In 2012, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or the “Board”) found a “courtesy” policy unlawful. Since then, the NLRB has continued to create more and more tension between the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or the “Act”) and employers’ legitimate interests in maintaining and enforcing workplace guidelines governing courtesy in a nondiscriminatory fashion.

This article focuses on the maintenance and enforcement of courtesy and civility rules. In these cases, the Board has taken extreme positions that increasingly ignore competing interests and obligations of employers. Among the obligations that can conflict with Section 7 in this context, employers must protect their employees from harassment, including on the basis of sex and race, by disciplining employees making harassing comments and engaging in harassing behavior and by maintaining civil workplaces that are not conducive to harassment. Employers also have a legitimate interest in maintaining a civil workplace simply to promote employee productivity and job satisfaction, as well as ensuring appropriate levels of customer service.

The Framework: Regulating Workplace Rules Under the NLRA

Employees have the right to engage in concerted activity under Section 7 of the NLRA. Concerted activity is activity undertaken for the employees’ mutual aid and protection, including, for example, discussing the terms and conditions of employment, such as wages, policies, and workplace treatment. Under Section 8(a)(1) of the Act, it is an unfair labor practice for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7.”

Under the general framework of the Act, the National Labor Relations Board regulates employer maintenance and enforcement of generally applicable workplace rules in several ways.

First, an employer commits an unfair labor practice, under Section 8(a)(1), if it maintains a rule that would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights. If it expressly restricts Section 7 activity, the rule is unlawful. Further, if it does not expressly restrict Section 7 activity, the rule is still unlawful under Lutheran Heritage Village 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.” In reading the rule, the Board should “refrain from reading particular phrases in isolation.” Similarly, the Board should not seek out “arguable ambiguity . . . through parsing the language of the rule, viewing [a] phrase . . . in isolation, and attributing to the [employer] an intent to interfere with employee rights.” Lafayette Park Hotel.

Second, employers may not discipline employees for engaging in protected activity. In the event that “the very conduct for which employees are disciplined is itself protected concerted activity,” then the discipline violates Section 8(a)(1) regardless of the employer’s motive or a showing of animus. Burnup & Sims, Inc. Similarly, if an employee violates a workplace rule and is disciplined, the discipline is unlawful if the employee “violated the rule by (1) engaging in protected conduct or (2) engaging in conduct that otherwise implicates the concerns underlying Section 7 of the Act.” Continental Group, Inc.

Continue Reading The Death of Courtesy and Civility Under the National Labor Relations Act

The latest issue of our Socially Aware newsletter is now available here.

In this issue of Socially Aware, our Burton Award-winning guide to the law and business of social media, we summarize the FFIEC’s recently-issued final guidance on social media use by financial institutions; we report on a new NLRB decision holding that particularly egregious social media postings by employees may fall outside the protections of the NLRA; we provide an update on the California Attorney General’s guidance regarding compliance with the state’s “do-not-track” disclosure requirements for websites; we discuss a recent case that calls into question the status of domain names as intangible property; we take a look at the latest in a string of cases exploring the First Amendment status of social media activity by government employees; and we highlight an important FTC settlement with a mobile app publisher related to data collection and sharing disclosures. All this plus a collection of surprising statistics about the most popular people, videos, tweets and hashtags of 2013.

If an employee calls his supervisor a “nasty motherf[**]ker” on Facebook, would the employee lose the protection that he would otherwise enjoy under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)?  Probably not, according to National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) decisions like Pier Sixty LLC.

In Pier Sixty, an employee reacted to a labor dispute by posting the following message about his supervisor on Facebook: “Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER F[**]KER don’t know how to talk to people!!!!!  F[**]k his mother and his entire f[**]ing family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!” Despite the obscenities, the administrative law judge decided that the employee’s posting was concerted activity under the NLRA, which is activity by two or more employees that provides mutual aid or protection regarding terms or conditions of employment. This concerted activity was not egregious enough to cause the employee to lose the NLRA’s protections. Accordingly, the judge ordered the employer to reinstate the employee. This decision is not an anomaly among decisions interpreting the NLRA. In fact, a number of NLRB cases have held that use of the “f-word” did not exceed the bounds of the NLRA’s protection.

