Can employers use employee's posts to social media as basis for employment decisions or would this violate an employee's right to privacy?

Generally, employees have a privacy expectation in their personnel files, contact information, and work related information. However, this expectation of privacy is not limitless, especially when the employee publically airs his or her work experiences on social media sites for the public to see. Courts have held that employees can waive this right to privacy once they make disclosures in public for everyone else to read via social media networks.

For example, in a case not in the employment context, a California court reviewed the issue of whether an author who posts an article on myspace.com can state a cause of action for invasion of privacy and for intentional infliction of emotional distress against a person who submits that article to a newspaper for republication. The case, Moreno v. Hanford Sentinel, Inc. involved a college student who had moved away from her home town of Coalinga, California. She wrote “An ode to Coalinga” and posted it on her site on MySpace.com. The ode badmouthed her hometown. Six days after publishing it on MySpace, she took the writing off of the site, but the town’s high school principal submitted the writing to the local newspaper for publication. The newspaper republished the ode in the letters to the editor section and listed Moreno’s full name even though she only used her first name on her MySpace page. The ode must have contained some serious dirt on the city, as it resulted in death threats against Moreno’s family, and eventually forced her family to close a 20 year old business and move out of town.

Moreno sued for invasion of her privacy alleging that her post on MySpace was only supposed to be viewed by a few of her friends, and because she removed the post six days after publishing the article. The court rejected Moreno’s theory that the newspaper’s publication violated her right to privacy because her post to MySpace was made virtually to everyone with an Internet connection. The Court reasoned that, “[Moreno’s] affirmative act made her article available to any person with a computer and thus opened it to the public eye. Under these circumstances, no reasonable person would have had an expectation of privacy regarding the published material. As pointed out by appellants, to be a private fact, the expectation of privacy need not be absolute.” Therefore, the court held that “the fact [Moreno] expected a limited audience does not change the above analysis. By posting the article on myspace.com, [Moreno] opened the article to the public at large. Her potential audience was vast.” The court concluded that Moreno therefore could not asserted a cause of action for invasion of her right to privacy against the newspaper.

Even though this case is not involving employment information, a similar analysis would apply to an employee who posts information on social media about workplace issues. Once the employee places the information about his or her work circumstances on social media, this greatly reduces the employee’s privacy in the subject matter. However, an employer should be cautious, and use common sense in responding to such posts. For example, if an employee posts negative information about the company on social media, it would obviously not give the employer a right to disclose the employee’s health information and documents from the employee’s personnel file. Alternatively, if the employee posts about how bad an employer treated him or her, the employer would have the right to publically set the record straight with facts specific to rebut the allegations made by the employee.

Employers should use common sense in responding publically to an employee’s or former employee’s posts on social media and keep any discussions limited to the facts and issues raised by the employee. Furthermore, employers should approach situations with caution when an employee’s posts on social media are password protected and only friends of the employee can view the post. Hacking or gaining access to social media posts under false pretenses is most likely illegal, and would tilt the analysis back into the employee’s favor that the information was not disclosed to everyone and, therefore, would be considered private. In addition, employers may never retaliate against employees for making complaints via the internet or otherwise, and should be careful in making employment decisions based on employees’ complaints about workplace issues even if made on the Internet.

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Reminder: Webinar On Social Media Under California Law Tomorrow

This will be one of our most attended webinars, and there is still time to sign up. The webinar will cover legal issues facing California employers under the new Labor Code section prohibiting employers from asking applicants and employees for social media passwords, privacy issues when conducting background checks, alternatives to social media policies, and when policies addressing these issues are necessary. It is taking place at 10:00 a.m. PST January 15. Visit our website for registration information.

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NLRB Issues New Memo On Validity of Social Media Policies

In October 2012 the National Labor Relations Board issued an advice memorandum regarding whether an employer’s social media policy violated the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). This memorandum is of importance because the NLRB has issued findings recently that employer’s seemingly neutral social media policies violated employees’ rights under the NLRA. Section 7 of the NLRA provides that employees have the right to self-organize, form, join or assist labor organizations, and generally “engage in other concerted activities.” Section 8 of the NLRA makes it unlawful for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7.” This prohibits applies to all employers, even if the employees are not unionized.

