Reading a non-friend’s comment on Facebook wall was not a privacy invasion

Sumien v. CareFlite, 2012 WL 2579525 (Tex.App. July 5, 2012)

Plaintiff, an emergency medical technician, got fired after he commented on his coworker’s Facebook status update. The coworker had complained in her post about belligerent patients and the use of restraints. Here is plaintiff’s comment:

Yeah like a boot to the head…. Seriously yeah restraints and actual HELP from [the police] instead of the norm.

After getting fired, plaintiff sued his former employer for, among other things, “intrusion upon seclusion” under Texas law. That tort requires a plaintiff to show (1) an intentional intrusion, physical or otherwise, upon another’s solitude, seclusion or private affairs that (2) would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

The trial court threw out the case on summary judgment. Plaintiff sought review with the Court of Appeals of Texas. On appeal, the court affirmed the summary judgment award.

The court found plaintiff failed to provide any evidence his former employer “intruded” when it encountered the offending comment. Plaintiff had presented evidence that he misunderstood his co-worker’s Facebook settings, did not know who had access to his co-worker’s Facebook Wall, and did not know how his employer was able to view the comment. But none of these misunderstandings of the plaintiff transformed the former employer’s viewing of the comment into an intentional tort.

Read Professor Goldman’s post on this case.


Photo credit: Flickr user H.L.I.T. under this license.

Employer not allowed to search for porn on employee’s home computer

In re Jordan, — S.W.3d —, 2012 WL 1098275 (Texas App., April 3, 2012)

Former employee sued her old company for subjecting her to a sexually hostile workplace and for firing her after she reported it. She claimed that she had never looked at pornography before she saw some on the computers at work. During discovery in the lawsuit, the company requested that employee turn over her home computer so that the company’s “forensic computer examiner” could inspect them.

The trial court compelled employee to produce her computer so that the forensic examiner could look for pornography in her web browsing history and email attachments. The employee sought mandamus review with the court of appeals (i.e., she asked the appellate court to order the lower court not to require the production of the hardware). The appellate held that she was entitled to relief, and that she did not have to hand over her computer.

The appellate court found that the lower court failed to consider an appropriate protective order that would limit inspection to uncover specifically-sought information in a particular form of production. In this case, the company had merely asked for the hardware without informing employee of the exact nature of the information sought. And the company provided no information about the qualifications of its forensic examiner. Though the trial court tried to limit the scope of the inspection with carefully chosen wording, the appellate court found that was not sufficient to protect the employee from the risks associated with a highly intrusive search.

Photo credit: Jakob Montrasio (CC BY 2.0)

Teacher fired over Facebook post gets her job back

Court invokes notion of “contextual integrity” to evaluate social media user’s online behavior.

Rubino v. City of New York, 2012 WL 373101 (N.Y. Sup. February 1, 2012)

The day after a student drowned at the beach while on a field trip, a fifth grade teacher updated her Facebook status to say:

After today, I am thinking the beach sounds like a wonderful idea for my 5th graders! I HATE THEIR GUTS! They are the devils (sic) spawn!

Three days later, she regretted saying that enough to delete the post. But the school had already found out about it and fired her. After going through the administrative channels, the teacher went to court to challenge her termination.

The court agreed that getting fired was too stiff a penalty. It found that the termination was so disproportionate to the offense, in the light of all the circumstances, that it was “shocking to one’s sense of fairness.” The teacher had an unblemished record before this incident, and what’s more, she posted the content outside of school and after school hours. And there was no evidence it affected her ability to teach.

But the court said some things about the teacher’s use of social media that were even more interesting. It drew on a notion of what scholars have called “contextual integrity” to evaluate the teacher’s online behavior:

[E]ven though petitioner should have known that her postings could become public more easily than if she had uttered them during a telephone call or over dinner, given the illusion that Facebook postings reach only Facebook friends and the fleeting nature of social media, her expectation that only her friends, all of whom are adults, would see the postings is not only apparent, but reasonable.

So while the court found the teacher’s online comments to be “repulsive,” having her lose her job over them went too far.

Court requires fired social media employee to return usernames and passwords

Ardis Health, LLC v. Nankivell, 2011 WL 4965172 (S.D.N.Y. October 19, 2011)

Defendant was hired to be plaintiffs’ “video and social media producer,” with responsibilities that included maintaining social media pages in connection with the online marketing of plaintiffs’ products. After she was terminated, she refused to tell her former employers the usernames and passwords for various social media accounts. (The case doesn’t say which ones, but it’s probably safe to assume these were Facebook pages and maybe Twitter accounts.) So plaintiffs sued, and sought a preliminary injunction requiring defendant to return the login information. The court granted the motion for preliminary injunction.

The court found that plaintiffs had come forward with sufficient evidence to support a finding of irreparable harm if the login information was not returned prior to a final disposition in the case:

Plaintiffs depend heavily on their online presence to advertise their businesses, which requires the ability to continuously update their profiles and pages and react to online trends. The inability to do so unquestionably has a negative effect on plaintiffs’ reputation and ability to remain competitive, and the magnitude of that effect is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify in monetary terms. Such injury constitutes irreparable harm.

Defendant argued there would not be irreparable harm because the web content had not been updated in over two years. But the court rejected that argument, mainly because it would have been unfair to let the defendant benefit from her own failure to perform her job responsibilities:

Defendant was employed by plaintiffs for the entirety of that period, and she acknowledges that it was her responsibility to post content to those websites. Defendant cannot use her own failure to perform her duties as a defense.

Moreover, the court found that the plaintiffs would lose out by not being able to leverage new opportunities. For example, plaintiffs had recently hopped on the copy Groupon bandwagon by participating in “daily deal” promotions. The court noted that the success of those promotions depended heavily on tie-ins with social media. So in this way the unavailability of the social media login information also contributed to irreparable harm.

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