This has left employers wondering: Is there any limit to what an employee can post? Can postings otherwise covered by the NLRA ever go too far and cross the line into unprotected activity? In a recent decision, Richmond District Neighborhood Center, the NLRB demonstrated that it will draw a line in the sand, albeit a thin and distant one. Certain situations, particularly egregious postings by employees on social media sites, may fall outside the protection of the NLRA, even when the postings otherwise involve concerted activity.

Richmond District Neighborhood Center concerned a Facebook conversation between Ian Callaghan and Kenya Moore, who were both employed as teen activity leaders at the Richmond Neighborhood District Center, a non-profit organization that provides youth and family community programs. In a conversation visible only to their Facebook friends, Callaghan and Moore complained about management and discussed plans to defy the Center’s rules, posting statements such as:

“…let them figure it out and they start loosin’ kids I ain’t help’n HAHA.”

“…we’ll take advantage, play music loud … teach kids how to graffiti up the walls…. I don’t feel like being their b*tch and making it all happy-friendly middle school campy. Let’s do some cool sh*t, and let them figure out the money. No more Sean. Let’s f*ck it up.”

“HAHA we gone have hella clubs and take the kids.”

“[H]ahaha! F*ck em. Field trips all the time to wherever the f*ck we want!”

“I’ll be back to raise hell wit ya. Don’t worry.”

The Center fired Callaghan and Moore after another employee brought the conversation to its attention. Callaghan and Moore contended their activity was protected under the NLRA.

The administrative law judge found that the employees were engaged in concerted activity when voicing their disagreement with the Center’s management. The judge concluded, however, that even though the employees’ remarks constituted concerted activity, the activity was not protected under the NLRA. He stated: “[T]he question is whether the conduct is so egregious as to take it outside the protection of the Act, or of such character as to render the employee unfit for further service.”

The Center explained that the employees’ Facebook conversation was detrimental to its eligibility for grants and could raise serious concerns for parents of the youth served by the Center. The judge agreed, finding that the conversation was not protected under the NRLA because it “jeopardized the program’s funding and the safety of the youth it serves.” Moreover, the conduct rendered the two employees “unfit for further service.” The judge dismissed Callaghan and Moore’s complaint.

Although this decision uncovers a previously obscured line in the sand with regard to protected social media activity, employers should still exercise considerable caution when responding to complaints about an employee’s use of social media. Postings that are otherwise protected by the NLRA are unlikely to lose that protection merely because they are offensive, even if they use profanity. Nonetheless, the Richmond case reveals that conduct found to endanger an employer’s funding or client safety may potentially cross the line and fall outside the wide protection of the NLRA.

Editors’ Note:  The original posts quoted in this article did not contain asterisks; such asterisks have been added by the authors of this article.

Social media platforms have become an increasingly important means for companies to build and manage their brands and to interact with their customers, in many cases eclipsing companies’ traditional “.com” websites. Social media providers typically make their platforms available to users without charge, but companies nevertheless invest significant time and other resources to create and maintain their presences on those providers’ platforms. A company’s social media page or profile and its associated followers, friends and other connections are often considered to be valuable business assets.

But who owns these valuable assets – the company or the individual employee who manages the company’s page or profile? Social media’s inherently interactive nature has created an important role for these individual employees. Such an employee essentially acts as the “voice” of the company and his or her style and personality may be essential to the success and popularity of that company’s social media presence. As a result, the lines between “company brand” and “personal brand” may become blurred over time. And when the company and the individual part ways, that blurring can raise difficult issues, both legal and logistical, regarding the ownership and valuation of business-related social media accounts.

Such issues have arisen in a number of cases recently, several of which we discuss below. Although these cases leave open a number of questions, the message to companies who use social media is loud and clear: it is imperative to proactively establish policies and practices that address ownership and use of business-related social media accounts.

PhoneDog v. Kravitz

A recently settled California case, PhoneDog v. Kravitz, Case No. C 11-03474 (N.D. Cal.), raised a number of interesting issues around the ownership and valuation of social media accounts. The defendant, Noah Kravitz, worked for the plaintiff, PhoneDog, a mobile news and reviews website. While he was employed by PhoneDog, Kravitz used the Twitter handle “@PhoneDog_Noah” to provide product reviews, eventually accumulating 17,000 Twitter followers over a period of approximately four and a half years. Kravitz then left PhoneDog to work for one of its competitors but he maintained control of the Twitter account and changed the account handle to “@noahkravitz.” When Kravitz refused PhoneDog’s request to relinquish the Twitter account that had been previously associated with the “@PhoneDog_Noah” handle, PhoneDog filed a complaint against Kravitz asserting various claims, including trade secret misappropriation, conversion, and intentional and negligent interference with economic advantage.