In the memorandum the NLRB sets forth its two step analysis in determining whether a “work rule” “would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.” First, the NLRB examine whether the rule “is clearly unlawful if it explicitly restricts Section 7 protected activities.” Second, the rule is examined to determine if “(1) employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit Section 7 activity; (2) the rule was promulgated in response to union activity; or (3) the rule has been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights.” While the Board said that a rule “that could conceivably be read to restrict Section 7 activity” would does not automatically violate the NLRA, but if the rule is ambiguous and contains no limiting language or context to clarify that it does not restrict their Section 7 rights would be in violation.

The case at issue in the memorandum involved Cox Communications. The company had a standard social media policy:

Nothing in Cox’s social media policy is designed to interfere with, restrain, or prevent employee communications regarding wages, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment. Cox Employees have the right to engage in or refrain from such activities. . . .

DO NOT make comments or otherwise communicate about customers, coworkers, supervisors, the Company, or Cox vendors or suppliers in a manner that is vulgar, obscene, threatening, intimidating, harassing, libelous, or discriminatory on the basis of age, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, genetic information, disability, national origin, ethnicity, citizenship, marital status, or any other legally recognized protected basis under federal, state, or local laws, regulations, or ordinances. Those communications are disrespectful and unprofessional and will not be tolerated by the Company. . .

DO respect the laws regarding copyrights, trademarks, rights of publicity and other third-party rights. To minimize the risk of a copyright violation, you should provide references to the source(s) of information you use and accurately cite copyrighted works you identify in your online communications. Do not infringe on Cox logos, brand names, taglines, slogans, or other trademarks.

An employee was fired for violating this policy by posting an offensive and derogatory comment on his Google+ account via his cell phone. The company suspended the employee and conducted a further investigation, which revealed that the employee made numerous other posts “containing lewd language which disparaged customers.” The company terminated the employee.

Applying the analysis above to Cox Communication’s social media policy, the NLRB found that the policy did not violate the NLRA. The Board said that the examples of egregious conduct listed in Cox Communication’s policy established a context that “clearly would not be reasonably understood to restrict Section 7 activity.” Also, the policy’s savings clause that specifically set forth that it was not designed to violate any communications employees had the legal right to make, also supported the finding that it did not violate Section 7.

The NLRB memorandum can be read here (PDF)

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Inside Litigation Over Social Media Accounts - Why Employers Should Have Social Media Policies - Part I

As previously written about on this blog, the case PhoneDog v. Kravtiz is one of the first cases in the country to deal with substantive ownership issues arising out of social media accounts used in the workplace. As companies are moving more and more away from traditional marketing and advertising towards the use of social media, it is critical that companies have an agreement with employees about a few key items regarding social media accounts, such as ownership of the social media accounts.

On the other hand, the rise social media has given individuals the ability to create a brand for themselves and establish a large following for their expertise. These individuals are hired by companies not only for their expertise on the subject matter, but also for the large group of followers they developed via social media. The followers the individuals have through Twitter, Facebook or a blog is a valuable advertising and marketing resource for a company that wishes to gain the follower’s attention. Because of this shift from traditional advertising and PR, employers and employees have to be vigilant in approaching this issue given the potentially large value social media contacts can now have in the marketplace. An employee being hired who agrees to use their social media accounts to promote the company’s business should also clearly set out at least a few issues in a written agreement.

