Employers, If You Fire for a Facebook Post, Please, Get a Copy of It First!

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn May 20, 2014In: Public Sector, Social Media in the Workplace

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The plaintiff is a Michigan lawyer.  She was placed on the assignment list of the County Probate Court and, as a result, received several case assignments.  She made a comment on Facebook about what she believed to be inefficiency at the Clerk’s Office at the Court in a particular case she was handling. She tagged two people in the post, mistakenly identifying them as employees at the Clerk’s Office.  how_to_permanently_delete_or_deactivate_facebook_account

One of the two employees brought the post to the attention of the Court administrator.  The administrator never saw the actual post.  Two days later, the Court administrator notified the plaintiff by letter that she had been removed from the assignment list because of her comment on Facebook. 

The plaintiff attempted to get back on the list multiple times but was unsuccessful and filed suit.  The suit alleges several constitutional claims, all but one of which were dismissed by the court.  The claim that survived is a claim for unlawful retaliation in violation of the First Amendment—i.e., a free-speech claim.

The court declined to dismiss the free-speech claim for several reasons.  First, it held that the plaintiff was speaking as a private citizen—not as an employee—when she made the post.  I tend not to agree but, well, we can’t all be right all of the time. 

Second, the court held that she was speaking on a matter of public concern.  This finding was based, in large part, on the fact that no one could produce a copy of the actual post and, therefore, the court was left to decide the nature of the speech without ever having seen the speech.  Yikes. 

Why, you ask, did no one produce the post?  According to the opinion, because the plaintiff deleted it.  Hmmm.  That doesn’t seem like exactly the right outcome, does it?  Because the plaintiff destroyed evidence, she gets the benefit of the doubt?

Maybe not.  But it does teach an important lesson to employers.  If you are going to discipline or terminate an employee due to something the employee posted on Facebook—get and keep a copy of the actual post if at all possible. Taking someone’s word for what the post says doesn’t mean that the termination is unlawful but it does likely mean that you’re going to have to work a lot harder to prove your case.

Butler v. Edwards-Brown, No. 13-13738, 2014 U.s. Dist. LEXIS 62032 (E.D. Mich. May 5, 2014).

The Role of a Distracted-Driving Policy in a BYOD Workplace

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn May 12, 2014In: Policies

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“Risks and Rewards of a BYOD Workplace” was the subject of one of my presentations at our annual employment-law seminar last week.  [FN1]  More and more employers are adopting BYOD policies.  BYOD, which stands for “Bring Your Own Device,” eliminates the need for employers to give employees a smartphone or tablet for work-related purposes.  Instead, the employee brings his or her own device and uses it for both work and personal purposes.  text message on cellphoneThe State of Delaware was an early adopter in the BYOD arena.

Although BYOD policies are popular, they are not risk free.  One (of the many) dangers of employee use of mobile technology is the potential for distracted driving.  Regardless of who owns the device, employers may face liability for an employee who harms a third party due to the employee’s negligent use of a smartphone while driving. 

Many cities and municipalities now prohibit drivers from operating a vehicle and using a cellphone unless they use hands-free device.  Although this is a great start, it may not be enough to prevent liability for employers.  The U.S. Department of Labor, for example, takes a very firm stance on this issue, stating:

Employers have a responsibility and legal obligation to have a clear, unequivocal, and enforced policy against texting while driving.

I’m not entirely sure that I would agree with this statement—I don’t know of any “legal obligation” to have a distracted-driving policy.  But I do think that employers should have a distracted-driving policy.

The good news is that the federal government has provided a sample distracted-driving policy for employers to use.  The policy is short and to the point and it makes clear that employees are prohibited from using a hand-held cellphone or smartphone while operating a vehicle. 

If you don’t have a distracted-driving policy, consider whether this sample policy, provided by the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration, isn’t worth implementing.  Even if it’s just a starting point, employers are well advised to have something in place to prevent employees from endangering themselves or others while operating a vehicle.  The NHSTA offers additional resources to employers who want to take further steps to prevent distracted driving by employers. 

And, remember, just because it’s the employee’s own device does not mean that the employer won’t be held liable.  A BYOD workplace is not a defense to a claim of negligence for harm caused by an employee in the course and scope of his or her employment. 