Kravitz filed a motion to dismiss the complaint based on a number of arguments, including PhoneDog’s inability to establish that it had suffered damages in excess of the $75,000 jurisdictional threshold. Kravitz also disputed PhoneDog’s ownership interest in either the Twitter account or its followers, based on Twitter’s terms of service, which state that Twitter accounts belong to Twitter and not to Twitter users such as PhoneDog. Finally, Kravitz argued that Twitter followers are “human beings who have the discretion to subscribe and/or unsubscribe” to the account and are not PhoneDog’s property, and asserted that “[t]o date, the industry precedent has been that absent an agreement prohibiting any employee from doing so, after an employee leaves an employer, they are free to change their Twitter handle.”

With respect to the amount-in-controversy issue, PhoneDog asserted that Kravitz’s continued use of the “@noahkravitz” handle resulted in at least $340,000 in damages, an amount that was calculated based on the total number of followers, the time during which Kravitz had control over the account, and a purported “industry standard” value of $2.50 per Twitter follower. Kravitz argued that any value attributed to the Twitter account came from his efforts in posting tweets and the followers’ interest in him, not from the account itself. Kravitz also disputed PhoneDog’s purported industry standard value of $2.50 per Twitter follower, and contended that valuation of the account required consideration of a number of factors, including (1) the number of followers, (2) the number of tweets, (3) the content of the tweets, (4) the person publishing the tweets, and (5) the person placing the value on the account.

With respect to the ownership issue, PhoneDog claimed that it had an ownership interest in the account based on the license to use and access the account granted to it in the Twitter terms of service, and also that it also had an ownership interest in the content posted on the account. PhoneDog also pointed to a purported “intangible property interest” in the Twitter account’s list of followers, which PhoneDog compared to a business customer list. Finally, PhoneDog asserted that, regardless of any ownership interest in the account, PhoneDog was entitled to damages based on Kravitz’s interference with PhoneDog’s access to and use of the account, which (among other things) purportedly affected PhoneDog’s economic relations with its advertisers.

The court determined that the amount-in-controversy issue was intertwined with factual and legal issues raised by PhoneDog’s claims and, therefore, could not be resolved at the motion-to-dismiss stage. Accordingly, the court denied without prejudice Kravitz’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The court also denied Kravitz’s motion to dismiss PhoneDog’s trade secret and conversion claims, but granted Kravitz’s motion to dismiss PhoneDog’s claims of interference with prospective economic advantage.

The parties subsequently settled the dispute, so, unfortunately, we will never know how the court would have ruled on the variety of interesting issues that the case presented. Interestingly, although the terms of the settlement remain confidential, as of mid-September, Kravitz appears to have kept control of the Twitter account and its attendant followers. It is worth noting that the case might have been more straightforward—and the result more favorable to the company—had PhoneDog established clear policies regarding the ownership of business-related social media accounts.

Ardis Health, LLC et al. v. Nankivell

A New York case, Ardis Health, LLC et al. v. Nankivell, Case No. 11 Civ. 5013 (S.D.N.Y.), more clearly illustrates the fundamental point that companies should proactively establish policies and practices that address the ownership and use of business-related social media accounts.

The plaintiffs in Ardis Health were a group of closely affiliated online marketing companies that develop and market herbal and beauty products. The defendant was a former employee who had held a position at Ardis Health, LLC as a “Video and Social Media Producer.” Following her termination, the defendant refused to turn over to the plaintiffs the login information and passwords for the social media accounts that she had managed for the plaintiffs during her employment. The plaintiffs then filed a lawsuit against the defendant and sought a preliminary injunction seeking, among other things, to compel her to provide them with that access information.