For example, a social media agreement between and employer and employee could address at the following issues:

  • Ownership of the employee’s social media accounts that will be used for business purposes. Clearly spell out who owns the accounts (or license to use the accounts).
  • Ownership and use of the company’s social media accounts. Who retains the right to change the passwords? Who retains the right to edit and approve content? What is the process to approve content prior to publishing?
  • Any restrictive terms of use of the employee’s social media accounts during employment. For example, does the employer have the right to edit and review the content prior to publication?
  • What control, if any, the company will have after the termination of the employment relationship over the employee’s or the company’s social media accounts. Is there a time frame after employment that the employee cannot use his or her own social media accounts for competitive business uses? Employers need to be careful here, however, as limiting an employee’s use of their social media accounts may be tantamount to a prohibited non-competition agreement or in violation of other state laws. I expect that this will be another hot area of the law that will be addressed by the courts within the next few years.
  • It may also be useful to set a monetary value on the social media accounts. This is probably easier to negotiate among the parties prior to any dispute over the value should litigation arise later.

My next article, Part II of this series, will address what claims employers and employees would likely use during litigation over social media accounts.

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Does the Company or the Employee Own a Twitter Account?

Imagine you are an employer and your employee in charge of your social media accounts leaves, keeps the accounts, and begins using the accounts while working for a competitor. Conversely, imagine you are an employee, leave employment to work for a competitor and your former employer sues you for $350,000 because you refuse to stop using your social media accounts. These issues are at play in PhoneDog v. Kravitz. The case illustrates the complicated issues surrounding exactly who owns social media accounts that are used for work. Noah Kravitz worked for PhoneDog as a product reviewer and video blogger. He had a Twitter account “@PhoneDog_Noah” he used as one way to publish product reviews as part of his job at PhoneDog. PhoneDog asserts in the lawsuit that it issues its employees Twitter accounts in the form of “@PhoneDog_[name]”. PhoneDog alleges that all of these Twitter accounts are proprietary, confidential information. Kravitz used the account while he was employed at PhoneDog, and garnered 17,000 Twitter followers.

When Kravitz left employment with PhoneDog to join a competitor, PhoneDog asked him to stop using the Twitter account. It is alleged in the lawsuit that Kravitz refused, changed the Twitter account handle to “@noahkravitz” and then continued to use the account and maintain the Twitter followers.

In response, PhoneDog filed a lawsuit against Kravitz for (1) misappropriation of trade secrets; (2) intentional interference with prospective economic advantage; (3) negligent interference with prospective economic advantage; and (4) conversion. Currently, the Court has ruled that PhoneDog’s lawsuit may proceed at this point, but Kravitz has raised some valid points that may be a defense, but still need to be developed further in litigation. 

Kravitz maintains that there cannot be a claim against him for misappropriation of trade secrets because the Twitter account followers are not a secret, as anyone on Twitter can see who the followers are. Kravitz also argues that the password to the Twitter account is not a trade secret, as PhoneDog does not derive any economic benefit from the password itself – it simply allows the user to see public information. Kravitz was also the person who created the password, not PhoneDog, so there is no PhoneDog secret at issue here. Most interestingly, Kravitz argues that PhoneDog does not have a claim against him for misappropriating the account because the Twitter account is not owed by PhoneDog. Twitter’s Terms of Service specifies that all accounts are the exclusive property of Twitter, that Twitter has the right to “reclaim usernames without liability” to the users, and Twitter retains the right to terminate accounts.

The employer is not without its share of arguments as well. While Kravitz raises some interesting technical issues about who owns the Twitter account, PhoneDog would have a strong argument that the license issued by Twitter is really the property at issue. PhoneDog could argue that because the license granted by Twitter to Kravitz was done during Kravitz’ employment and he set up the account at the request of PhoneDog, this license actually belongs to PhoneDog. Some not so well known California Labor Code provisions strongly support PhoneDog’s argument.  For example, Labor Code section 2860, states:

Everything which an employee acquires by virtue of his employment, except the compensation which is due to him from his employer, belongs to the employer, whether acquired lawfully or unlawfully, or during or after the expiration of the term of his employment.

Furthermore, Labor Code section 2863 provides:

An employee who has any business to transact on his own account, similar to that entrusted to him by his employer, shall always give the preference to the business of the employer.

This fascinating case raises many interesting issues, and will not be the last time I blog about the issues it raises.  It is a good reminder that the creation and maintenance of social media accounts is a critical factor in the employment context today and needs to be addressed from both the employer's and employee's perspectives.

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