 

[FN1]  Thank you to everyone who attended—it’s always great to see clients and friends in a context that does not involve pending or threatened litigation.

Delaware Joins the Ban-the-Box Bandwagon

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn May 6, 2014In: Background Checks, Hiring, Legislative Update

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Criminal histories and credit scores will soon be an off-limit topic for job applications in Delaware’s public sector.  HB 167 passed the Delaware Senate on May 1, 2014, and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Markell soon.  Criminal Background Checks

As we previously reported, the bill would prohibit public employers and contractors with State agencies from:

inquiring into or considering the criminal record, criminal history, or credit history or score of an applicant before it makes a conditional offer to the applicant.

Once a conditional offer of employment has been made, the employer may perform a background check but, even then, 

may only consider felonies for 10 years from the completion of the sentence, and misdemeanors for 5 years from the completion of the sentence.

The bill would also require employers to "several enumerated factors” (i.e., the EEOC’s factors) when deciding whether to revoke a conditional offer based on the results of a background check.

The scope of the bill is broader than you may suspect.  It would apply not only to public employers (i.e., State government), but also to “contractors with State agencies.”  It does, however, provide for an exception for contractors who are subject to conflicting State or federal laws.  For example, a child-care facility that contracts with the State would not be subject to the new law because it is obligated by other State laws to comply with certain background-screening requirements. 

The trend towards prohibiting employers from inquiring into an applicant’s criminal history or credit score does not appear to be going away any time soon.  Although, for now, only public employers in Delaware will be subject to this ban-the-box law, it may be just a matter of time before the scope is expanded to include private-sector employers, as well. 

See also

Bill Would Limit Use of Criminal Histories for Delaware Employers

Wilmington Joins the Ban-the-Box Bandwagon

Other posts on criminal-history checks for potential employees

Yes, Employers, Words Really Do Matter

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn May 1, 2014In: Discrimination

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It's easy to underestimate the power of words. Many supervisors fail to appreciate the importance of the words used in a performance review or evaluation, corrective action, termination letter, or other employment-related document. But it can go beyond the obvious instances.

In an age-discrimination case, a supervisor had attended a presentation by a contractor who was trying to bid work with the employer. The supervisor wrote in his notes that the type of work would be perfect for "young engineers." What the supervisor meant was that the work being bid was well suited for entry-level engineers, who could gain valuable experience that, often, was quite difficult to find.

You may imagine that the plaintiff's lawyer jumped on the word "young" from the supervisor's notes, using it as an opportunity to make it look like the supervisor preferred young engineers over older ones. An age-based preference such as this would, of course, be unlawful if used in decisions to hire, fire, or assign work. As you also may imagine, it made for an unpleasant deposition of the supervisor--an experience he surely did not forget any time soon.

On the other hand, it also is possible to get far too caught up in the definition or meaning of a particular word. Lawyers are great at this, as this very funny video from the N.Y. Times makes clear.


The lesson to be learned? Words really do matter in every context. Be aware of what you put into writing--generally, less is more and the more specific, the better. But don't play word games when the basics can get the job done.

Documentation in the workplace can be absolutely critical in preventing and defending against claims by employees. It may be time to consider a refresher course about best practices in HR documentation. If so, let us know--we have an excellent training program on this subject.

Employment-Law Legislation In Delaware's General Assembly

Posted by Lauren Moak RussellOn April 23, 2014In: Delaware Specific, Legislative Update

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Employment legislation has been a popular topic for the Delaware General Assembly in recent months. Here are two recently proposed legislation that Delaware employers should keep an eye on.

Employment Protection for the Disabled

The General Assembly has proposed a very simple change to the Delaware Persons with Disabilities Employment Protections Act (DPDEPA), which would change the definition of "employer." More specifically, they have proposed decreasing the threshold for coverage from 15 employees (the same as the Americans with Disabilities Act) to 4 employees (the same as the Delaware Discrimination in Employment Act).

Expanding statutory coverage is always worrisome for employers. However, the proposed change would also provide consistency under Delaware law, which could benefit employers in their decision-making processes. Whatever your business's philosophy, for that small subsection of businesses employing between 4 and 14 individuals, this is something to watch.

