Customer service is brutal. Anyone who has had to answer to the public as an essential component of his or her job duties will tell you. It’s positively brutal.

Even the best employees will not be able to satisfy every customer. The reality is that there are some people who just will not be happy no matter what the circumstance. Employees are expected to take it on the chin when a customer overreacts or complains without justification. Defamation Complaint

But what if an employee doesn’t want to just “let it go”? What if the employee feels that she’s been wronged by the customer who berates her or otherwise lashes out. What if the employee feels so wronged that she sues the customer?

That is precisely what happened in Patterson v. Herms. In short, the plaintiff-employee, Jennifer Patterson, was working as an operations agent for Southwest Airlines when the defendant, Natalie Grant-Herms, and her three children attempted to board a flight without a boarding pass. Patterson intervened and a confrontation ensued.

Afterwards, Grant-Herms tweeted her “displeasure” both with the airline and with Patterson. I’ll spare you the specifics but suffice it to say that the tweets were very typical of online rants-incendiary and accusatory half-truths.  (See Venkat Balasubramani’s post at the Technology and Marketing Law Blog for the tweets).

Patterson, acting without a lawyer, filed suit against the unhappy customer, alleging defamation and invasion of privacy. The customer moved to dismiss but her motion was denied. After the close of discovery, the customer tried again with a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court. Patterson appealed.

On appeal, the court affirmed the decision to dismiss the defamation claim but reversed on the invasion-of-privacy claim.  Although the decision may seem alarming, there are several factors that mitigate the impact.  For example, the plaintiff represented herself pro se, which gives her some leniency in her pleadings.

Nevertheless, it is somewhat unnerving to think that a handful of angry tweets will now result in a trial.

But what interests me even more is how Ms. Patterson’s employer must feel about this whole kafuffle. Imagine your employee sues a customer (even a really lousy one) over that customer’s online outburst (even a really outrageous one). Oh, it’s a whole new world, isn’t it?

Patterson v. Herms, No. M2013-00287-COA-R3-CV, 2013 Tenn. App. LEXIS 675 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 8, 2013).

The modern workplace presents a cornucopia of problems thanks to technology.  As much as employers may want to restrict employees from surfing the Internet or checking Facebook during working time, it’s nearly impossible.  After all, employees can just use their personal cellphones to get online.  Add to that reality the fact the growing popularity of BYOD policies. 

So what, you might ask?  Well, one big problem is when an employee uses his personal device or account for company business.  The issue of whether the employer is deemed to have custody or control over an employee’s work-related emails sent to and from the employee’s personal email account. BYOD

In a recent case in Kansas, the court found that the employer did not have possession, custody, or control of employees’ personal emails and therefore did not have to produce the emails in discovery.

But a new case from Puerto Rico takes a different approach.  In P.R. Telephone Co., Inc., v. San Juan Cable LLC, the court found that the company did have a duty to preserve relevant email from the personal email accounts of three of the company’s former officers.  The only facts given by the court as the basis for its decision is that the company “presumably knew” that its officers had used their personal email accounts to manage the company for seven years.

Although the court did not order sanctions, it did find that there was a failure to preserve relevant evidence.  The court denied the motion for sanctions without prejudice, leaving open the possibility that the motion could be renewed if discovery revealed additional evidence of spoliation.

P.R. Telephone Co., Inc., v. San Juan Cable LLC, No. 11-2135 (GAG/BJM), 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146081 (D.P.R. Oct. 7, 2013).

[H/T Bow Tie Law Blog]

The employment-discrimination laws have been expanding since their creation.  And, most of the time, that’s a good thing.  But there are times when I wonder, “Have we gone too far?”  There was the bullying craze a few years ago, when there was a push to make bullying in the workplace unlawful.  Although no decent employer (or human being) thinks that bullying is an endorsable attribute, I am of the opinion that it cannot be regulated via statute.  unpaid intern

And there are the recent cases that have found that individuals who are in the country unlawfully have standing to sue under the wage-payment laws.  I fall on the side of the employees on this one, in case you are wondering.

I defended a harassment case once that was brought by the former employee and her company, which had done business with the employer and which she claimed was subject to retaliation in violation of Title VII.  I tried to explain to my opponent that Title VII-an employment law-applies only to employees.  And, although the statute defines employees very, very broadly, I felt pretty confident that entities cannot be “employed” in this sense of the word.  Thankfully, my prediction proved true in that case and the court dismissed the claims brought on behalf of the company.

