Firing of Employee For Posting Profanity-Laced Facebook Comments Ruled Illegal

Posted by on Jun 22, 2017 in Employment and Labor, Social Media

Social media seems to be a favorite forum for employees to complain about their workplace.  Firing employees for posting work-related social media messages can land an employer in trouble.  But is management absolutely forbidden from firing employees for making offensive comments on social media?  Is there a line employees may not cross?  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals took up this question recently in NLRB v. Pier Sixty, LLC, 855 F.3d 115 (2d Cir. 2017).

The Facebook Firing

In early 2011, New York catering company Pier Sixty was in the middle of a tense organizing campaign that included management threatening employees who might participate in union activities.  Two days before the unionization vote, Hernan Perez was working as a server at a Pier Sixty Venue.  His supervisor, Robert McSweeney, gave him directions in a harsh tone.  On his next work break, Perez posted this message on his Facebook page:

Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER FUCKER don’t know how to talk to people! ! ! ! ! ! Fuck his mother and his entire fucking family! ! ! ! What a LOSER! ! ! ! Vote YES for the UNION! ! ! ! ! ! !

Perez knew that his Facebook friends, including ten coworkers, could see the post, although he allegedly thought his Facebook page was private.  Perez removed the post three days later, but not before it came to management’s attention.  Perez was fired after an investigation.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided that Pier Sixty unlawfully terminated Perez in retaliation for “protected, concerted activities.”  Pier Sixty appealed to the Second Circuit and the NLRB filed an application for enforcement of its decision.

Evolving Standards of Whether Obscene Comments Lose Protection

Employees have the right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection” under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  But if an employee’s actions lose NLRA protection if they are “so opprobrious and egregious as to render him or her ‘unfit for further service.’”  See Atlantic Steel Co., 245 NLRB 814 (1979).  Pier Sixty argued that Perez engaged in “opprobrious” conduct by posting obscenities on Facebook.

The Second Circuit noted that the test for opprobrious conduct was unsettled.  The NLRB traditionally used the Atlantic Steel four-factor test that considers the location and subject matter of the discussion, the nature of the employee’s outburst, and if the outburst was provoked by an employer’s unfair labor practice.  But in 2012, the NLRB began using a “totality of the circumstances” test in social media cases to address the unique context of social media and allay concerns that the Atlantic Steel test did not adequately consider employers’ interests.

Second Circuit Sidesteps Review of NLRB’s New Test

Without addressing the validity of the “totality of the circumstances” test, the Second Circuit found “substantial evidence” that Perez’s comments were not so egregious as to lose NLRA protection.  Perez’s message, though vulgar, included workplace concerns and was part of a “tense debate over managerial mistreatment in the period before the representation election.”  Pier Sixty also did not previously discipline employees for widespread profanity in the workplace.  Finally, Perez’s comments were not made in the immediate presence of customers and did not disrupt the catering event.  Despite deciding that Perez’s conduct was not “opprobrious,” the court noted that the case sat “at the outer-bounds of protected, union-related comments” and reminded the NLRB to develop a test giving weight to employers’ legitimate disciplinary interests in preventing employee outbursts in the presence of customers.

Takeaways

Pier Sixty teaches that an employee may not be fired simply for making profanity-laced comments on social media if the comments are related to the workplace.  The fact that the comments are accessible to members of the public, including customers, is not determinative.  So at what point do an employees’ obscene comments lose protection?  That remains an open question after Pier Sixty, but the court’s comments inspire hope that the NLRB will craft a more employer-friendly standard in the future.

 

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NLRB Strikes Down Selective Enforcement of Work Email Policy

Posted by on Apr 21, 2014 in Employment and Labor

Birth announcements. Girl Scout cookies fundraisers. Leftovers in the company lounge. We’ve all probably received an email at work on these or similar subjects. It’s uncommon for an employee be disciplined for sending an email of such nature. But would that limit a company’s ability to act when employees circulate emails on more controversial topics?

This question was raised in a recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision involving the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) affiliated with NASA.  In re California Inst. of Tech. Jet Propulsion Lab, 360 NLRB 63 (Mar. 12, 2014).  Based on a Homeland Security directive, NASA began requiring JPL employees to submit to federal background checks as a condition of continued employment. Twenty-eight JPL employees who believed that the background check process violated their privacy rights filed a federal class action. The case led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that mandatory compliance with the background check process did not violate the right to informational privacy.  See NASA v. Nelson, 131 S. Ct. 746 (2011).

Several of the plaintiffs felt that management did not adequately inform employees about the actual impact of the Supreme Court decision, so they expressed their view of the decision in emails to their colleagues. The emails were sent to several thousand JPL employees using NASA-owned computers and JPL email addresses. After allegedly receiving complaints about the emails, management issued written warnings to the authors of the emails. The warnings alleged that the authors had violated several work policies prohibiting, among other things, “spamming” co-workers; sending unauthorized, non-work-related emails; and implying JPL endorsement of a position on political, social, or legal issues. The authors filed charges with the NLRB claiming that JPL violated their right to engage in concerted protected activity under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB found that JPL employees frequently circulated emails on topics like charity fundraisers and social causes. Such emails technically violated work policies, but there was no evidence of enforcement in those instances. The discipline in this case was thus suspect. Although employees have no legally protected right to use their employer’s computers to engage in protected concerted or union activity, and may be lawfully disciplined for doing so, management may not choose to enforce only work policies involving concerted protected activity.

