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 Advice Memorandum Provides Guidance on How to Revise an Illegal Social Media Policy

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

On January 1, 2017, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Office of the General Counsel released an advice memorandum (dated September 22, 2016) reviewing the social media policy in Northwestern University’s revised Football Handbook.  The memorandum contains valuable guidance in an area full of uncertainty, as the NLRB has struck down seemingly common sense social media policies because of their potential to chill employees’ rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to engage in “concerted protected activities.”  Section 8 of the NLRA prohibits employees from restraining employees from exercising their Section 7 rights.

According to the memorandum, Northwestern voluntarily revised its Football Handbook after receiving a charge alleging that the handbook violated the NLRA.  The advice memorandum reviewed the revised handbook for compliance with the NLRA.  Assuming for the purpose of the review that Northwestern’s football players are “employees” under the NLRA, the advice memorandum concluded that the revised social media policy passed muster.

The memorandum reprinted the original language of the policies along with the revisions in redline, as follows (deleted language in strikeout and new language in bold):

[W]e are concerned about… protecting the image and reputation of Northwestern University and its Department of Athletics and Recreation. . . .

Publicly posted information on social networking websites can be seen may be regularly monitored by any person with a smart phone or internet access, including individuals a number of sources within Northwestern University (e.g., Athletics Department, Student Affairs, University Police). . . .

Northwestern student-athletes should be very careful when using online social networking sites and keep in mind that sanctions may be imposed if these sites are used improperly or depict inappropriate, embarrassing harassing, unlawful or dangerous behaviors such as full or partial nudity (of yourself or another), sex, racial or sexual epithets, underage drinking, drugs, weapons or firearms, hazing, harassment, unlawful activity or any content that violates Northwestern University, Athletics Department or student-athlete codes of conduct and/or state or federal laws.

….

Do not post any information, photos or other items online that contain full or partial nudity (of yourself or another), sex, racial or sexual epithets, underage drinking, drugs, weapons or firearms, hazing, harassment or unlawful activity could embarrass you, your family, your team, the Athletics Department or Northwestern University.

Although the advice memorandum did not elaborate on why the original policy could violate the NLRA while revised policy would not, it provides important clues on drafting lawful social media policies.  The modifications to the policy generally substituted vague terms like “inappropriate” and “embarrassing” with descriptions of the content that the policy prohibits.  For example, the revised policy specifically prohibits social media posts depicting “nudity,” “racial or sexual epithets,” and “underage drinking,” among other things.  The revised policy also eliminated protection of the employer’s “image and reputation” from the description of the policy’s purpose.  In previous guidance, the NLRB has determined that employers may not require employees to refrain from engaging in activity that generally damages the employer’s reputation because that could be construed to prohibit “concerted protected activity” such as criticism of work conditions or compensation policies.

The recent advice memorandum reinforces the need to be precise when drafting a social media policy.  Experienced counsel can assist in identifying the types of social media content that the NLRB has allowed employers to prohibit employees from posting.

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Six Years Later, NLRB’s Social Media Guidelines Still Confound

Posted by on Sep 21, 2016 in Employment and Labor, Social Media

youre-fired

Six years ago, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) became one of the first governmental agencies to regulate social media use in the workplace.  In 2010 and 2011, the NLRB issued a series of guidance memos and decisions sketching the contours of acceptable limitations on social media conduct of employees.  Largely aimed at protecting the right of employees to act together to improve their working conditions and terms of employment – what Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) calls “protected concerted activity” – the NLRB’s social media guidelines can be downright frustrating for employers.  Conduct that might seem proper to ban, like making defamatory comments about management personnel or discussing confidential company information online, could be protected under Section 7, according to the NLRB.

Little has changed after six years.  Three recent cases show that the NLRB is still as confounding as ever when it comes to regulating social media work rules.

  • In Chipotle Services LLC d/b/a Chipotle Mexican Grill, Case No. 04-CA-147314 (Aug. 18, 2016) the NLRA struck down parts of Chipotle’s “Social Media Code of Conduct” that prohibited employees from posting “incomplete, confidential or inaccurate information” and making “disparaging, false, or misleading statements” about Chipotle, other employees, suppliers, customers, competitors, or investors. Chipotle fired an employee for violating this rule by posting tweets that criticized Chipotle’s hourly wage.  The NLRA concluded that the rule was unlawful because it could reasonably chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.
  • In G4S Secure Solutions (USA) Inc., 364 NLRB No. 92 (Aug. 26, 2016), the NLRB ruled that a private security company’s policies concerning confidentiality and social media postings violated Section 7 rights of employees.  The confidentiality policy prohibited employees from making “public statements about the activities or policies of the company[.]”  The NLRB found this rule overbroad because it could be understood to prohibit discussion of rules concerning employee conduct, which is a term and condition of employment.  Also unlawful was a social media policy banning social media postings of pictures of employees dressed in their security guard uniforms.  The NLRB rejected the company’s argument that the policy protected a legitimate privacy interest.
  • In Laborers’ International Union of North America and Mantell, Case No. 03-CB-136940 (NLRB Sept. 7, 2016), the NLRB found that a union violated the Section 7 of the NLRA by disciplining a union member who criticized union leadership for giving a journeyman’s book to a mayoral candidate who had not gone through the union’s 5-year apprenticeship program.  The comments were posted on a Facebook page accessible to approximately 4,000 people, some of whom were union members.  Even though certain aspects of his comments were false, they did not lose protection because they were not “knowingly and maliciously untrue.”

