Facebook Threats Constitute Legitimate Grounds for Termination

Earlier this week, I wrote about the issue of threats made via Facebook constitute constitutionally protected speech.  Today’s post also is about threats made via Facebook but in the context of the workplace.  The case, decided by the Court of Appeals of Ohio, is timed perfectly for my road trip tomorrow to Ohio. social media letterpress_3

In Ames v. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction, an employee, a Senior Parole Officer, was sent for an independent medical exam after she posted a Facebook comment that her employer believed to be a threat.  The comment was in reference to shooting parolees.  The employee claimed that the comment was a joke.  The psychologist who conducted the exam cleared her to return to work, finding no evidence of depression, anxiety, or mood disturbance.

A few months later, the employer received an “anonymous” complaint that the employee was using her state-issued computer for non-work purposes.  It turned out that the complaint actually was made by the new partner of the employee’s ex-girlfriend.  The new partner, of course, was a co-worker. There was an investigation and the employee was issued a written reprimand.

A few months later, the co-worker (partner of employee’s ex), files an incident report alleging that the employee had sent a threatening text message to the co-worker and the ex.  A few weeks later, the employee filed an incident report against the co-worker, alleging that the co-worker had used a state computer for, you guessed it, non-work-related purposes. An investigation was begun.

Days later, the co-worker notified the employer that the ex had filed for an order of protection against the employee.  In the motion, the ex claimed that, two years earlier, the employee had held a gun to her head.  The employee denied that any such incident had occurred.

In any event, the employer sent the employee off for a second IME, this time to discover whether she had a “propensity for violence.”  Now, I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that there’s no widely accepted methodology for determining whether a person has a “propensity for violence.”  Apparently, the psychologist who conducted the IME had similar doubts and gave an inconclusive report, failing to address whether the employee had any such “propensity.”  So the employer sent her off for a third IME, this time specifically asking the examiner to make such a conclusion.

The examiner declined to make such a finding, explaining that there is (as I believe I may have mentioned) no reliable way to make such a determination.  Nevertheless, a few months later, the employee posted a threatening message on Yahoo! Messenger to the ex.  She denied sending the message but resisted the employer’s attempts to determine if the account had been hacked.  As a result, she was terminated for the threat and for failing to cooperate in an investigation.

The employee sued under the disabilities laws, claiming she’d really been terminated because the employer perceived her to be disabled.  The employee lost, appealed, and lost again.

So, what are the lessons to be learned here?  Oh, my, there are so many.  Too many to discuss in full so I’ll give you the redux in bullet points:

1.  Love triangles in the workplace usually end badly.

2.  Threats of violence made via Facebook can serve as grounds for discipline.

3.  Failure to cooperate in an investigation constitutes grounds for discipline.

Ames v. Ohio Dep’t of Rehab. & Correction, 2014-Ohio-4774 (Oct. 28, 2014).

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