Tag Archives: retaliation

Can Employers Ever Monitor Employees' Personal Social Media?

Yes, but be careful! There is no denying that the use of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn has exploded. The explosion includes both personal and business use of social media. It also includes use that is beneficial to employers and use that can be very damaging. Unfortunately, the influx of employment lawsuits that have followed the explosion have had limited practical value in guiding employees and employers on the permissible use and oversight of social media in the workplace. While many questions remain, the California State Legislature's recent enactment regulating employer use of social media does provide some guidance.

California Labor Code section 980 was enacted to prevent employers from (1) requesting an employee disclose usernames or passwords for personal social media accounts; (2) requiring an employee to access his or her personal social media in the presence of the employer; or (3) requiring an employee to divulge any personal social media to the employer. Applicants are protected in the same way as employees. The new statute, coupled with existing privacy laws, limits what employers may monitor when it comes to the personal social media of employees and applicants.

Definition Of Social Media
In what appears to be an effort to account for the ever increasing development of new social media, the new statute broadly defines social media as an “electronic service or account, or electronic content, including, but not limited to, videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, e-mail, online services or accounts, or internet web site profiles or locations.”

Prohibitions On Employers Monitoring Social Media
Employers may not require, or even request, that an employee or applicant:

  • Disclose a username or password for the purpose of gaining access to the employee or applicant's personal social media;
  • Access their personal social media in the employer's presence; or
  • Divulge any personal social media.

Employers are also prohibited from retaliating or threatening to retaliate against an employee or applicant who refuses to comply with a request or demand that violates the statute.

Despite the statute's broad definition of social media and its restrictive prohibitions on employers, it does provide some exceptions under which employers may request and gain access to employees' personal social media. For each exception, however, pitfalls exist. Employers need to know them in order to avoid costly mistakes.

Accessing Social Media As Part Of An Investigation
The statute does not affect an employer's existing rights to obtain personal social media “reasonably believed to be relevant” to an investigation of employee misconduct. Under this exception, the employer may only access the employee's personal social media under the condition that it is used strictly for purposes of the investigation or a related proceeding. While the statute does not define what “reasonably believed to be relevant” means, California Courts evaluate employee privacy concerns utilizing a balancing test, weighing the employee's reasonable expectation of privacy against the employer's legitimate business needs for accessing the information. It is wise for employers to evaluate each instance carefully before requesting an employee to divulge his or her personal social media under this exception.

Employer-Issued Electronic Devices
The statute does not preclude an employer from requiring an employee to disclose a username and password for the purpose of accessing an employer-issued electronic device such as a computer, smartphone or e-mail account. Employers should exercise caution, however, before digging through an employee's use of personal social media on the employer-issued device.

It is a violation of the federal Stored Communications Act to access a restricted or password protected site without the owner's consent. So, while it is permissible for an employer to require an employee to provide his or her password for access to the employer-issued device, an employer may be violating the law by accessing social media information on the device. For instance, having the IT department look up the employee's Facebook password stored on the employer-issued device in order to gain access the employee's personal Facebook page.

Adverse Action Against Employees
The statute does not prohibit an employer from terminating or taking adverse action against an employee or applicant if otherwise permitted by law. For instance, an employer may discipline an employee for violating company policy and using personal social media during work time. Nor does the statute specifically prohibit employers from accessing publicly available social media. This means that employers may view the personal social media of its employees that is available to the general public on the internet, such as blogs and other websites that do not restrict user access.

But, before taking any adverse action against an employee based upon the content of his or her personal social media, employers must keep in mind that California law prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee based upon the employee's lawful conduct occurring away from the employer's premises during non-work hours. Moreover, the National Labor Relations Board has held that employees may use social media to voice concerns over working conditions. While an employee complaining about working conditions or an issue with a manager on his or her Facebook page may reflect negatively upon the organization, the employee's use of social media to criticize working conditions may qualify as protected speech for which an employee cannot be lawfully disciplined.

What Is An Employer To Do?
First, be patient. The law develops at a snail's pace compared to the development of new technology and cultural trends. More guidance will come. In the meantime, employers should approach social media issues with careful consideration and planning. This should start with the development of a written social media policy, and not a sample or template policy. The policy needs to be specifically tailored to the employer and should discusses the importance of social media, the impact that social media has on the workplace, and how employee's use of social media reflects upon the organization. The policy should also define the permitted use of technology owned by the organization and employee's expectations of privacy or lack thereof.

