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Employer / Employee – Legal Implications of Social Media Use

When the Workplace and Private Lives Collide: The Risks Associated with Using Social Media to Make Employment Decisions

Employer / Employee - Legal Implications of Social Media Use

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Social media is playing an increasingly important role in how businesses operate as companies seek to leverage its broad reach and influence to increase brand awareness, to better understand market perception and to market their products or services to current and potential customers. Additionally, many companies are using it to assist in the hiring process, while others face the issue of whether and how to discipline employees for their work-related social media activities.

Some companies have even gone so far as to request or require their employees or prospective employees to disclose personal social media account information. This practice has been highly criticized by privacy groups and also carries certain legal risks—requesting the information is now prohibited in a number of states, and using information from social media sites to make hiring decisions can implicate state and federal discrimination laws. And companies must be careful to not run afoul of employees’ statutory or common law rights when deciding whether and how to monitor employees’ social media activity and what actions they may permissibly take when they encounter activity that might warrant employee discipline.

Employers Requesting Social Media Passwords

Social media sites have been around for more than a decade. However, the practice of companies requesting social media account information from their current or prospective employees is a relatively new phenomenon that was highly publicized when the Associated Press ran a story about a New York statistician being asked for his Facebook password during a job interview.1 That story, which prompted a critical response from privacy groups and the public, prompted legislators across the country to introduce legislation to ban the practice.

Within weeks of the Associated Press story, Maryland became the first state to enact a social media privacy law prohibiting employers from requesting social media account information from current or prospective employees. Since then, 12 additional states have enacted similar laws including: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington.2 In addition, related legislation has been introduced or is pending in more than 20 other states.3 Although each state’s enacted or proposed law is unique in some respects, their general purpose is the same: to prohibit employers from requesting that their current or prospective employees disclose their private social media account information.4

Social media privacy issues are also being discussed in the US Congress. After Senators Charles Schumer and Richard Blumenthal asked the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2012 to investigate whether employers requesting personal social media account information violates federal law, bills have been introduced in both houses to ban the practice: the Social Network Online Protection Act (H.R. 537) and the Password Protection Act of 2013 (S. 1426). These bills, if enacted, would, like their state counterparts, prohibit employers from requesting that their employees or prospective employees disclose personal social media account information. Although it does not appear that either bill will be enacted during the current legislative session,5 it is reasonably foreseeable that similar legislation will be enacted in the future given the number of states adopting similar laws. Therefore, even companies that are not located in jurisdictions with enacted social media privacy laws should keep apprised of this issue.

Social Media May Implicate Discrimination or Retaliation Laws

Companies that base their hiring decisions or other employment-related actions on social media should also be aware of certain other legal risks, whether or not the company requests personal social media account information. One such risk is a potential claim that an employment decision (e.g., hiring, discipline or termination) constitutes unlawful discrimination or retaliation. Existing federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, prohibit employers from basing employment decisions on factors such as age, race, national origin, religion, marital status and genetic information. In addition, many state laws protect additional characteristics (e.g., sexuality), provide statutory or common law privacy protection, or protect legal off-duty activities.

Although there are relatively few decisions addressing employment discrimination in the social media context, recent cases suggest that courts may be receptive to such claims. In Gaskell v. University of Kentucky,6 the plaintiff, a leading candidate for the director position at a new campus observatory, alleged that the university discriminated against him because a member of the university’s search committee noted that he had published an online article about the Bible and his belief in creationism. Although the university argued at summary judgment that its decision not to hire the plaintiff was based on valid scientific concerns, the court concluded that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the committee member’s opinion about the online article and the plaintiff’s religious beliefs were a factor in the employment decision.