The Minimum Wage . . . Again

As many readers know, Delaware will increase its minimum wage--in two waves--resulting in a July 1, 2015 wage of $8.25. Since that legislation was signed by Governor Markell, the General Assembly has drafted another bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. If passed in its current state, the bill would add a third step to the increases already legislated, requiring a jump from $8.25 to $10.10, effective June 1, 2016.

The proposed increase would put Delaware's minimum wage far above the current federal requirement, and nearly in line with San Francisco, California, which has the highest minimum wage in the country ($10.74 per hour, effective January 1, 2014). The change mirrors legislation that President Obama is expected to propose, and which will face stiff opposition from Republicans in Congress. With that in mind, it is unclear whether Delaware's proposed legislation has any chance of passing the General Assembly. But it is certainly an issue that employers should be monitoring.

Bottom Line

Keep in mind that these bills reflect proposed legislation, only. If you believe that your business would be adversely affected, reach out to the General Assembly, or bring these issues to the attention of any advocacy groups to which you belong.

Hurt Feelings Do Not a Lawsuit Make . . . Even on Twitter

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn April 20, 2014In: Social Media in the Workplace

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To establish a claim of defamation, the plaintiff must establish that: (1) the defendants made a statement concerning the plaintiff to a third party; (2) that the statement could damage the plaintiff’s reputation in the community; (3) that the defendant was at fault in making the statement; and (4) that the statement either cause the plaintiff economic loss or is actionable without proof of economic loss.  Defamation via Twitter

There are several possible defenses to a claim of defamation.  Two of the most common are that: (1) the allegedly defamatory statement is true; and (2) that the statement was one of opinion, as opposed to fact.  Thus, if you make a negative statement about someone that is true, there can be no liability for defamation.  Similarly, if you merely comment about your opinion, as opposed to purporting to make a factual statement, there has been no defamation.

Defamation by Twitter is no different.  Comments that are merely expressions of opinion, whether made in person, in the local newspaper’s letter to the editor, or on Twitter, cannot form the basis for a claim of defamation.  A federal court in Massachusetts recently explained this idea in Feld v. Conway.

In Feld, the plaintiff brought a claim for defamation based on the defendant’s tweet that the plaintiff was “f—ing crazy.”  The comment was made in response to a thoroughbred horse that disappeared after it was supposed to have been shipped to a horse farm in New Jersey.  The event was the subject of “great debate” in the thoroughbred race horse community, which included the defendant, Crystal Conway.  The tweet at issue was apparently intended to imply that the plaintiff, Feld, was involved somehow with the horse’s disappearance.

The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the comment was merely opinion and, therefore, could not constitute the basis of a defamation claim.  The court agreed.  Finding that, when viewed in the context of the online discussion regarding the horse’s disappearance, the comment that the plaintiff was “f—ing crazy” “cannot reasonably be understood to state actual facts about plaintiff’s mental state.”  Instead, it was “obviously intended as criticism—that is, as opinion—not as a statement of fact.”  As a result, the defamation claim was dismissed.

So, what’s the lesson from this case?  Primarily, it’s this: don’t go suing over cheap insults.  Comments like the one at issue in the above suit are not comments to be taken seriously.  Does that mean that they are not annoying, insulting, and/or distracting?  No, of course not.  Online attacks, like “real-life” attacks, are not pleasant.  But that does not mean that there is a basis to run out and file suit. 

It is a different world today, when individuals and entities alike must deal with negative online commentary.  But hurt feelings do not a lawsuit make.

Feld v. Conway, No. 13-13122-FDS (D. Mass. Apr. 14, 2014).  [H/T to Jay Yurkiw, of Technology Law Source at Porter Wright].

Is It Time to Reconsider Your Personal Email Policy?

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn April 14, 2014In: Privacy In the Workplace, Privacy Rights of Employees, Social Media in the Workplace

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The Heartbleed Internet-security flaw has compromised the security of an unknown number of web servers.  This is just one story in a string of recent headlines involving the vulnerability of the Internet sites.  But consumers aren’t the only ones affected.  The companies whose websites have been attacked are employers, after all. computer help button

Although data security has become increasingly impossible to ensure, it has also become increasingly critical to employers’ viability.  So employers are looking for ways to mitigate the exponentially increasing risks associated with the Internet.

