by Timothy K. Baldwin and Matthew D. Strauss, Summer Intern
In a recent case entitled, Beagan v. R.I. Department of Labor and Training, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that an employee who was terminated for posting derogatory Facebook comments about his supervisor was eligible for unemployment benefits. The court’s ruling is a cautionary tale that employers contesting unemployment benefits must present affirmative evidence that the employee’s social networking activity had a tangible connection to the workplace.
A bad day at the office
Michael J. Beagan worked as a delivery driver for a transportation company for several years. The events that led to his termination arose after the company implemented a new accident policy. Beagan confronted his supervisor about the new policy, refused to sign it, and caused a ruckus in front of other employees. The day after the confrontation, the supervisor called Beagan into his office with the intent of terminating him but had a change of heart during the meeting. He wrote Beagan up for insubordinate behavior and informed him that the next violation would result in termination.
The armistice between Beagan and his supervisor did not last long. Later the same day, they crossed paths again, and Beagan boasted that he could write whatever he wanted on Facebook because he blocked his supervisor’s access to his Facebook page. That piqued the supervisor’s curiosity, and he enlisted a third party to access Beagan’s Facebook page. The investigation revealed that Beagan made a derogatory Facebook post about his supervisor, commenting, among other things, that he wasn’t “a real boy, Gepetto.” When Beagan returned to the office from making his deliveries, the supervisor immediately terminated his employment.
The Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (DLT) denied Beagan’s claim for unemployment benefits, and the Rhode Island District Court affirmed. The district court opined that Beagan’s offensive Facebook post constituted misconduct or insubordination and was connected to his work because he baited his supervisor into viewing his Facebook posts. Beagan petitioned the Rhode Island Supreme Court to review the district court’s decision.
Supreme court awards unemployment benefits
The supreme court framed the issue before it as an administrative appeal of a denial of unemployment benefits. The court stressed that its role was to review the record to determine whether there was legally competent evidence to support the district court’s ruling affirming the DLT’s decision.
The supreme court explained that to establish that a terminated employee should be disqualified from unemployment benefits, the employer must prove two elements: (1) the employee committed an act of misconduct and (2) the misconduct was connected to the workplace. The court skipped to the second prong and found that the employer did not submit legally competent evidence that established a connection between Beagan’s Facebook post and the workplace. That finding made it unnecessary for the court to determine whether the employer satisfied the first element (i.e., that Beagan’s Facebook post constituted misconduct) because it failed to meet its burden of proof on the second element.
The supreme court began by observing that it had never previously considered “the connection between an employee’s alleged misconduct and the workplace as it relates to social media and online activity.” The court stressed that its task was limited to examining the record to determine whether there was legally competent evidence that supported a finding that Beagan was ineligible for unemployment benefits. According to the court, the unemployment benefits statute should be construed liberally “to lighten the burden that now falls on the unemployed worker and his family.”
After scouring the administrative record, the court found there was no competent evidence to connect Beagan’s Facebook post to the workplace. First, the court noted that the supervisor could not access the post without circumventing the privacy settings, and the evidence did not suggest that other employees or customers could view the post, either. Second, the employer did not show that the post was made on one of its electronic devices or that the post was related to Beagan’s job performance. Third, Beagan denied making the post while he was working, and the employer submitted no evidence to the contrary. Lastly, the court noted that the employer did not introduce a company policy on social media into evidence.
The supreme court concluded that the mere fact that Beagan made a comment on Facebook about his supervisor was not sufficient to establish a nexus between the post and the workplace. As a remedy, the court sent the case back to the district court with an order to award unemployment benefits.
Bottom line for employers
Many employees use social media these days, and the law often struggles to keep pace as technology changes. This case is yet another example of how distinguishing the workplace from private life in the era of social media can be a thorny issue.
Beagan does not stand for the proposition that an inappropriate social media post cannot lead to the denial of unemployment benefits. However, it is a stark reminder that employers must provide the DLT evidence that establishes a connection between employees’ misconduct and the workplace. Beagan provides a road map to accomplish that in several ways—for example, promulgating a social media policy that serves as a basis for a violation or showing that the employee made a social media post on company time or a company device.
To discuss this further please contact Tim Baldwin directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-270-0330. Matthew D. Strauss is a J.D. candidate at Roger Williams University School of Law.