But it seems not to be an entirely settled question.  A New York judge ruled last week that an unpaid intern was not an “employee” for the purposes of that State’s anti-discrimination law and, therefore, could not bring a claim of sexual harassment.  According to USA Today, Oregon is the only state in the country to extend sexual-harassment protection to unpaid interns. 

Here’s my entirely unsolicited and subjective opinion on the question.  It seems to me that there are likely other remedies available to an intern who truly has been harassed.  And not just legal remedies, but the remedy that involves you heading for the door and finding somewhere else to give your valuable time to without compensation.

Is it a shame?  Yes, most definitely.  Is it a disgrace to the perpetrator and the employer who continues to employ him?  Absolutely.  But, the lucky break about being an intern is that the point of the experience is to learn, not to support yourself or your family.  And it seems like there are plenty of lessons to be learned in this scenario.  But that does not necessarily mean that there is a lawsuit to be had, either-at least not under the employment-discrimination statutes. 

The EEOC suffered another defeat this week, being ordered again to pay the fees and costs incurred by an employer after the EEOC’s claims turned out to be without merit.  IN EEOC v. Peoplemark, Inc., A split 6th Circuit affirmed an award of approximately $750,000 in fees and costs incurred by a temp agency in defending against one of the EEOC’s criminal-history cases.  The EEOC contended that the temp agency’s company-wide policy barring employment to individuals with felony records had a disparate impact on Black candidates. Attorney's fees

The temp agency, PeopleMark, had offices in five states.  In 2005, a Black candidate, Sherri Scott filed a Charge of Discrimination, alleging that she had been denied employment because she had a felony conviction.  In fact, Scott had two felony convictions and had been released from prison less than a month before she applied for a job with PeopleMark. 

And it gets worse. 

The EEOC “investigated” the Charge, issuing multiple subpoenas and obtaining more than 15,000 pages of documents.  Although the evidence did not seem to support the allegations in the Charge, EEOC disagreed and filed suit.  The suit, asserted on a class of individuals, alleged that the company’s policy prohibited the hiring “of any person with a criminal record,” which disparately impacted Black applicants.

The trouble, though, was that PeopleMark did not have such a policy. Then the EEOC identified approximately 250 individuals it contended to be within the class of aggrieved persons.  Well, as it turned out, PeopleMark had hired 57 of the individuals and some others did not have a criminal background in the first place.

The EEOC eventually agreed to dismiss the case but, as you may imagine, PeopleMark was not exactly satisfied and it sought sanctions in the form of fees and costs incurred in the litigation in the amount of approximately $1.3 million. 

In March 2011, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan granted the motion and awarded approximately $750,000 in fees to PeopleMark.  On appeal, the 6th Cir. affirmed, finding that the employer was entitled to recover fees from the time that the EEOC learned or should have learned that PeopleMark did not have the policy as the EEOC had alleged.

EEOC v. Peoplemark, Inc., No. 11-2582 (6th Cir. Oct. 7, 2013).

See also

EEOC Faces Petition for $5.5m in Fees

W.D. Pa. Finds EEOC Failed to Conciliate

What Does “Good Faith” Mean to the EEOC?

When the EEOC Goes Too Far-Part 2

When the EEOC Goes Too Far

EEOC v. Ruby Tuesday

Another case involving employer access to an employee’s personal email account.  And the bad things that follow.

The plaintiff was an administrative assistant to the Athletic Director of a public school district in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  In her complaint, she alleged that she had reported that the Director and two Assistant Directors had “endangered the health and safety of students” and had “misappropriated funds.”  In other words, she was a whistleblower.  email hacked

Shortly after she made these reports, the Director suspended her and recommended that she be terminated.  She grieved the recommendation. 

Apparently during the grievance process, the plaintiff was contacted by the cyber-crimes division of the Tulsa Police Department, who informed her that her private email account had been hacked. 

She filed suit, alleging that the Director and two Assistant Directors intentionally obtained access to her private emails and used the information that they unlawfully obtained in order to pursue the recommendation to terminate her employment.  She brought several claims, including constitutional claims under the 1st and 4th Amendments, statutory claims under the federal and state wiretapping laws, and state tort claims.  The defendants moved to dismiss.