One option being considered by some employers is blocking employees from their personal, web-based email accounts from the company’s servers.  Companies can install powerful (albeit not impenetrable) spamware that can catch and prevent many Internet-based security threats.  But that spamware works only on emails that come through the Company’s email servers.  Email that is opened through a web-based account, such as GMail or Hotmail is not subject to the company’s protective measures.

Which is precisely why many IT professionals see web-based email accounts as a major security threat.  But what’s an employer to do?  Employers have long been trying to prevent the productivity loss associated with employees’ personal use of the Internet during working time.  But now this effort has become a top priority.

Will employees stop checking their personal email at work if they’re asked nicely?  If they understand the risks?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But it certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to start.  Perhaps your company should consider explaining to its employees exactly why you don’t want them to check their personal email during working time.  Hey, it’s worth a try.

By the way . . .

Data Security is the topic of one of the sessions at this year’s Annual Employment Law Seminar, which is coming up on May 8.  If you haven’t registered, there’s still time.  Just click here to get to the Seminar Registration page.

Management Monday: Quit Oversharing

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn March 30, 2014In: Jerks at Work, Training & Metrics

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Supervisors and their direct reports are not equals.  If you are a supervisor, I advise that you keep this golden rule in mind.  When you are required to communicate a decision to your subordinate, understand that communicating does not mean “explaining.”  Employees do not want to hear the full story behind the decision.  Bosses Oversharing

You are not your employees’ equal.  You are the boss.  And, as the boss, your employees count on you to be the one who holds the ship together.  By over-explaining the reasons for a decision, by seeming too apologetic, you have failed your employees.

This does not mean that you must be aloof and reserved.  But it does mean that you should quit oversharing.  When you try to explain the behind-the-scenes politics, you confuse employees and lead them to believe that there are unanswered questions within the organization.  This can be a costly endeavor.

Employees with doubt emanate their doubt  and doubt is contagious and infectious.  We all have our crosses to bear—supervisors should not share the burden of their own crosses with their subordinates.  Subordinates want their bosses to be in control, to have the answers.

Of course, it’s rare that we, as supervisors, do have all of the answers.  But it is our job, as supervisors, not to reveal this inevitable fact.  Instead, it is our job, as supervisors, to put on the brave face of control and act as if everything is under control.

Sometimes, the “full-disclosure” route is very much the wrong route.  We, as supervisors, fix problems, not merely share the weight of those problems.  Supervisors should keep in mind this mantra the next time desire the need to share the burden of responsibility.  Don’t do it.  Seek advice from your higher ups.  But do not shoulder the burden with your direct subordinate.  Not, that is, if you want to keep your position and any semblance of true authority.

Registration Now Open for Annual Employment Law Seminar

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn March 25, 2014In: Seminars

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The wait is over!  Registration is now open for YCST’s Annual Employment Law Seminar.  This year’s seminar will be held on May 8, 2014, at the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington.   Check out the registration brochure for specific topics, speakers, and schedule.  We hope to see you there!

YCST Emloyment Law Seminar 2014

Story of Delaware Medical Examiner Offers Lesson for Employers

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn March 20, 2014In: Off-Duty Conduct, Policies

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Delaware Chief Medical Examiner Richard T. Callery has made news headlines for his off-duty conduct.  According to The News Journal, Callery is the subject of a criminal investigation relating to his testimony as an expert witness in cases outside of Delaware. 

In short, the claim is that Callery spent a lot of time serving as a paid witness in cases in other States, while neglecting his own duties.  And, to add insult to injury, Callery apparently testified on behalf of the defense in several cases, which, some argue, diminishes his credibility when called to testify in Delaware on behalf of the State.

The lesson to be learned for employers is an important one.  Many employers put limitations on moonlighting by employees.  Such limits may be included in an employment contract or in a personnel handbook. 

The policies vary.  For example, some employers prohibit employees from working in a second job altogether.  Others prohibit only secondary employment in the same field or with the same duties that the employee performs in his or her full-time employment.  And others only prohibit secondary employment that conflicts with the employee’s job duties. 

The State of Delaware, like many employers, does not have such a policy.  But, if it had, it would likely have prohibited Callery from working as an expert witness, even in his off-duty time.  Do you have such a policy?   Should you?

See ME’s side work under criminal investigation, by Jonathan Starkey and Sean O’Sullivan.

