies as an “interactive computer service” and can argue it is not liable for content that someone else published. But could a corporate employer qualify for Section 230 immunity? The court in Miller said yes, siding with precedent set by California and Illinois courts. An employer that provides or enables multiple users on a computer network with Internet access qualifies as a provider of an interactive computer service. Since the defamation claims tried to hold 500 Festival and FedEx liable for allegedly publishing statements made by their employees, Section 230 barred the claims.
Controlling what employees say online can be a daunting task, but it’s nice to know that employers have some protection from legal liability for the “honest” (or not so honest) mistakes of employees.
Rock legend gets to continue lawsuit against HP for selling penis-measuring app named after him – Evans v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 2013 WL 4426359 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 15, 2013)
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Want to test the urban myth that a man’s shoe size is a good measure of his you-know-what? Well, there’s an app for that. Or there was. And the app store that sold it is being sued by the app’s namesake, who isn’t thrilled that his name was associated with a digital ruler for male nethers.
“The Chubby Checker” was an app for estimating the size of a man’s genitals based on his shoe size. Hewlett-Packard’s subsidiary, Palm, Inc., offered the app for sale on its app store. The name of the app is a pun based on “Chubby Checker,” the stage name of rock-and-roll legend Ernest Evans. Evans and the companies who owned registered marks associated with the name “Chubby Checker” sued HP and Palm for trademark infringement and dilution, federal unfair competition, and various state law claims.
The defendants tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the trademark infringement claim. The complaint sufficiently alleged a claim of contributory infringement against the defendants, the court found. Plaintiffs alleged that the “Chubby Checker” name and mark was internationally famous. The defendants also allegedly maintained “primary control” over the use of the mark by setting up a detailed application and approval process for the app. Thus, the court ruled that it was plausible to infer that the defendants knew or could have reasonably concluded that the plaintiffs would not have consented to license the “Chubby Checker” mark for use with the app.
The defendants fared better in their attempt to dismiss the state law claims. The defendants invoked Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes internet service providers from tort liability based on content published by third parties. The plaintiffs did not allege that the defendants created the app. Instead, third parties created the app. Since the defendants were internet service providers rather than content providers, Section 230 required dismissal of the state law claims.
LegalTXTS Lesson: This ruling could be a major setback for app store operators. Essentially, it means an app store could be sued for contributory trademark infringement whenever one of the apps it sells is the subject of trademark litigation. That might make some sense if the app store set up an approval process that includes review of the intellectual property rights used by apps (e.g., see how the app Pic Bubbler fared in the review process for the Apple App Store), but not if such review is missing from the app approval process (Google Play, for example, employs a minimal review process). And you can bet the app store operator is a prime target for litigation if it’s a deep pocket. Like in this case, who would you rather sue—HP, or the creator of The Chubby Checker, which apparently sold a mere 88 copies at 99 cents each?
Court dismisses lawsuit against Match.com arising out of attack of one member by another – Beckman v. Match.com, 2013 WL 2355512 (D. Nev. May 29, 2013)
A court threw out a Match.com subscriber’s lawsuit alleging that the online dating service was responsible for the injuries she sustained from being attacked by a man whom she met through the service. Mary Kay Beckman met Wade Mitchell Ridley through Match.com and dated him briefly before ending the relationship. After the break-up, Ridley sent Beckman threatening and harassing text messages. Several months later, Ridley ambushed Beckman at her residence and repeatedly stabbed and kicked her.
Beckman filed a $10 million lawsuit against Match.com for (1) negligent misrepresentation; (2) deceptive trade practices; (3) negligent failure to warn; (4) negligence; and (5) negligent infliction of emotional distress. The federal district court of Nevada granted Match.com’s motion to dismiss the entire lawsuit.
The court held that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunized Match.com from the negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress claims. The court easily found that Match.com was an “interactive services provider” and not an “information content provider.” The court also found that the theory behind the claims was exactly the reason that CDA immunity exists—to protect publishers against liability based on publication of online content generated by third parties. Beckman alleged that Match.com was negligent in posting Ridley’s profile, which led to her to date Ridley and later be attacked by him. Because the information in the profile originated from Ridley, CDA immunity protected Match.com from liability based on publication of the profile.
The court took a bit more effort to apply the CDA to Beckman’s claims for negligent failure to warn and negligent representation. Although those claims tried to focus on Match.com’s alleged failure to warn Beckman instead of Ridley’s profile, the court concluded that the wrongful conduct alleged in the claims was still traceable to the publication of the profile. There was nothing for Match.com to negligently misrepresent or negligently fail to warn about other than what a Match.com user might find on another user’s profile. Since the negligent failure and negligent misrepresentation claims were just another way of holding Match.com liable for information originating with a third party, the CDA barred those claims.
The court also found reasons to dismiss the negligence-based claims other than the CDA. The negligence claim failed because no special relationship exists between a provider of online dating services and its subscribers, and in the absence of a special relationship, Match.com owed no duty to its subscriber. The emotional distress claim could not survive because, according to the court, posting an online dating profile did not rise to the level of “extreme and outrageous” conduct required to recover for emotional distress. Finally, Beckman did not satisfy a heightened pleading standard that applied to the negligent misrepresentation claim.
The deceptive trade practices claim, which Beckman brought under the Federal Trade Commission Act, was dismissed because there is no private right of action to enforce the Act. Beckman argued that the claim alleged that Match.com was negligence per se for violating the Act, but the court found that she did not plead such a claim.
Google acted as a “publisher” for CDA purposes for including third-party content in search results — Mmubango v. Google, Inc., 2013 WL 664231 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 22, 2013)
Google successfully obtained dismissal of a defamation lawsuit filed by a person (Mmubango) who found derogatory comments about him posted online. Mmubango discovered anonymous statements about himself on the “Wikiscams” website. Mmubango asked Google to remove the statements from its search engine and to give him information about the poster of the comments. Google refused.
Mmubango sued Google and others for defamation, and Google defended by moving to dismiss the claim based on Communications Decency Act (CDA) immunity. The federal district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania agreed that Google met the requirements for CDA immunity. First, Google is an interactive computer service provider. Second, Google did not author the allegedly defamatory content, but instead, was provided with it by another information content provider (i.e., Wikiscams). The defamation claim alleged that Google was liable for storing and broadcasting the derogatory comments about Mmubango. Third, Mmubango was seeking to treat Google as the publisher of third-party statements. Deciding whether to provide access to third-party content or, alternatively, to delete the content is an act of publishing. Under section 230 of the CDA, Google could not be held liable for defamation based on its decision to publish a third party’s statements. The court dismissed Google from the case.