The Risk of Fishing for Support in an Employee Discipline Matter

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn December 18, 2013In: Social Media in the Workplace

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Ah, Facebook. I wonder, sometimes, what I’d write about it Facebook hadn’t made its way into the workplace. There’s another recent decision involving an employee’s misuse of Facebook and the consequences of his decision.

The facts of the case—as opposed to the legal analysis—are what captivated me.  They offer an excellent example of the problems that arise when employees vent their frustrations on social-media sites, such as Facebook.

The plaintiff was employed as an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.  His employment was at-will and his contract was subject to non-renewal “for any reason.”

In 2010, the plaintiff was teaching an online course that included a “chat component.”  This enabled students to type comments and questions in a dialogue format.  During one of these chats, the plaintiff was logged out, so, to those students who were still logged in, it appeared that he was not viewing the the discussion.  But, alas, he was.

During one of these chats, a student made disparaging comments about the plaintiff, apparently not realizing that he was still online and could view the comments.  After the chat ended, the same student sent an email to an administrator, complaining about the quality of the plaintiff’s instruction. 

The next day, the plaintiff told a graduate assistant about the student’s comments made during the chat.  The assistant, apparently concerned with the way the plaintiff responded to the comments, reported the matter to the plaintiff’s direct supervisor, who, in turn, reported it to her supervisor.  The decision was made to remove the plaintiff from campus until the matter could be further investigated.  As a result, the plaintiff was placed on paid administrative leave.

While on leave, the plaintiff sent messages to students and others via email and Facebook requesting that they provide support for him in his dispute with administration.  The plaintiff also posted on Facebook the letter placing him on administrative leave, as well as the written statement of the graduate assistant, which had been obtained during the course of the investigation.

At the conclusion of the investigation, the plaintiff’s contract was not renewed.  In part, the decision was based on the plaintiff’s Facebook campaign initiative to get students’ support.  The plaintiff brought a variety of constitutional claims contesting the non-renewal decision. 

The court dismissed the claims but made specific note of the Facebook posts.  The court noted the disruptive nature of the posts.  The court also pointed out that the plaintiff “understood that a Facebook friend could forward his posts to anyone.”  If I were to summarize the lesson to be learned, as indicated by the court, they’d be as follows:

If you take your case to the streets and try to rally support, understand that you may lose  and be prepared to accept the loss.

To the victor goes the spoils.

Klinger v. Univ. of S. Miss., No. 12-150-KS-MTP, 2013 U.S. Dis. LEXIS 171515 (S.D. Miss. Dec. 5, 2013).

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