November 16, 2015
Can an employer get into trouble for firing an employee over something the employee wrote on Facebook? Apparently, yes.
The United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently agreed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act “by taking certain actions against its employees, including discharge, for their Facebook activity.” The Second Circuit further found that the employer’s social media policy violated the Act.
Importantly, this decision applies to both union and non-union shops. In fact, over the last several years the NLRB has increasingly used its enforcement powers against non-union employers.
An Employee’s Protections Under the Act
The Act guarantees that “employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations … and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid of protection…” The Act protects an employee’s rights by prohibiting an employer from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of these rights.
An employee’s rights have to be balanced against an employer’s interest in preventing disparagement of its products or services and protecting the reputation of the business. Thus, an employee’s communications may lose protection if they are sufficiently disloyal or defamatory. Importantly, if an employee relays in good faith what he has been told by another employee, reasonably believing it to be true, the fact that the initial report was inaccurate does not eliminate the employee’s protection.
The Triple Play Sports Bar - Facts
The NLRB’s decision in a case at the Triple Play Sports Bar serves as a cautionary tale for employers. Here are the details of the case, which can be ound at 361 NLRB 31 (August 22, 2014). I have cleaned up the language a bit for family consumption, just in case you want to read this to your kids at bedtime.
“The employer employed Jillian Sanzone as a waitress and bartender, and Vincent Spinella as a cook. In approximately January 2011, Sanzone and at least one other employee discovered that they owed more in State income taxes than they had expected. Sanzone discussed this at work with other employees, and some employees complained to the employer. In response to the complaints, the employer planned a staff meeting for February with its payroll provider to discuss the employees’ concerns.
Sanzone, Spinella, and former employee Jamie LaFrance, who left the employer’s employ in November 2010, have Facebook accounts. On January 31, LaFrance posted the following “status update” to her Facebook page:
Maybe someone should do the owners of Triple Play a favor and buy it from them. They can’t even do the tax paperwork correctly!!! Now I OWE money...Wtf!!!!
The following pertinent comments were posted to LaFrance’s page in response:
DESANTIS (a Facebook “friend” of LaFrance’s and a customer): “You owe them money...that’s f*%&ed up.”
* * *
LAFRANCE: “The state. Not Triple Play. I would never give that place a penny of my money.
Ralph [DelBuono] f*%&ed up the paperwork…as per usual.”
DESANTIS: “yeah I really dont go to that place anymore.”
LAFRANCE: “It’s all Ralph’s fault. He didn’t do the paperwork right. I’m calling the labor board to look into it bc he still owes me about 2000 in paychecks.”
(At this juncture, employee Spinella selected the “Like” option under LaFrance’s initial status update. The discussion continued as follows.)
* * *
SANZONE: “I owe too. Such an a**hole.”
Sanzone added her comment from her cell phone on February 1. On February 2, when Sanzone reported to work, the employer told her she was being discharged. When Sanzone asked why, the employer, having learned of the Facebook post, responded that she was not loyal enough to be working for the employer because of her Facebook comment.
When Spinella reported for work on February 3, he was summoned to a meeting. The Facebook comments from LaFrance’s account were displayed on a computer screen in the office. After asking Spinella if he “had a problem with them, or the company,” he was interrogated about the Facebook discussion, the meaning of his “Like” selection, the identity of the other people who had participated in the conversation, and whether Spinella had written anything negative to say about the employer. Spinella was told that because he “liked the disparaging and defamatory comments,” it was “apparent” that Spinella wanted to work somewhere else. Spinella was then discharged.”
In the case there were two instances of employee conduct at issue.
- Spinella, “Lik[ing]” the post of Ms. LaFrance, which stated “maybe someone should do the owners of Triple Play a favor and buy it from them. They can’t even do the tax paperwork correctly!!! Now I OWE money … Wtf!!!!”
- Sanzone, commenting on the LaFrance post stating “I owe too. Such an a**hole.”
The Triple Play Sports Bar – Legal Decision
The Court and the NLRB both determined that Mr. Spinella and Ms. Sanzone’s conduct on Facebook was concerted activity under Section 7 of the Act, because it involved an “ongoing sequence of discussions that began in the workplace about [the] calculation of employees’ tax withholding.” The Court and the NLRB further determined that the statements were not defamatory, even though profanity was used, because the conversation wasn’t directed at customers and did not relate to the employer’s brand. The Court also determined that the employer violated the Act by (1) threatening employees with discharge for Facebook activity; (2) interrogating employees about their Facebook activity; and (3) informing employees that they were being discharged for their Facebook activity.
In addition, the Court determined that the employer social media policy violated the Act. The employer maintained the following work rule as part of its Internet/Blogging policy in its employee handbook:
The Company supports the free exchange of information and supports camaraderie among its employees. However, when internet blogging, chat room discussions, e-mail, text messages, or other forms of communication extend to employees revealing confidential and proprietary information about the Company, or engaging in inappropriate discussions about the company, management, and/or co-workers, the employee may be violating the law and is subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment. Please keep in mind that if you communicate regarding any aspect of the Company, you must include a disclaimer that the views you share are yours, and not necessarily the views of the Company. In the event state or federal law precludes this policy, then it is of no force or effect.
The Court determined that “employees would reasonably interpret [this] rule as proscribing any discussions about their terms and conditions of employment deemed ‘inappropriate’ by the employer.”
Takeaways for Employers
- “Concerted activity” is being interpreted very broadly by the NLRB. Any statements, expressions or shows of support by employees about terms and conditions of employment and/or support for union activities, even if the employer is non-union, should be deemed concerted activity by the employer.
- Employers must view any social media, including Facebook, as an extension of the workplace. If something is said by an employee on social media that would be protected if it were said in the workplace, it is likely protected on social media.
- Employers must review and reevaluate their social media policies. Many of these policies were drafted near the beginning of the social media explosion and did not contemplate the assertion of NLRB authority in the social media space.
- In reviewing social media policies focus on the protection of the employer’s product and/or brand. Statements by employees disparaging or defaming an employer’s product or brand can still lead to the lawful termination of an employee.
- Realize that many employees under 35 (Gen Xers) complain about everything on social media – work, food, people, TV shows, etc… Whereas an employee currently in their 50s used to complain about their boss or working conditions to others around the water cooler, younger employees do so on social media – social media is their water cooler. Unfortunately, social media provides more publicity to discussions about issues at work, but the NLRB deems social media to be the equivalent of the water cooler. With that said, the torts of defamation, tortious interference, and invasion of privacy still provide some protection to the employer.
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The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances. The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.