The decision is not a prompt to start disciplining employees who offer home-baked cookies to co-workers using email. Email can be a convenient tool for building company morale. But the decision does warn against using work policies pretextually to control discussion of work matters. JPL selectively enforced its work policies to silence certain viewpoints on a work-related issue, as highlighted by the fact that JPL supervisors commented on the Supreme Court decision using their work email accounts without being subjected to discipline. Work rules commonly included in an employee manual but inconsistently enforced– like an email use policy – shouldn’t be used as a basis for silencing employees who criticize management or express dissatisfaction with work conditions.

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Court Finds Firing of Teacher for Her Comments on Social Media “Shocking to One’s Sense of Fairness”

Posted by on Jul 2, 2013 in Employment and Labor, Schools, Social Media

A New York court overturns the termination of a public school teacher for posting offensive comments on social mediaRubino 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.

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NLRB Sanctions Employers Who Fire Employees For Online “Protected Concerted Activity”

Posted by on Apr 25, 2013 in Employment and Labor, Social Media

Employers who discipline employees for their social media activity could unwittingly violate protections under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) for employees who engage in “protected concerted activity.”  An employee engages in protected concerted activity when acting together with other employees, or acting alone with the authority of other employees, for the mutual aid or protection of co-workers regarding terms and conditions of employment.  Since social networks by nature connect people, online gripes about work—which could be read by co-workers of the author within the same social network—could constitute protected concerted activity.  Three recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions highlight this risk.

In Hispanics United of Buffalo, Inc., 359 NRLB No. 37 (Dec. 14, 2012), an employee at a domestic violence relief organization posted on Facebook about a co-worker (Cruz-Moore) who threatened to complain about the work habits of other employees to the executive director of the organization.  The employee wrote: “Lydia Cruz, a coworker feels that we don’t help our clients enough . . . .  I about had it!  My fellow coworkers how do u feel?”  Four off-duty employees responded to this post with disagreement over Cruz-Moore’s alleged criticisms.  Cruz-Moore saw these posts, responded to them, and brought them to the attention of the executive director.  The employee who authored the original post and the employees who responded were fired.  Two NLRB members of a three-person panel found the termination to be a violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  The NLRB found the posts to be “concerted” because they had the “clear ‘mutual aid’ objective for preparing coworkers for a group defense to [Cruz-Moore’s] complaints.”   The NLRB also considered the posts “protected” because they related to job performance matters.

In Pier Sixty, LLC, 2013 WL 1702462 (NLRB Div. of Judges Apr. 18, 2013), the service staff of a catering company were in the process of taking a vote on union representation when a staff member (Perez) got upset by what he perceived as harassment by his manager.  During a break, Perez went to the bathroom and posted on Facebook: “Bob is such a NASTY M***** F****R don’t know how to talk to people!!!!!  F**k his mother and his entire f*****g family!!!!  What a LOSER!!!!  Vote YES for the UNION.”  Various co-workers responded to the post.  The company fired Perez after learning about the post.  An administrative law judge of the NLRB held that the employer violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.  The judge found the post to constitute “protected activity” because it was part of an ongoing sequence of events involving employee attempts to protest and remedy what they saw as rude and demeaning treatment by their managers.  The post was also “concerted” because it was activity undertaken on behalf of a union.

In Design Technology Group, LLC d/b/a Bettie Page Clothing, 359 NLRB No. 96 (Apr. 19, 2013), employees of a clothing store repeatedly but unsuccessfully attempted to persuade their employer to close the store earlier so that they wouldn’t have to walk through an unsafe neighborhood at night.  The employees posted Facebook messages lamenting the denial of their request and criticizing their manager.  In one message, an employee said she would bring in a book on workers’ rights to shed light on their employer’s labor law violations.  Another employee saw the messages and sent them to the HR director, who in turn forwarded them to the store owner.  The owner fired the employees who posted the messages, allegedly for insubordination.   A NLRB administrative law judge found the terminations unlawful because the messages were a continuation of an effort to address concerns about work safety (i.e., leaving work late at night in an unsafe neighborhood) and thus constituted protected concerted activity.

LegalTXTS Lesson:  What should employers learn from these decisions?  To avoid violating Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, employers might consider the following before disciplining employees based on their social media activity:

  • Check whether the employee’s post attracted or solicited a response from co-workers.  The interactive nature of social networking means that communications via social media are often “concerted.”
  • Calls for co-workers to take action likely constitute “protected” activity.
  • Complaints about work or co-workers—even if vulgar—can be considered “protected” activity.
  • Messages posted outside of the workplace or work hours can still be considered protected concerted activity.
  • Be especially sensitive to messages that reference collective bargaining activity or labor requirements.  Those are red flags indicating the need to exercise caution.
  • Often, social media is not the initial venue for airing work-related complaints.  Investigate whether the complaints voiced online were previously brought to the attention of the employer.  If they were, the online messages are more likely to be found to be part of a series of protected activity.
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HR Hero Article on Internet Firings

Posted by on Feb 15, 2013 in Employment and Labor, Social Media

Check out the article on Internet firings posted on HR Hero’s “Technology for HR” blog.  The article talks about the firing of the Applebee’s waitress who snapped a picture of a receipt on which the customer,  a pastor, wrote: “I give God 10%  Why do you get 18?”  and posted it on Reddit.  I was happy to provide commentary for the article on Applebee’s social media policy and suggest tips for employers dealing with embarrassing Internet activity of employees like the Applebee’s incident.

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