Fortunately for the plaintiffs, they had required the defendant to execute an agreement at the commencement of her employment that stated in part that all work created or developed by defendant “shall be the sole and exclusive property” of one of the plaintiffs, and that required the defendant to return all confidential information to the company upon request. This employment agreement also stipulated that “actual or threatened breach . . . will cause [the plaintiff] irreparable injury and damage.” On these facts, the court noted that “[i]t is uncontested that plaintiffs own the rights to” the social media account access information that the defendant had refused to provide. Interestingly, the court held that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their conversion claim, effectively treating the disputed social media account access information as a form of intangible personal property. The court also determined that plaintiffs were suffering irreparable harm as a result of the defendant’s refusal to turn over that access information. Accordingly, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction ordering the defendant to turn over the disputed login information and passwords to the plaintiffs.

As far as we can tell from the reported decision in Ardis Health, the defendant’s employment agreement did not expressly address the ownership or use of social media accounts or any related access information. Nonetheless, even the fairly generic work product ownership and confidentiality language included in the defendant’s employment agreement, as noted above, appears to have been an important factor in the favorable outcome for the plaintiffs, which illustrates the advantages of addressing these issues contractually with employees—in advance, naturally. And as discussed below, companies can put themselves in an even stronger position by incorporating more explicit terms concerning social media into their employment agreements.

Eagle v. Morgan and Maremont v. Fredman

Former employers aren’t always the plaintiffs in cases regarding the ownership of business-related social media accounts.  In an interesting twist, two other cases – Eagle v. Morgan, Case No. 11-4303 (E.D. Pa.), and Maremont v. Fredman, Case No. 10 C 7811 (N.D. Ill.) – were brought by employees who alleged that their employers had taken over and started using social media accounts that the employees considered to be personal accounts.

Eagle began as a dispute over an ex-employee’s LinkedIn account and her related LinkedIn connections. The plaintiff, Dr. Linda Eagle, was a founder of the defendant company, Edcomm. Dr. Eagle alleged that, following her termination, Edcomm personnel changed her LinkedIn password and account profile, including by replacing her name and photograph with the name and photo of the company’s new CEO. Among the various claims filed by each party, in pretrial rulings, the court granted Dr. Eagle’s motion to dismiss Edcomm’s trade secret claim and granted Edcomm’s motion for summary judgment on Dr. Eagle’s Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and Lanham Act claims.

Regarding the trade secret claim, the court held that LinkedIn connections did not constitute trade secrets because they were “either generally known in the wider business community or capable of being easily derived from public information.” Regarding her CFAA claims, the court concluded that the damages Dr. Eagle claimed she had suffered – putatively arising from harm to reputation, goodwill and business opportunities – were insufficient to satisfy the “loss” element of a CFAA claim, which requires some relation to “the impairment or damage to a computer or computer system.” Finally, in rejecting the plaintiff’s claim that Edcomm violated the Lanham Act by posting the new CEO’s name and picture on the LinkedIn account previously associated with Dr. Eagle, the court found that Dr. Eagle could not demonstrate that Edcomm’s actions caused a “likelihood of confusion,” as required by the Act.

Eventually, the Eagle case proceeded to trial. The court ultimately held for Dr. Eagle on her claim of unauthorized use of name under the Pennsylvania statute that protects a person’s commercial interest in his or her name or likeness, her claim of invasion of privacy by misappropriation of identity, and her claim of misappropriation of publicity. The court also rejected Edcomm’s counterclaims for misappropriation and unfair competition. Meanwhile, the court held for the defendants on Dr. Eagle’s claims of identity theft, conversion, tortious interference with contract, civil conspiracy, and civil aiding and abetting. Although the court’s decision reveals that Edcomm did have certain policies in place regarding establishment and use of business-related social media accounts by employees, unfortunately for Edcomm, those policies do not appear to have clearly addressed ownership of those accounts or the disposition of those accounts after employees leave the company.

In any event, although Dr. Eagle did prevail on a number of her claims, the court concluded that she was unable to establish that she had suffered any damages. Dr. Eagle put forth a creative damages formula that attributed her total past revenue to business generated by her LinkedIn contacts in order to establish a per contact value, and then used that value to calculate her damages for the period of time when she was unable to access her account. But the court held that Dr. Eagle’s damages request was insufficient for a number of reasons, primarily that she was unable to establish the fact of damages with reasonable certainty. The court also denied Dr. Eagle’s request for punitive damages. Therefore, despite prevailing on a number of her claims, Dr. Eagle’s victory in the case was somewhat pyrrhic.