The opinion addresses several arguments on each claim but there are certain holdings that bear mention here. 

First, the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment claim survived dismissal.  The court found that she had adequately pleaded that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in her personal email account and that the hacking constituted an unlawful search and seizure of her account and/or emails in the account.

Second,  her privacy claim survived for the same reasons.  Basically, the court found that having your private email hacked and then the contents used against you in proceedings to have you terminated from your employment would be a “highly offensive” intrusion to a reasonable person.  This was further supported by the fact that the Tulsa Police Department considered her to be a victim of cyber-crime.

Third, the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress survived, again, largely for the same reason.  The court concluded that the conduct could be plausibly deemed outrageous in nature.

I think many of us would agree that this motion to dismiss did not stand much of a chance.  (Although, the opinion is not very detailed in its description of the alleged events and did leave me with some unanswered questions about the actual allegations contained in the complaint.)  If an individual’s personal email account is intentionally targeted for hacking by anyone, it’s going to be a serious source of distress.  If the hacking is done by your direct supervisors for the purpose of making sure you lose your job because you (allegedly) blew the whistle about what you believed to be improper conduct, you are likely to be very close to “extreme” distress.  Wouldn’t you think?  The Northern District of Oklahoma did.

Murphy v. Spring, No. 13-cv-96-TCK-PJC (N.D. Okla. Sept. 12, 2013).

At a seminar about Internet safety, the District’s IT Director gave a presentation designed to illustrate the permanent nature of social-media posts and how your posts could be embarrassing if published by third parties.  One of the slides in the Director’s presentation, titled, “Once It’s There-It’s There to Stay”,” showed a photo of a student in a bikini and standing next to a life-size cut-out of the rapper Snoop Dog. camera lens

The Director found the picture by browsing students’ Facebook pages for pictures to use in his presentation.  Paper copies of the presentation, including the slide featuring the student’s picture, which also identified her by name, were distributed to attendees. 

As you may imagine, the student, Chelsea Chaney, was not happy about her cameo.  She filed suit against the district and against the IT Director, alleging violations of her constitutional rights protected by the 4th and 14th Amendments, as well as state-law tort claims.  The District moved to dismiss.

First, the plaintiff contended that the public display of her picture constituted an unlawful search and seizure in violation of the 4th Amendment.  In order for the 4th Amendment to apply, there must be a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Here, the court held that no reasonable expectation of privacy could exist in the picture because the plaintiff had voluntarily made it available to her friends and, because of her Facebook settings, to her friends’ friends, as well.  By doing so, Chaney surrendered any reasonable expectation of privacy in the picture.  Thus, the 4th Amendment claim was dismissed.

The court reached the same conclusion with respect to the 14th Amendment claim. The 14th Amendment protects an individual’s interest in avoiding the disclosure of personal matters and in making certain decisions.  But the constitution does not create a blanket right of privacy.  Nor does it create a right to be free from public embarrassment or damage to reputation. 

So, what are the lessons to be learned from this case?  Well, if nothing else, it serves as yet another reminder about the permanent and public nature of social-media content.  Once you post it, it is out of your hands and you have no legal recourse if it is republished to others.

From an employment-law perspective, there is another twist.  The District had various social-media and Internet acceptable-use policies, each of which would seem to have been violated by the IT Director.  For example, District employees were required to notify a student’s parents prior to “use of and interaction with a student’s social-media page.”  Here, the Director searched students’ pages for content he could use in his presentation. 

Call me crazy but this seems like a major lapse of judgment on the part of the IT Director.  It’s one thing to give real-life examples but altogether a different thing to use as one of those examples an actual student who will be present in the audience.  Seriously?  As if high school is not hard enough, man.

Chaney v. Fayette County Pub. Sch. Dist., No. 3:13-cv-89-TCB (N.D. Ga. Sept. 30, 2013).

See also Is There a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy In Your Tweets?

Access to social media in civil litigation remains a Wild West in many respects.  Parties don’t know what to ask for, so they ask for too much.  When the other side refuses, the court often agrees because the request is so obviously overbroad.  When it comes to discovery of social-media contents, the general rule of thumb is the narrower, the better.

