“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” our parents told us. Two recent Pennsylvania employment termination cases give this same advice to adult social media users. In both cases, courts upheld terminations for employees’ mean-spirited off-duty social media comments.
In Carr v. Commonwealth, 230 A.3d 1075 (Pa. 2020), a PennDOT employee (Carr) encountered a poorly driven school bus while driving to work. She posted to a Facebook group, “School bus drivers don’t give a flying s**t about those babies” and said she would “gladly crash into a school bus”. She added, “You’re (sic) kids are your problem. Not mine.” Carr disclosed that she worked for PennDOT. Facebook users sent Carr’s post to PennDOT, which terminated her for misconduct.
Carr filed a civil service appeal , claiming First Amendment free speech rights. PennDOT argued that Carr’s off-duty conduct undermined PennDOT’s traffic safety goals and harmed PennDOT’s reputation. The Civil Service Commission upheld PennDOT’s action.
Surprisingly, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court overturned Carr’s dismissal. Commonwealth Court viewed Carr’s comments as protected speech about a matter of public concern, despite the reprehensible tone.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed Commonwealth Court and upheld Carr’s dismissal. The Court held that Carr’s Facebook rant interfered with PennDOT’s highway safety mission. PennDOT therefore had reasonable concerns about adverse effects on PennDOT’s ability to carry out its duties. Commonwealth Court therefore was wrong to hold that Carr’s interest in commenting on bus safety outweighed PennDOT’s broader public safety interest. In short, Carr’s personal rant had limited public importance but caused significant detriment to PennDOT.
Justice Wecht concurred, stating that Carr’s comments raised no public concern at all. He also discussed social media platforms’ potential to disrupt agency operations, suggesting that public employees consider possible employment consequences before making off-hours social media comments.
Ellis v. Bank of NY Mellon Corp., 2020 WL 2557902 (W.D. Pa. May 20, 2020), affirmed, 2021 WL 829620 (3rd Cir. March 4, 2021) (not precedential) also mentioned vehicular violence in a Facebook post. Ellis was a white at-will employee in BNY Mellon’s Pittsburgh wealth management department. During an East Pittsburgh street protest after police killed an African-American teenager, a local councilman drove a car through the crowd. Ellis commented on her public Facebook page, “He should have taken a bus to plow thru.” Her Facebook account disclosed that she was a Mellon employee.
Public reaction was immediate. The public “inundated her employer with complaints” on Facebook and the Bank’s ethics hotline, and to the CEO and Human Resource Chief. They demanded to know if the post reflected Mellon’s values.
After an emergency investigation, Mellon terminated Ellis immediately. Mellon decided that Ellis had violated Mellon’s Social Media Policy prohibiting employees from conduct harming the Bank’s reputation. This Policy warned that violations could lead to termination. The Bank told Ellis that her post was offensive, showed poor judgment and disrespect for others, and encouraged violence.
As an at-will private sector employee, Ellis lacked First Amendment protection for off-duty comments. However, Ellis filed a race discrimination claim. She complained of harsher treatment than African-American employees who posted Facebook comments on the same incident or police brutality. BNY Mellon moved for summary judgment, contending that Ellis failed to make out a prima facie case because the African-American comparators were not similarly situated to Ellis. The comparators worked in different positions with different responsibilities and supervisors. The court granted summary judgment to Mellon. The court contrasted Ellis’ posting from the comparators’ postings, holding that Ellis addressed current news and supported driving through a crowd. The Court held that the Bank had legitimate, non-discriminatory grounds to fire Ellis for a posting that “was offensive in nature, advocated violence, demonstrated extremely poor judgment, and created a reputational risk” to the Bank. In a very brief opinion, the Third Circuit recently affirmed the District Court.
Our parents’ warning was right. And before posting on social media, employees should also remember the warning given law enforcement, albeit in a different context: “You have the right to remain silent; anything you say may be used against you.”