Father Learns a Costly Lesson about the Importance of Keeping Promises

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn March 2, 2014In: Social Media in the Workplace

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When considering whether to settle a lawsuit filed by a current or former employee, many of my employer clients have serious doubts about the usefulness of a confidentiality provision. For good reason, employers don’t want the plaintiff to brag about the settlement, thereby encouraging other potential litigants. But, my clients often ask, will the employee really be silenced? Or will the employee just ignore his confidentiality obligation.  via Shutterstock

My answer has a few parts. First, having a confidentiality provision is better than not having one. Second, if the employer learns of a breach, it will, at least, have some options for holding the employee accountable. A story from last week’s news headlines confirms the validity of both points.

Teenager Dana Snay’s father settled an age-discrimination case brought against his former employer, Gulliver Preparatory School, for $80,000. When the girl learned about the settlement, she did what most teenagers would do—she posted about it on Facebook, broadcasting the news to her 1,200 Facebook friends:

Mama and Papa Snay won the case against Gulliver. . . . Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer. SUCK IT.

Snay was just kidding about her European vacation—there was no such vacation in the works. But that’s probably not what bothered Gulliver. When it learned about the post, it refused to tender the settlement payment to Snay’s father, claiming that the post constituted a breach of the confidentiality provision in the settlement agreement.

And a Florida appellate court agrees. The Miami Herald reports that the court found in favor of the employer when Snay’s father sought to compel payment.

So what are the lessons to be learned, dear readers?

First, don’t underestimate the value of a confidentiality provision.

Second, understand your contractual obligations and abide by them strictly. Although many commentators are blaming Snay for her Facebook chattiness, the real fault lies with her father. He promised that he would keep the agreement confidential and he failed to keep his promise. There are consequences to such failures, which is why we spell them out in written contracts.

Chefs and Employment Law: A Valentine's Day Post

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn February 14, 2014In: Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Social Media in the Workplace

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Rumor has it that today is Valentine's Day.  Being married to a chef-restaurateur, Valentine's Day doesn't mean "romantic holiday" to me as much as "very, very busy workday."  And, for that reason, I'll dedicate today's post to the food-service professionals who have a long weekend of work ahead of them.

There are plenty of employment-law topics with a chef or restaurant connection.  Here are a few stories from recent history that come to mind.love heart tattoo art

 Wage-and-Hour Claims

Certainly, restaurants are not the only industry subject to wage-and-hour claims by employees.  But there does seem to have been a recent proliferation of settlements of such claims by businesses owned by famous-name chefs. 

There was the $5.25 million settlement forked out by Chef Mario Batali in March 2012, over allegations that servers' tips had been improperly withheld.  Then there was the January 2014 settlement agreement that Chef Daniel Boulud reached with 88 workers who alleged that their pay had been improperly reduced to account for tips, resulting in payment of overtime at an incorrect rate.  The amount of that settlement is confidential.  And, even more recently, there was the $446,500 settlement agreement reached to resolve the wage claims of 130 servers at two NYC restaurants owned by Chef Wolfgang Puck.

Why are so many wage claims against restaurants?  One reason is the complexity of the laws in this area.  The overtime laws are complicated even in the context of an employee who receives hourly wages only.  But, add to that tip credits, earned tips, and tip pooling, and you've got a virtual maze of complex issues.  The laws are not easy to navigate, especially without guidance from experienced legal counsel.

Social-Media Use and/or Misuse

I'd be remiss, of course, if I didn't give at least one social-media related story, too.  So I will end today's post with a reference to a story about a chef who sent a bunch of not-so-nice tweets from the restaurant's official Twitter account after he'd been fired but before (apparently) the restaurant had changed the password on its account.

Chef Grant Achatz, owner of Alinea in Chicago, landed in hot water when he tweeted about a couple who brought their 8-month old to dinner.  I have a definite opinion on this story.  Having been to Alinea, I feel very comfortable saying that it is not a place where an 8-month old needs to be and, if the 8-month old is crying at the top of his lungs, it's not a place where that baby should be.  The restaurant is very expensive, with meals starting at more than $200 per person.  Reservations are wickedly difficult to get with only 80 seats. 

Most important, though, is the nature of the experience.  Diners fight for reservations and pay big bucks for a reason--the meal is something you remember forever.  The food is so far beyond anything else, it's almost an Alice-In-Wonderland experience.  And to have that be ruined by the guests at the table next to you would be, to me anyway, a crushing disappointment. 