But what about requests for passwords and user names?  I think most reasonable minds agree that employers should never ask an employee for his or her Facebook password.  So why are lawyers doing it?  Beats me, man.  It’s a terrible idea, no matter who makes the request. keyboard with blue lock key

A recent case in Louisiana seems to support this conclusion.  In NOLA Spice Designs, LLC v. Haydel Enterprises, Inc., the defendant sought to compel the plaintiff-entity and its principal to produce “passwords and user names to all online web sites related to the issues in this litigation, including social media, weblogs, financial information and records”  The court had little trouble concluding that the requests were overly broad and “far exceeded” what was considered proportional under the discovery rules. 

The court acknowledged that the plaintiffs had “no protectable privacy or confidentiality interest in material posted or published on social media.”  Nevertheless, the court explained that there was no reason that the plaintiffs should be required to give total access to their adversary, thereby allowing the defendant to roam around and, potentially, engage in “mischief.”

The court’s analysis is correct.  There is no basis to require a party to turn over social-media passwords during litigation.  In fact, it’s a terrible idea to do so.  And, in my opinion, lawyers are best advised not to request passwords in the first place.  Even if the other side is willing to turn it over, you risk any number of bad outcomes, such as spoliation of evidence.

One court feels at least as strongly as I do on the subject.  In Chauvin v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., a federal court in Michigan affirmed an award of sanctions against a defendant due to its motion to compel production of the plaintiff’s Facebook password.  The court found that the Magistrate Judge did not err in concluding that the content that the defendant sought to discover was available “through less intrusive, less annoying and less speculative means” even if relevant. Furthermore, there was no indication that granting access to the account would be reasonably calculated to lead to discovery of admissible information.  No. 10-11735 (S.D. Mich. Oct. 20, 2011). 

NOLA Spice Designs, LLC v. Haydel Enters., Inc., No. 12-2515 (E.D. La. Aug. 2, 2013).

Rules of ethics limit lawyers’ communications with certain groups of people.  For example, a lawyer may not communicate about a matter with a party who is represented by counsel.  Similarly, a lawyer may not communicate with jurors during a trial.  In some states, including Delaware, the prohibition on lawyer-juror communication continues even after the trial has concluded. 

Because of these ethics rules, the definition of “communication” is very important.  When I teach legal ethics and social media, I discuss “inadvertent” communications that can occur via social-networking sites.  For example, at my direction, my paralegal “follows” a juror on Twitter, the juror may receive an email notifying him of his new follower.  Is this a “communication”?   Yes, it probably is because my paralegal “followed” the juror for the purpose of seeing what he is tweeting that may be relevant to the case.   LinkedIN logo icon white

But what if the juror follows me on Twitter long before the trial.  During trial, the juror could view my tweets because they would appear in his timeline.  Would I have “communicated” with the juror?  Maybe. Assuming so, my communication would have been inadvertent, for sure. 

There’s another scenario that I give in this context that, unfortunately for all parties involved, has come to fruition.  In the Bank of America “hustle” case, one of the jurors has notified the court that one of the lawyers for the defense had reviewed the juror’s LinkedIn profile.  Judge Jed Rakoff of the S.D.N.Y. said that, when an associate had viewed the juror’s LinkedIn profile, the firm had “communicated” with the juror.  For those familiar with LinkedIn, you likely know that you can see who has “viewed your profile” within a certain period of time unless the user is not logged in or unless the user has a premium (paid) account, which enables him to block you from seeing his identity.

According to the WSJ’s MoneyBeat blog, the judge ruled that lawyers could conduct Internet research on potential jurors but only during the jury-selection period.  Once trial began, that research was supposed to stop.  (This, too, raises interesting questions.  Why wouldn’t the court want to know if jurors were engaged in misconduct online during the trial?  But that’s a whole different set of questions.)  Apparently, the court has determined “no harm, no foul” because the case will proceed as scheduled with an instruction to the jury that the search was a mistake that they should disregard.

This story, however, should serve as a lesson to lawyers everywhere-understand how social-media works and make sure those who are working for you do, too.  There are ethical implications, as well as the risk of significant costs to the client for failing to “get it.” 

See also, M. DiBianca, Ethical Risks of Lawyers’ Use of (and Refusal to Use) Social Media (Del. L. Rev. 2011) (PDF).

