Facebook, MySpace and Twitter have become household names, a ubiquitous part of the daily lives of many and often a tool for keeping in touch with friends and family. These websites are increasingly being used by individuals to document their daily lives and activities, voice their concerns and post their opinions for the world to read and to respond. The business community has also turned to these “social media” websites as means for marketing their brands and, in some instances, for obtaining information about current employees and prospective job applicants. A series of recent cases reminds us there are significant risks related to the posting and/or use of information discovered on “social media” websites.
For example, in Pietrylo and Marino v. Hillstone Restaurant Group, a case pending in the Unites States District Court for the District of New Jersey, two individuals sued their former employer after they were terminated for posting complaints about their workplace on an invitation-only discussion forum on MySpace.com. Much to the employees’ surprise, managers from Hillstone Restaurant Group were able to access this discussion board (although the parties dispute whether the managers had a right to do so) and were less than pleased with what they read. The employees were quickly terminated and a lawsuit followed.
In their complaint, the former employees assert their employer not only violated state and federal Wiretap and Stored Communications Acts by accessing the invitation-only forum, but wrongfully terminated them in violation of New Jersey’s public policy favoring free expression and privacy as embodied in the U.S. and the New Jersey Constitutions. Their employer has denied the claims and asserts the plaintiffs were “at-will” employees who could be terminated for any reason or no reason at all.
Ultimately, the question of liability may hinge upon whether the employees had a right to privacy for statements made online and whether the employer has a right to make disciplinary decisions based on an employee’s off-duty conduct.
Although legal commentators and privacy advocates debate how the trial will unfold when the case goes to trial later this summer, they all agree the case highlights real- world issues that can follow an individual’s seemingly innocent decision to post his or her thoughts on a social networking website. This is far from an isolated incident – indeed, the sports media recently reported a similar incident involving the Philadelphia Eagles’ termination of a long-time employee for disparaging the team’s management and its decision to release a prominent player on his Facebook page.
While it is unclear if any of the companies in the cases above had a policy or provided instruction to their employees on these issues, it should not surprise you that increasingly business employers are finding they must do so. Clearly, before making decisions or taking action against employees for online, but off-duty conduct, employers should seek legal counsel from lawyers who understand these issues and can guide you in this dynamically evolving environment – where federal and state (and sometimes municipal or local) law may apply and little, if any, precedent currently exists. Worried? Need help? Need to understand more? Contact E. David Krulewicz or Cindy Schmitt Minniti or the Rimon lawyer with whom you work.
Update: Today, May 20th, after this story was posted, the U.S. House of Representatives also approved the bill regulating some common credit card and gift card industry practices. It is likely President Obama will sign the bill once it arrives on his desk.