In Maremont, the plaintiff, Jill Maremont, was seriously injured in a car accident and had to spend several months rehabilitating away from work. While recovering, Ms. Maremont’s employer, Susan Fredman Design Group, posted and tweeted promotional messages on Ms. Maremont’s personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, where she had developed a large following as a well-known interior designer. Although Ms. Maremont asked her employer to stop posting and tweeting, the defendant continued to do so. Ms. Maremont then brought claims against Susan Fredman Design Group under the Lanham Act, the Illinois Right of Publicity Act, and the Stored Communications Act, as well as a common law right to privacy claim. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, which the court denied with respect to the Lanham Act and Stored Communications Act claims, largely due to lack of evidence on whether or not Ms. Maremont suffered actual damages as a result of her employer’s actions. The court granted Susan Fredman Design Group’s motion for summary judgment with respect to Ms. Maremont’s right of publicity claim, based on the fact that the defendant did not actually impersonate Ms. Maremont when it used her accounts. The court also granted Susan Fredman Design Group’s motion for summary judgment with respect to Ms. Maremont’s right of privacy claim because the “matters discussed in Maremont’s Facebook and Twitter posts were not private and that Maremont did not try to keep any such facts private.”

Proactive Steps

Considering how vital social media accounts are to today’s companies, and given the lack of clear applicable law concerning the ownership of such accounts, companies should take proactive steps to protect these valuable business assets.

For example, companies should consider clearly addressing the ownership of company social media accounts in agreements with their employees, such as employee proprietary information and invention assignment agreements. Agreements like this should state, in part, that all social media accounts that employees register or manage as part of their job duties or using company resources – including all associated account names and handles, pages, profiles, followers and content – are the property of the company, and that all login information and passwords for such accounts are both the property and the confidential information of the company and must be returned to the company upon termination or at any other time upon the company’s request. In general, companies should not permit employees to post under their own names on company social media accounts or use their own names as account names or handles. If particular circumstances require an employee or other individual to post under his or her own name – for example, where the company has engaged a well-known industry expert or commentator to manage the account – the company might want to go a step further and include even more specific contractual provisions that address ownership rights to the account at issue.

In parallel, companies should implement and enforce social media policies that provide employees with clear guidance regarding the appropriate use of business-related social media accounts, including instructions on how to avoid blurring the lines between company and personal accounts. (Keep in mind, however, that social media policies need to be carefully drafted so as not to not run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act, state laws restricting employers’ access to employees’ personal social media accounts, or the applicable social media platforms’ terms of use.) Finally, companies should control employee access to company social media accounts and passwords, including by taking steps to prevent individual employees from changing account usernames or passwords without authorization.

2012 was a momentous year for social media law. We’ve combed through the court decisions, the legislative initiatives, the regulatory actions and the corporate trends to identify what we believe to be the ten most significant social media law developments of the past year–here they are, in no particular order:

Bland v. Roberts – A Facebook “like” is not constitutionally protected speech

Former employees of the Hampton Sheriff’s Office in Virginia who were fired by Sheriff B.J. Roberts, sued claiming they were fired for having supported an opposing candidate in a local election. Two of the plaintiffs had “liked” the opposing candidate’s Facebook page, which they claimed was an act of constitutionally protected speech. A federal district court in Virginia, however, ruled that a Facebook “like” “…is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection”; according to the court, “liking” involves no actual statement, and constitutionally protected speech could not be inferred from “one click of a button.”

This case explored the increasingly-important intersection of free speech and social media, with the court finding that a “like” was insufficient to warrant constitutional protection. The decision has provoked much criticism, and it will be interesting to see whether other courts will follow the Bland court’s lead or take a different approach.

New York v. Harris – Twitter required to turn over user’s information and tweets

In early 2012, the New York City District Attorney’s Office subpoenaed Twitter to produce information and tweets related to the account of Malcolm Harris, an Occupy Wall Street protester who was arrested while protesting on the Brooklyn Bridge. Harris first sought to quash the subpoena, but the court denied the motion, finding that Harris had no proprietary interest in the tweets and therefore did not have standing to quash the subpoena. Twitter then filed a motion to quash, but the court also denied its motion, finding that Harris had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his tweets, and that, for the majority of the information sought, no search warrant was required.