So, there.  That's where I stand on the question.  Chef Achatz's tweet did not offend me or make me adore his restaurant any less. 

Delaware Supreme Court Rules On Admissibility of Facebook Evidence

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn February 12, 2014In: Purely Legal, Social Media in the Workplace

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Employment lawyers know the potential importance of social-media evidence.  I’ve written about numerous cases in which an employee is fired for something he posted on Facebook or other social-media site.  As a general matter, it is not unlawful per se to make an employment decision based on information obtained from a social-networking site.  (Of course, the normal rules apply to social media, too.  Thus, it is unlawful to make an adverse employment decision based on race, religion, gender, etc., regardless of the source of that information.)  Facebook Delaware

So employers may make decisions with social-media “evidence.”  Whether an employer (or other party) has a right to discovery of such evidence during litigation and, if so, how to go about getting it, are two entirely different questions.  (If you’re interested in the answer, here’s a link to an article I wrote last month for the ABA Business Law Section, Discovery and Preservation of Social-Media Evidence). 

Assuming the employer is able to obtain relevant social-media evidence, there is yet another question to be answered—is the evidence admissible in the litigation?  There is a split among courts as to the appropriate standard for admissibility of social-media evidence.  Without oversimplifying it too much, there are two approaches.

First, there is the Texas approach.  That approach requires the proponent of the evidence to make some proffer of authenticity.  In other words, if you want it to come into evidence, you have to make some affirmative showing that it is authentic.  If an employee, for example, denies writing the Facebook post, the employer must offer up some evidence to prove that the evidence is not fraudulent.  In short, under the Texas approach, the proponent does not necessarily need to prove that the social media evidence is authentic, so long as a jury "could reasonably find” the evidence authentic.

Second, there is the Maryland approach.  This approach imposes a higher standard and requires that the proponent of the evidence offer some sort of evidence to show that the posts are authentic.  For example, the proponent could ask the supposed author (i.e., employee) if he or she created the profile or post, search the internet history and hard drive of the purported creator’s computer, or obtain information from the social-networking site itself.  Those courts that have followed the Maryland approach cite to a concern that social-media evidence could be fake or otherwise inauthentic.

The Supreme Court of Delaware has now weighed in on the question.  In Parker v. State of Delaware, decided last week, the state’s highest court adopted the Texas approach.  Specifically, the Court acknowledged that social-media evidence could be falsified but concluded that such evidence should be treated like other forms of evidence.  In other words, where a proponent seeks to introduce social-media evidence, he or she may use “any form of verification” available under the Rules of Evidence, including:

witness testimony, corroborative circumstances, distinctive characteristics, or descriptions and explanations of the technical process or system that generated the evidence in question.

This is, in my opinion, the correct approach.  Social-media evidence should not be made more difficult to authenticate merely because it is “possible” to falsify such evidence.  All evidence can be falsified.  To make the proponent attempt to authenticate a Facebook post by obtaining some kind of verification from Facebook is more than highly impractical—it can be close to impossible since Facebook will not release much, if any, user information absent a criminal subpoena or written consent from the user himself. 

This ruling is an important one—in Delaware and in those jurisdictions where the issue has not yet been decided—and I hope more courts adopt a similar finding. 

Parker v. State of Delaware

, No. 38, 2013 (Del. Feb. 5, 2014).

Demoted for Posting Picture of Confederate Flag on Facebook Page

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn February 6, 2014In: Public Sector, Social Media in the Workplace

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Public-sector employees have First Amendment rights.  But those rights are not without limits.  Employers, too, have rights—in particular, the right to operate an effective and efficient workplace.  Law-enforcement agencies get even more protection because the law recognizes the potential for harm to the department’s reputation and the public’s trust.

And how do all of these rights play out in the context of social media?  Usually in the employer’s favor.  As yet another court opinion shows, police officers have very little latitude when it comes to posting controversial views on their personal Facebook pages. 

The plaintiff in this case, Deputy Chief Rex Duke, worked for the Clayton State University Police Department for eight years with no performance problems.  Shortly after the presidential election in November 2012, the plaintiff posted a picture of a confederate flag to his Facebook page with the comment, “It’s time for the second revolution.”

confederate flag

His Facebook profile and posts were accessible only to his Facebook friends. His profile did not indicate that he was employed by the Police Department or even that he was a police officer. And he took the post down within an hour after posting it.