Similarly, in Neiman v. Grange Mutual Casualty Co.,7 the court denied a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim that the company’s decision to not hire him was age discrimination. Although the defendant argued that it lacked knowledge of the plaintiff’s age because the interview was by telephone, the court held that the plaintiff’s allegation that the defendant knew his age because he had posted his college graduation year on his LinkedIn profile was sufficient to state a claim at the pleading stage. The court emphasized that “[i]t is not difficult to determine that someone who graduated from college in 1989 probably was over the age of 40 in 2010. This is enough to place [the company] on notice that [the plaintiff] is subject to the protection of the laws against age discrimination.”

As the foregoing decisions suggest, companies that consider social media when making employment decisions should be cognizant that protected information is often posted on social media sites and that viewing such sites may pose a risk that the company will obtain information about a protected class or protected activity. If this protected information ultimately reaches the decision-maker, either directly or indirectly, an applicant or employee may use that fact to challenge an employment decision in a subsequent state or federal lawsuit. Consequently, the company may ultimately have to spend a significant amount of time and resources defending itself in a lawsuit that possibly could have been avoided.8

Social Media May Implicate the Stored Communications Act

Companies also should be aware that the unauthorized monitoring or accessing of their employees’ personal social media accounts may implicate the federal Stored Communications Act (“SCA”), which generally prohibits intentional, unauthorized access to electronic information. Although the SCA was enacted almost 30 years ago, well before the advent of social media, courts recently have started applying the SCA to social media. For example, in Ehling v. Monmouth-Ocean Hospital Service Corp.,9 the plaintiff, a paramedic, alleged that her hospital employer violated the SCA by temporarily suspending her after she posted on Facebook that the paramedics responding to a shooting at a holocaust museum should have refused to treat the suspected shooter and the responding security guards needed target practice. Although the plaintiff used Facebook’s privacy settings to limit her posts to her Facebook friends, one of those friends, who also was a co-worker, took screenshots of her posts and sent them to hospital management.

The court ultimately dismissed the plaintiff’s SCA claim at summary judgment. Before doing so, however, the court held that the SCA applied to the plaintiff’s Facebook posts because “[t]he legislative history of the SCA suggest[ed] that Congress wanted to protect electronic communications that are configured to be private.” The court emphasized that because the plaintiff’s posts were electronic communications not accessible to the general public (i.e., she used Facebook’s privacy settings) and Facebook is an electronic communication service that archives posts and messages, the SCA applied to the posts. Nonetheless, this was insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact because it was undisputed that the plaintiff’s co-worker (and Facebook friend), voluntarily sent the screenshots to hospital management. Therefore, the court concluded that the hospital was an authorized recipient of the plaintiff’s posts, and the SCA’s “authorized user” exception applied.10

In Rodriguez v. Widener University,11 the plaintiff, a student employee, alleged that his university employer violated the SCA by suspending him for a Facebook post containing images of weapons. The university moved to dismiss the complaint arguing that it received the post from one of the plaintiff’s Facebook friends. However, the court denied the motion because there were no allegations in the complaint that the plaintiff’s Facebook profile lacked privacy settings, that his posts were available to the general public, or that a Facebook friend provided the university with the post. Consequently, there was insufficient information at the pleading stage to dismiss the plaintiff’s SCA claim for failure to state a claim.

As the foregoing cases suggest, it appears that courts may apply the SCA to social media posts. Although viewing social media content that is publicly available is not likely to run afoul of the SCA, companies should be careful not to access employees’ private social media accounts without authorization. For example, although the Ehling court concluded that the hospital’s conduct was not actionable because it fell within the SCA’s “authorized user” exception, the result may have been different had the hospital solicited the posts or previously demanded access to the plaintiff’s account.12

Social Media May Implicate the National Labor Relations Act

Finally, companies should be aware that basing employment decisions on employee social media activity, or enacting social media policies governing employee social media use, may implicate the federal National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).13 Since August 2011, when then National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) General Counsel Lafe Solomon issued the first of three reports discussing employee social media use and the NLRA,14 the NLRB has proactively applied the NLRA to cases involving socialmedia.

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