This case set an important precedent for production of information related to social media accounts in criminal suits. Under the Harris court’s ruling, in certain circumstances, a criminal defendant has no ability to challenge a subpoena that seeks certain social media account information and posts.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued its third guidance document on workplace social media policies

The NLRB issued guidance regarding its interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and its application to employer social media policies. In its guidance document, the NLRB stated that certain types of provisions should not be included in social media policies, including: prohibitions on disclosure of confidential information where there are no carve-outs for discussion of an employer’s labor policies and its treatment of employees; prohibitions on disclosures of an individual’s personal information via social media where such prohibitions could be construed as limiting an employee’s ability to discuss wages and working conditions; discouragements of “friending” and sending unsolicited messages to one’s co-workers; and prohibitions on comments regarding pending legal matters to the degree such prohibitions might restrict employees from discussing potential claims against their employer.

The NLRB’s third guidance document illustrates the growing importance of social media policies in the workplace. With social media becoming an ever-increasing means of expression, employers must take care to craft social media policies that do not hinder their employees’ rights. If your company has not updated its social media policy in the past year, it is likely to be outdated.

Fteja v. Facebook, Inc. and Twitter, Inc. v. Skootle Corp. – Courts ruled that the forum selection clauses in Facebook’s and Twitter’s terms of service are enforceable

In the Fteja case, a New York federal court held that a forum selection clause contained in Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (its “Terms”) was enforceable. Facebook sought to transfer a suit filed against it from a New York federal court to one in Northern California, citing the forum selection clause in the Terms. The court found that the plaintiff’s clicking of the “I accept” button when registering for Facebook constituted his assent to the Terms even though he may not have actually reviewed the Terms, which were made available via hyperlink during registration.

In the Skootle case, Twitter brought suit in the Northern District of California against various defendants for their spamming activities on Twitter’s service. One defendant, Garland Harris, who was a resident of Florida, brought a motion to dismiss, claiming lack of personal jurisdiction and improper venue. The court denied Harris’s motion, finding that the forum selection clause in Twitter’s terms of service applied. The court, however, specifically noted that it was not finding that forum selection clauses in “clickwrap” agreements are generally enforceable, but rather “only that on the allegations in this case, it is not unreasonable to enforce the clause here.”

Fteja and Skootle highlight that potentially burdensome provisions in online agreements may be enforceable even as to consumers; in both cases, a consumer seeking to pursue or defend a claim against a social media platform provider was required to do so in the provider’s forum. Both consumers and businesses need to be mindful of what they are agreeing to when signing up for online services.

Six states passed legislation regarding employers’ access to employee/applicant social media accounts

California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey enacted legislation that prohibits an employer from requesting or requiring an employee or applicant to disclose a user name or password for his or her personal social media account.

Such legislation will likely become more prevalent in 2013; Texas has a similar proposed bill, and California has a proposed bill that would expand its current protections for private employees to also include public employees.

Facebook goes public

Facebook raised over $16 billion in its initial public offering, which was one of the most highly anticipated IPOs in recent history and the largest tech IPO in U.S. history. Facebook’s peak share price during the first day of trading hit $45 per share, but with a rocky first few months fell to approximately $18—sparking shareholder lawsuits. By the end of 2012, however, Facebook had rebounded to over $26 per share.

Facebook’s IPO was not only a big event for Facebook and its investors, but also for other social media services and technology startups generally. Many viewed, and continue to view, Facebook’s success or failure as a bellwether for the viability of social media and technology startup valuations.

Employer-employee litigation over ownership of social media accounts

2012 saw the settlement of one case, and continued litigation in two other cases, all involving the ownership of business-related social media accounts maintained by current or former employees.

In the settled case of PhoneDog LLC v. Noah Kravitz, employer sued employee after the employee left the company but retained a Twitter account (and its 17,000 followers) that he had maintained while working for the employer. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but news reports indicated that the settlement allowed the employee to keep the account and its followers.

In two other pending cases, Eagle v. Edcomm and Maremont v. Susan Fredman Design Group LTD, social media accounts originally created by employees were later altered or used by the employer without the employees’ consent.

These cases are reminders that, with the growing prevalence of business-related social media, employers need to create clear policies regarding the treatment of work-related social media accounts.