But that hour was long enough for one of his “friends” to send a screenshot of the post to the local TV station. A story ran that evening on the local news about the post and the plaintiff’s position as Deputy Chief.

The Police Department received anonymous complaints about Plaintiff, prompting an investigation. Following he investigation, the plaintiff was demoted in rank and duties and his pay was cut. The plaintiff sued the Police Department, alleging First Amendment retaliation.

The court upheld the demotion, finding no unlawful imposition by the employer on the plaintiff’s right to free speech.  The basis for the court’s opinion was the potential disruption and/or actual disruption caused by the plaintiff’s posts.  In most circuits, including the 11th Circuit, potential disruption can be sufficient justification for an employer’s interference with an employee’s right to free speech.  Here, the court explained, there was not only potential for disruption caused by the plaintiff’s post but there was actual disruption, as well, as evidenced by the complaints the Department received. 

Are these consequences harsh?  Most definitely.  Remember, the post was not publicly accessible and was up only for an hour.  But that doesn’t mean that the consequences were unlawful. 

Duke v. Hamil, No. 1:13-cv-01663-RWS, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13388 (N.D Ga. Feb. 4, 2014).

Disruptive Facebook Posts Warrant Termination

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn February 3, 2014In: Social Media in the Workplace

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Employers continue to struggle with how to deal with the repercussions of employees’ online commentary.  When an employee is critical of his or her employer, supervisor, or coworkers on Facebook or other social-networking site, the employer’s knee-jerk reaction is often to discipline the employee.

Sometimes, that is the appropriate reaction.  And, sometimes, it is not.  How to tell which reaction is appropriate for any given comment (or series of comments) is the hard part.  I encourage employers to handle the situation as if the comments were made at a bar over the weekend or on the sidelines of a softball game—anywhere outside of the workplace—in an effort to put it into context.  I then counsel them that, if they still think a response of some sort is warranted, to proceed just as they would in any other workplace investigation.  Facebook firing

In other words, it’s best not to get all twisted about the fact that the conduct occurred online or that the comments were made via Facebook. 

A recent case from the 10th Circuit is a great example of that advice applied.  In Debord v. Mercy Healthy System of Kansas, Inc., the employee, Ms. Debord, was criticized by her boss, Mr. Weaver, after which, he tried to give her a hug.  (Hugging is, in my opinion, not all right at work.  I am not alone in this position, either.  See NPR, “A New Rule for the Workplace: ‘Hug Sparingly’”). 

In response, Debord posted—from her workplace computer, during working time—several posts to her Facebook page.  The posts contained comments critical of her employer, of Weaver, and of co-workers.  And some of the posts accused Weaver of unlawful and/or unethical behavior.  Several co-workers saw the posts and reported them to management.

Later that day, Debord was meeting with the company’s HR Director about an unrelated issue when Weaver interrupted and confronted Debord about the posts.  Debord denied having written any such comments.  Weaver brought in his laptop and showed the HR Director the posts on Debord’s Facebook page.  Debord again denied writing them. 

The HR Director met with Debord two days later and she again denied that she had written the posts on her Facebook page.  She finally relented, though, and admitted to her conduct.  She was suspended for one day without pay for acting in a manner inconsistent “with a high degree of personal integrity and professionalism.”  After it was determined that the allegations about Weaver were without any basis, Debord was terminated for “disruption, inappropriate behavior, and dishonesty.”

Debord sued on a number of bases but her termination was upheld by the district court and on appeal.  In other words, the 10th Circuit didn’t take issue with the termination of an employee because her Facebook comments caused disruption in the workplace.  Nor should there be an issue.  The employee used company resources to make false allegations about her boss, which were seen by several of her co-workers.  This conduct, to be sure, resulted in a disruption. 

Where there is an actual disruption caused by an employee’s activities—online or offline, there may be a legitimate basis for discipline.  But not always.  Here, the employee’s comments were elevated to a more serious level because they accused her boss of unlawful and/or unethical conduct.  That is a legitimately serious issue that the employer should address appropriately. 

Debord v. Mercy Health Sys. of Kan., Inc., 737 F.3d 642 (10th Cir. 2013).