Human resource professionals often cringe at employees’ use of social media.  And for good reason.  Employees have caused countless problems for their employers by publishing confidential information, attacking supervisors and co-workers, and all sorts public-relations nightmares. Admittedly, social media causes a whole set of problems for employers that employers are still attempting to navigate.

But social media isn’t all bad. In fact, there are lots of benefits to be realized from employee social-media use.  Let me suggest one that doesn’t get a lot of attention.  I call it, “the cream rises” thesis. 

Although employers often think that they cannot discipline employees for what they do in their off-duty time, that, usually is not the case. Most times, employers can address conduct that occurs in cyberspace.  In fact, sometimes employers must do so.  And, despite the hype about the NLRB and its general distaste for social-media policies, the reality is that, most of the time, it is totally lawful to discipline employees for social-media conduct that conflicts with the employer’s policies or is in some way harmful to the employer.

The basic premise of my thesis is this: Instead of cringing when an employee acts like an idiot on social media, employers should rejoice-social media enables employers to weed out the problem employees who infect the workplace culture with negativity.  Without social media, these employees are difficult to manage. We know who they are but it’s often quite difficult to prove the harm that their negativity is causing. But social media gives you the proof that you need.

Take, for example, the nurse at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. In response to a tweet by Gov. Barbour calling for suggestions about how to trim fiscal spending, the nurse tweeted back that the Governor should stop coming to the Center after hours for wellness visits, which resulted in overtime costs.

The Governor had visited the Center once after normal operating hours but that was before the nurse’s employment. In other words, she was just a negative employee who couldn’t help but make a nasty comment about which she had no personal knowledge.

Well, good for her.  And good for the Center.  The Center was able to terminate the nurse because her nasty tweet was a violation of HIPAA.  Had it not been for her public comment via social media, the employer likely would not have had such indisputable proof of her nastiness. And, because her nastiness was unlawful, the Center had perfectly legitimate grounds to terminate her.

In other words, the cream rises to the top.  The nasty employees who you do not want to keep employed almost can’t help themselves but to show their true colors via social media.  And that’s a good thing because it enables employers to act sooner rather than later to eradicate these people from the workplace.  Which non-nasty employees really appreciate.

Thanks to my friend and blogger extraordinaire, Venkat Balasubramani, whose post earlier this week prompted me to write on this topic.

Delaware extended employment rights to volunteer firefighters and other first responders who must miss work due to emergencies or injuries sustained while providing volunteer rescue services.

Volunteer Emergency Responders Job Protection Act

Governor Markell signed two new bills affecting the employment rights of Delaware’s emergency responders. Under the Volunteer Emergency Responders Job Protection Act, employers with 10 or more employees are prohibited from terminating, demoting, or taking other disciplinary action against a volunteer emergency responder because of an absence related to a state of emergency or because of an injury sustained in the course of his or her duties as a volunteer emergency responder.

The Act defines a “volunteer emergency responder” as a volunteer firefighter, a member of the ladies auxiliary of a volunteer fire company, volunteer emergency medical technician, or a volunteer fire police officer.

Importantly, while an employer may not discipline or terminate an employee for being absent when performing emergency services, the employer is not required to compensate the employee for time away from work to perform such services. The employee also has an obligation to make “reasonable efforts” to notify the employer of a possible absence.

Under the Act, employers are also entitled to verify that an employee was absent due to emergency service or a related injury. Employers may request a written statement confirming relevant facts from either the volunteer department with which the employee serves or from a treating medical provider. The employer is entitled to the statement within 7 days of making such a request.

Amendment to the Delaware Discrimination in Employment Act

The second bill signed into effect amends the Delaware Discrimination in Employment Act, to provide protection to volunteer firefighters, ambulance personnel, and ladies auxiliary members. More specifically, the bill makes it unlawful for employers to refuse to hire, discharge, or otherwise discrimination as to the terms and conditions of employment based on an individual’s service rendered to a volunteer fire or ambulance company or related ladies’ auxiliary.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that Delaware employers have one more protected classification to be aware of. Hopefully these new restrictions will not impose a significant burden upon employers–comments made in connection with the bill signing indicate that the bills are a reaction to a single incident affecting an injured firefighter working in Wilmington. However, as always, employers need to give careful consideration to the circumstances impacting hiring and disciplinary decisions.

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