California’s Attorney General went after companies whose mobile apps allegedly did not have adequate privacy policies

Starting in late October 2012, California’s Attorney General gave notice to developers of approximately 100 mobile apps that they were in violation of California’s Online Privacy Protection Act (OPPA), a law that, among other things, requires developers of mobile apps that collect personally identifiable information to “conspicuously post” a privacy policy. Then, in December 2012, California’s Attorney General filed its first suit under OPPA against Delta, for failing to have a privacy policy that specifically mentioned one of its mobile apps and for failing to have a privacy policy that was sufficiently accessible to consumers of that app.

Privacy policies for mobile applications continue to become more important as the use of apps becomes more widespread. California’s OPPA has led the charge, but other states and the federal government may follow. In September, for instance, Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced The Mobile Device Privacy Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, which in some ways would have similar notice requirements as California’s OPPA.

Changes to Instagram’s online terms of service and privacy policy created user backlash

In mid-December 2012, Instagram released an updated version of its online terms of service and privacy policy (collectively, “Terms”). The updated Terms would have allowed Instagram to use a user’s likeness and photographs in advertisements without compensation. There was a strong backlash from users over the updated Terms, which ultimately led to Instagram apologizing to its users for the advertisement-related changes, and reverting to its previous language regarding advertisements.

Instagram’s changes to its Terms, and subsequent reversal, are reminders of how monetizing social media services is often a difficult balancing act. Although social media services need to figure out how they can be profitable, they also need to pay attention to their users’ concerns.

The defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA)

Two bills, SOPA and PIPA—which were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, respectively, in late 2011—would have given additional tools to the U.S. Attorney General and intellectual property rights holders to combat online intellectual property infringement. A strong outcry, however, arose against the bills from various Internet, technology and social media companies. The opponents of the bills, who claimed the proposed legislation threatened free speech and innovation, engaged in various protests that included “blacking out” websites for a day.  These protests ultimately resulted in the defeat of these bills in January 2012.

The opposition to and subsequent defeat of SOPA and PIPA demonstrated the power of Internet and social media services to shape the national debate and sway lawmakers. With prominent social media services such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr opposed to the bills, significant public and, ultimately, congressional opposition followed.  Now that we’ve witnessed the power that these services wield when acting in unison, it will be interesting to see what issues unite them in the future.

In the latest issue of Socially Aware, our Burton Award-winning guide to the law and business of social media, we look at recent First Amendment, intellectual property, labor and privacy law developments affecting corporate users of social media and the Internet. We also recap major events from 2012 that have had a substantial impact on social media law, and we take a look at some of the big numbers racked up by social media companies over the past year.

To read the latest issue of our newsletter, click here.

For an archive of previous issues of Socially Aware, click here.

This article was first published by ALM Media Properties LLC in Internet Law & Strategy (January 2013).

For over a year, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been taking employers to task for intruding too far into employees’ social media activities. The NLRB’s enforcement actions have provided a well-publicized reminder that the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) are alive and well, applying with as much force to employees’ use of social media as to picketing or other traditional forms of collective activity, and to both non-union and unionized workforces.

The NLRB’s activity in this area has important consequences for employers. While employers may seek to regulate what employees may or may not say in their social media postings, this objective may be at odds with current NLRB authority. When considering the likelihood of enforcement action, it is noteworthy that the NLRB has taken action against employers ranging from large corporations to small businesses and non-profits. This underscores that the NLRB’s enforcement priorities are not limited to any single organizational profile.

We offer below a set of frequently asked questions (“FAQs”) with answers distilling the key points that U.S. employers should understand about this new area of NLRA enforcement activity. These FAQs are accompanied by practical suggestions to help employers navigate these issues in drafting and updating their own social media policies.

To continue reading this post, click here.

With the issuance of its third guidance document on workplace social media policies in the past year, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) continues to refine its position on how to craft workplace social media policies that are consistent with the terms of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Section 7 of the NLRA provides employees with the right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”  This right applies regardless of whether the employees are members of a labor union.  The NLRB’s guidance on this subject suggests that employee social media policies that discourage the exercise of these rights may run afoul of the NLRA.