If an employer elects to have a policy restricting personal social media use during work hours, it should ensure that the policy is applied even-handedly to avoid claims of discrimination. Employers should also consider the pros, cons and legal issues that relate to restrictions on supervisors' social media interaction with subordinates. For most organizations, it would be advisable to inform employees that they are not required to interact with supervisors on personal social media and will not be retaliated against for refusing to interact with supervisors.

A carefully planned and well written social media policy that outlines the organization's goals and expectations of employees' use of personal social media can help ensure compliance with the new rules and prevent costly disputes with employees.

Thorny FMLA Eligibility Issue: Counting Hours Worked To Meet the 1250 Hour Threshold

Donnelly v. Greenburgh Central School District, a recent federal court decision, addresses one of the core eligibility issues under the Federal Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The court focused on what hours must be counted toward the 1,250 hours of actual work when determining whether an employee is eligible for leave under the FMLA leave. In particular, the court focused on counting work from home or away from the workplace. The former high school teacher alleged that he was denied tenure in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. The district defended by arguing that Donnelly was not eligible for FMLA leave because he had not worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous 12 months.

The district relied on the certificated collective bargaining agreement to calculate the number of hours Donnelly actually worked. The collective bargaining agreement provided that the maximum work day for a teacher was 7.5 hours, which is one hour longer than the school day. The district multiplied this number by the number of days Donnelly worked during the previous year and found that he worked 1,247 hours (only three hours shy of qualifying for FMLA leave).

Donnelly argued that he typically worked 1.5 hours before and after class and that additional time should be included in calculating his FMLA eligibility. A judge disagreed and relied upon the maximum work day in the collective bargaining agreement in finding that Donnelly was not eligible for FMLA leave because he could not produce reliable evidence showing that he actually worked 1.5 hours each day before and after class performing work that was integral to his teaching job. Accordingly, the judge dismissed his FMLA retaliation claim.

The Federal Appeals Court reversed, finding that a jury should decide whether Donnelly worked enough hours to qualify for FMLA leave.

The Court first noted that under the FMLA regulations, because the school district did not maintain accurate records of the actual hours Donnelly worked, the district had the burden of proving that Donnelly did not work 1,250 hours and was, therefore, ineligible for FMLA leave. The Court further held that the collective bargaining agreement did not govern how many hours Donnelly worked for purposes of FMLA eligibility. The Court emphasized that all of the hours Donnelly worked performing activities that were an integral and indispensable part of his job as a teacher should be counted, regardless of the work day provision in the collective bargaining agreement.

The most important part of the Court's ruling deals with counting work performed from home. The Court held that, especially in the case of teachers who grade papers and plan lessons from home during “off duty” hours, there is no preclusion from counting that time when calculating FMLA eligibility, as long as the work is an integral and indispensable part of the job.

What This Means for Employers

  1. If an employer does not have an accurate and reliable way of accounting for an employee's hours, the employer will bear the burden on summary judgment of proving that the employee did not meet the eligibility requirement, which is a very difficult burden. This will be especially difficult when dealing with salaried employees and those exempt from overtime, because under separate wage and hour laws you cannot require them to record their hours or clock in and out.
  2. Work from home may be counted in determining FMLA eligibility. We live in an era when employers expect employees to be accessible at all times because of cell phones and smart phones. If you expect an employee to respond to email or calls after hours, you may be required to count those hours in determining FMLA eligibility. Furthermore, even if an employer has no way of accounting for work from home, that work may nonetheless be counted in determining FMLA eligibility.

Employers Have Affirmative Duty To Take Reasonable Steps To Prevent Harassment Or Discrimination

On July 26, 2012, a federal judge in Las Vegas ordered Prospect Airport Services, Inc., a provider of wheelchair assistance services to airline passengers, to implement extensive measures to prevent future sexual harassment.

After agreeing to a monetary settlement of $75,000 in a lawsuit brought by the the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Prospect refused to agree to any prospective relief to prevent future harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission petitioned the court for an injunction and order directing compliance.

