I’ll be speaking on December 18 at a half-day seminar on “Ethics and Social Media: What Attorneys Need to Know.” The seminar is good for 3.0 hours of Hawaii MCPE credit and 3.0 hours of California CLE credit. You might be interested in attending if you have questions like:
- What are the rules on legal advertising on social media?
- Should lawyers even set up a social media account?
- Who should I friend on Facebook?
- What are the do’s and don’ts of tweeting?
For more information or to register, click here.
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
Employer sues ex-employee for not updating his LinkedIn profile — Jefferson Audio Visual Systems, Inc. v. Light, 2013 WL 1947625 (W.D. Ky. May 9, 2013).
What would you do if your ex-employee told everybody he still works for you? One company’s response was to sue. In the first case of its kind, the company decided to sue its former employee for fraud for not updating his LinkedIn profile.
Jefferson Audio Visual Systems, Inc. (JAVS) fired its sales director, Gunnar Light, after he mishandled a potentially lucrative deal and made defamatory statements about JAVS to a prospective customer. Shortly afterwards, JAVS filed a lawsuit against Light alleging various claims, including fraud. JAVS argued that Light was fraudulent in failing to update his LinkedIn profile to reflect that he was no longer a JAVS employee. A Kentucky federal court dismissed the fraud claim because JAVS failed to show that it was defrauded by Light’s LinkedIn profile. At most, JAVS alleged that the profile tricked others. Under Kentucky law, a party claiming fraud must itself have relied on the fraudulent statements.
LegalTXTS Lesson: JAVS’ actions against its ex-employee might have been rather extreme, but the case is a reminder that ex-employees can leave behind an electronic wake that is damaging. Because computer technology is an integral part of work life, management needs to be intentional in disengaging ex-employees from the electronic systems and online persona of the organization. Each organization must determine for itself what measures for dealing with such post-termination issues are feasible, effective, and consistent with its objectives, but here are some suggestions:
1. Promptly update the organization’s website, social media profiles, and any other official online presence to reflect that the former employee no longer works for the organization.
2. Specify who owns Internet accounts handled by the ex-employee for the organization’s benefit and the information stored in the accounts. This includes social media accounts and cloud storage accounts (e.g., DropBox, Google Drive, SkyDrive) to the extent they contain proprietary data. As part of this measure, be sure to obtain the information needed to access the accounts, including any updates to login credentials.
3. Restrict the amount of access to which former employees, as well as current employees whose departure is imminent, have to workstations, databases, and networks of the organization. Limiting access helps to prevent theft of trade secrets and proprietary information. Many CFAA lawsuits have been spawned by a failure to take this precaution.
4. Check if the employee left behind anything that would enable him or her to gain unauthorized access to company systems, like malware, viruses, or “back doors.”
5. Enable systems that allow of erasure of the organization’s data from electronic devices used by the ex-employee to remotely access the work network, such as smartphones, laptops, and tablet computers.
6. Establish guidelines on employee use of the company’s intellectual property on personal internet profiles (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), including trademarks and trade names.
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.
Court finds that Coyote president/founder’s blog post and director of operation’s Facebook status update could qualify as “adverse action” against employees for purposes of FLSA retaliation claims–Stewart v. CUS Nashville, LLC, 2013 WL 456482 (M.D.Tenn. Feb. 6, 2013)
We’ve seen cases where employees were disciplined or fired for venting online (see posts here and here). But what about when the employer does the venting? That can create legal problems as well.
Employees of different bars in the well-known Coyote Ugly Saloon franchise filed a class action against corporate entities related to the franchise and Coyote Ugly’s president and founder, Liliana Lovell. The lawsuit claimed violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. One of the plaintiffs (Stewart), claims that her employer retaliated against her shortly after the lawsuit was filed. The alleged retaliation came in the form of this entry on Lovell’s “Lil Spills” blog, which appears on Coyote Ugly’s website:
“By the way Lil, you should be getting served with a lawsuit. No worries just sign for it”. This particular case will end up pissing me off cause it is coming from someone we terminated for theft. I have to believe in my heart that somewhere down the road, bad people end up facing bad circumstances!
I have been reading the basics of Buddhism and am going to a class on Monday. The Buddhist way would be to find beauty in the situation and release anger knowing that peace will come. Obviously , I am still a very new Buddhist cause my thoughts are ” fuck that bitch”. Let me do my breathing exercises and see if any of my thoughts change. Lol
Stewart claimed that the entry falsely accused of her theft.
A second employee (Stone), claimed that Coyote Ugly’s Director of Operations (Huckaby) made the following post to his Facebook page: “Dear God, please don’t let me kill the girl that is suing me .… that is all …..” Huckaby was intoxicated when he made this post. According to Stone, Huckaby was sitting across the bar from her when he made the post. Stone, who at the time was Facebook friends with Huckaby, saw the post on her phone almost an hour later, but the post was removed the next day. Huckaby did not remember making or removing the Facebook post.
Stone further claimed that Huckaby made retaliatory comments the next night after learning that a customer threatened to sue after falling down some stairs. Huckaby allegedly said: “Why does everyone sue? I’m tired of all these bi***es taking their issues out on our company. They’re f***ing idiots.” Huckaby made the statements while Stone was approximately two feet away. Stone quit her job the next day.
The defendants moved for summary judgment on the two individual retaliation claims. One of the issues relating to Stewart’s claim was whether the Lil Spills blog entry was an “adverse action.” A plaintiff claiming retaliation “must show that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action material adverse, which in this context means it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe. Ry. V. White, 548 U.S. 53, 67 (2006). Applying that standard, the court found that a blog entry written by the employer’s founder and president accusing an employee of theft could constitute an adverse action. A jury could find that the blog entry would have likely dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a FLSA claim. Because genuine issues of material fact existed, the court denied summary judgment on Stewart’s retaliation claim.
Similarly, factual issues precluded summary judgment on Stone’s retaliation claim. The court found that a reasonable person could find that Huckaby’s Facebook post was directed at Stone given that he knew she had joined the lawsuit and had made the post while seated across from her at the bar. The Facebook post, together with the comments Huckaby made the following night, could be reasonably construed as the employer’s official hostility toward employees who bring lawsuits against it. The court found that a reasonable person in Stone’s situation would have felt compelled to resign. On the flip side, the court also denied Stone’s motion for summary judgment on the retaliation claim because there were factual disputes over Huckaby’s state of mind. There was no evidence that Huckaby mentioned the lawsuit or Stone’s name while making either of the statements, and it was undisputed that he was drinking in both instances.
LegalTXTS Lesson: Authenticity can be an important part of a company’s brand or social engagement strategy, but sometimes a company’s self-expression can go too far. As this case illustrates, even stray remarks can have legal consequences. Like employees, employers need to exercise good judgment when posting content online. Complaining about employees on the Internet rarely constitutes good judgment. This is especially true if managers are connected to their subordinates on the same social network and therefore share content with each other.