Does your organization have similar social media rules concerning anti-disparagement, confidentiality, or privacy?  If so, it might be time to freshen up your social media policy with the help of experienced counsel.

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NLRB Presses the Stop Button on Whole Foods’ “No Recordings” Rule

Posted by on Jan 2, 2016 in Employment and Labor

Anyone with a smartphone has the ability to record sound and video. This can raise privacy concerns as well as create a record of events without others’ knowledge. For these reasons, companies may prohibit employees from making workplace recordings.   If your employee handbook contains such a rule, consider giving it a second look because the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently struck down “no recording” rules implemented by Whole Foods.

A three-member panel of the NLRB reviewed two workplace policies: one prohibiting employees from making audio or video recordings of company meetings without prior management approval or the consent of all parties to the conversation, and the second prohibiting employees from recording conversations without prior management approval. The stated purpose of both policies was to foster open and honest communication, a free exchange of ideas, and an atmosphere of trust. Allowing employees to record conversations in secret, the policies explained, would deter employees from holding frank discussions about sensitive and confidential matters in the workplace.

The NLRB saw the “no recording” rules differently. In a NLRB Whole Foods Decision, the NLRB ordered Whole Foods to rescind the rules because they effectively violate employees’ rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act to engage in protected concerted activity. A majority of the NLRB panel expressed concern that the rule would prohibit employees from engaging in protected activities such as “recording images of protected picketing, documenting unsafe workplace equipment or hazardous working conditions, documenting and publicizing discussions about terms and conditions of employment, documenting inconsistent application of employer rules, or recording evidence to preserve it for later use in administrative or judicial forums in employment-related actions.” The majority noted that covert recordings were an essential element in vindicating Section 7 rights in many cases. The employer’s interest in encouraging open and frank communications did not override the Section 7 rights of employees.

One member of the NLRB panel dissented, arguing that employees would reasonably interpret the “no recording” rules to protect, not prohibit, Section 7 activity. However, the majority found the blanket prohibition on all recordings troubling. A witness for Whole Foods testified that the rules would apply “regardless of the activity that the employee is engaged in, whether protected concerted activity or not.” According to the majority, employees would reasonably read the broad and unqualified language of the rules to prohibit recording Section 7 activity.

The decision suggests that a “no recordings” rule that exempts protected activities could be valid. But where to draw the line between protected and unprotected activities remains an open question. Given the NLRB’s tendency to construe the scope of Section 7 activities broadly, a wide range of business discussions could be considered to involve protected activity and thus exempt from a “no recordings” rule. This would make the rule virtually useless. The NLRB’s decision may not be last word on recording rules, however, as Whole Foods has appealed the decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

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NLRB Rules Use of GPS Tracking to Investigate Employee Misconduct Not a Violation of Labor Laws

Posted by on Nov 23, 2015 in Employment and Labor, Privacy

A recent National Labor Relations Board Shore Point Advisory Letter gives a bit of good news to employers who want to use modern monitoring technology to monitor employees that they suspect are breaking work rules. On November 2, 2015, the NLRB concluded that an alcoholic beverage distributor (Shore Point), did not violate labor laws by failing to negotiate with its employees’ union before installing a GPS tracking device on an employee’s company truck. Shore Point suspected that the employee was stealing time while on his work routes. Shore Point’s collective bargaining agreement contains rules against stealing time.

Shore Point hired a private investigator to follow the employee to collect evidence for disciplinary purposes, an established practice the union had not objected to in the past. The investigator placed a GPS tracking device on the employee’s truck to maintain and regain visual contact.  The GPS was only installed on the employee’s vehicle on the days when the investigator was following the employee, and was used as a backup method in case the investigator lost visual sight of the employee and his truck. Based on the investigator’s observations of the employee engaging in misconduct, Shore Point terminated the employee. The union filed a charge alleging that the employer unilaterally engaged in electronic surveillance without bargaining in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB determined that Shore Point did not have an obligation to bargain over the installation and use of the GPS device. Although the use of the device was a mandatory subject of bargaining, it did not amount to a material, substantial, and significant change in the terms and conditions of employment.  Shore Point had an existing practice of using a personal investigator to monitor employees suspected of misconduct. Using a GPS tracking device was just “a mechanical method to assist in the enforcement of an established policy,” and therefore was not a material, substantial, or significant change in policy.  The NLRB also noted that the GPS device only added to information that the private investigator had collected through personal observation, did not increase the likelihood of employee discipline, and did not provide an independent basis for termination.

At least two lessons can be learned from this case. First, when crafting employee work rules subject to bargaining, build in flexibility to allow for use of technological advances in enforcement methods. Second, disciplinary action against an employee should be supported with various types of evidence if possible. Just relying on evidence collected with a controversial or untested method is risky because if the use of the method is determined unlawful, the basis for the disciplinary action disappears.

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