The judge issued an order prohibiting Prospect from further violating Title VII as it relates to sexual harassment for a period of five years. Prospect must develop a policy and procedures for handling reports of sexual harassment and an effective investigation process for all harassment complaints. It must also “appropriately discipline management and human resources staff for failure to comply with such procedures and provide annual sexual harassment training to all supervisory employees.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will monitor compliance and can haul Prospect into court again for any failure to comply with these orders or for damages based on new harassment incidents.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had charged the company with failing to address complaints of unrelenting sexual advances toward a male passenger services assistant by a female co-worker. The employee, whose wife had passed away, received sexually suggestive notes and unwelcome advances. He rebuffed the advances and brought the notes to the attention of a general manager who made light of the situation and failed to stop the harassment. There was no effective company policy at the time to address the issue.

Over the course of a year, the harassment escalated to a near-daily basis, including offensive remarks by co-workers about his sexuality due to his rigorous rejection of the sexual advances. Despite his repeated complaints to management, the hostile work environment ended only when he resigned.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s press release states: “Today the court has spoken to affirm the importance for all employers to have effective policies and procedures in place to prevent discrimination in the workplace … A strong policy, meaningful training and a swift response to complaints help to contain an existing hostile work environment or to prevent one from arising.”

Under California’s Fair Employment & Housing Act (FEHA), failure to “take all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination or harassment from occurring” is a separate unlawful employment practice.

In a precedent-setting decision against a small law firm, the Fair Employment & Housing Commission (FEHC) determined that the Department of Fair Employment & Housing (DFEH) can prosecute an action for such failure, even when the underlying claims of harassment and retaliation aren’t proven.

In DFEH vs. Law Offices of Jeffrey Lyddan, the Fair Employment & Housing Commission determined that Lyddan’s statements, gestures and cartoons directed toward a paralegal, while often in bad taste, did not rise to the level of objectively severe and pervasive harassment that interfered with her ability to perform her job duties. Nevertheless, it supported a “stand alone” action by the California enforcement agency for failing to take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring. Without actionable harassment or retaliation, such a claim may not be actionable by a private litigant in a civil action.

The Commission found that Lyddan failed to maintain an anti-harassment policy, did not attend harassment training, and failed to order a fair and impartial investigation into the paralegal’s charges of harassment presented in her email when she resigned. Therefore, Lyddan was liable for failure to take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring.

California’s Fair Employment & Housing Act requires “effective remedies” that will both “prevent and deter” discrimination. This is why the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Fair Employment & Housing require employers to adopt significant future anti-discrimination practices and conduct widespread training as part of their settlement agreements.

The affirmative duty to prevent future harassment goes beyond sexual harassment to other hostile environment claims, including disability, as is seen in Espinoza v. Orange County, in which an employee was awarded more than $850,000 after harassment by his co-workers and indifference by the County to his complaints.

Failure to prevent future discrimination is also a separate unlawful employment practice in disability discrimination lawsuits. The Department of Fair Employment & Housing has obtained settlements and Commission decisions with affirmative requirements for expanding reasonable accommodation procedures, adopting preventative practices and training in several pregnancy and disability discrimination actions in the last 18 months.

In DFEH v. Acme Electric, the Fair Employment & Housing Commission handed down the largest award in its history to a sales manager with cancer when his employer violated California’s Fair Employment & Housing Act by ignoring the duty to engage in a good faith interactive process, refusing to reasonably accommodate his disability and “failing to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination from occurring.”

Prevention Strategies

  • Update your discrimination prevention policies and periodically audit their enforcement — even before someone complains.
  • Make sure your complaint procedures have accessible avenues for employees to report harassing work environments.
  • Conduct an immediate neutral fact-finding investigation with every internal discrimination complaint, even when it is raised by a departing employee, because the alleged behavior may still occur with others.
  • Update your disability processes to comply with the broad interactive process and reasonable accommodation requirements imposed by California’s Fair Employment & Housing Act. California law mandates that leaders receive harassment prevention training every two years.
  • Provide training for front-line supervisors on the standards for preventing discrimination or retaliation against employees who seek reasonable accommodations or take leaves of absence for medical conditions and/or disabilities.