The NLRB’s third memorandum, issued by Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon, analyzes in detail seven different social media policies at issue in recent cases before the NLRB.  Six of these policies were found by the NLRB to contain provisions that are contrary to the NLRA, while the seventh “revised” policy was upheld in its entirety as lawful.  The NLRB specifically questioned the breadth of the following types of provisions, many of which are commonly found in social media policies:

  • Prohibitions on the disclosure of confidential or “non-public” information, or of matters concerning individual privacy rights, via social media. Instructions not to reveal non-public information may be unenforceable as applied to discussions about, or criticism of, the employer’s labor policies and its treatment of employees. The NLRB noted such a tension in policy requiring social media users not to “reveal non-public company information on any public site,” where the explanation of non-public company information did not include appropriate carve-outs for activities protected under Section 7.
  • Prohibitions on the disclosure of an individual’s personal information via social media.  The NLRB took issue with a social media policy instructing employees: “[D]on’t disclose [personal information regarding employees and other third parties] in any way via social media or other online activities.” As the NLRB explained, “[I]n the absence of clarification, employees would reasonably construe it to include information about employee wages and their working conditions.”
  • Discouragements of the “friending” of one’s co-workers.  According to the third memorandum, a policy statement advising employees to “think carefully about ‘friending’ other co-workers” could be construed as unlawfully discouraging employees from communicating regarding the terms of their employment.
  • Requirements that employee grievances be addressed through internal procedures, rather than aired online.  A social media policy providing the employer “believes that individuals are more likely to resolve concerns about work by speaking directly with co-workers, supervisors or other management-level personnel than by posting complaints on the Internet” was found to be unlawful, according to the NLRB, because it might inhibit employees from “seeking redress through alternative forums.” The NLRB noted, however, that employers may “reasonably suggest” availing of internal dispute resolution procedures.
  • Prohibitions on the sending of unsolicited communications to other employees. The NLRB found a policy requiring employees to report receiving “unsolicited or inappropriate electronic communications” to be an impermissible restraint on employees’ right to discuss their employment conditions.
  • Restrictions on public discussions of personal opinions regarding work.  One policy discussed in the memorandum expressly permitted employees to discuss online their personal opinions about work-related issues, but only to other employees and not to the general public. The NLRB found this overbroad because the right to discuss employment conditions extends to discussions with non-employees.
  • Prohibitions on comments regarding pending legal matters.  A policy providing, “Don’t comment on any legal matters, including pending litigation or disputes,” was found to be unlawful on the basis that it “restricts employees from discussing the protected subject of potential claims” against their employer.
  • Prohibitions on responding to government inquiries.  The NLRB found that one employer’s direction to employees not to respond to communications from government agencies was overbroad “to the extent that it restricts employees from their protected right to converse with [NLRB] agents or otherwise concertedly seek the help of government agencies regarding working conditions, or respond to inquiries from government agencies regarding the same.”
  • Requirements that employees check with the legal department or human resources (HR) department prior to posting or communicating with the media.  Requiring employees to secure permission from their employer before engaging in activities protected under Section 7, the memorandum noted, is prohibited by the NLRA.

Analyzing employer social media policies under the NLRA continues to be major enforcement priority of the NLRB, although the NLRB’s position on social media policies remains, for the most part, untested by the courts.  The third memorandum underscores how the precise wording of the policy is critical to whether it is considered overbroad by the NLRB.  Social media policies that distinguish between the prohibited behavior and concerted activities excluded by the policy, and that provide examples of each, would be more likely to withstand NLRB scrutiny.  By contrast, the third memorandum cautions employers against relying on a so-called “savings clause” (such as a general statement that the policy will not be interpreted in a manner inconsistent with the NLRA) if “employees would not understand from this disclaimer that protected activities are in fact permitted.”

Alongside its long list of examples of potentially unlawful policy language, the third memorandum provides one example of a social media policy that it considered lawful.  Although this exemplar, which is attached to the NLRB memorandum in full, will not meet the needs of all employers, it may serve useful as a resource against which to compare your company’s social media policy.  As the NLRB’s position on this subject evolves, we suggest consulting counsel to address whether specific provisions of your company’s social media policy are consistent with the NLRB’s guidance.

On August 18, 2011, the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB”) Office of the General Counsel released a report discussing the outcome of fourteen cases that its Division of Advice has investigated this year involving social media use in the employment context.  While the report does not reflect actual decisions of the NLRB, it does indicate the thinking of the NLRB’s Chief Attorney, who sets guidelines for what cases will be presented to the NLRB for litigation and decision.  In releasing the report, Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon stated, “I hope that this report will be of assistance to practitioners and human resource professionals.”

In furtherance of Solomon’s goal, we have identified the major takeaways of this report, which can be divided into two categories:

First, when does employee social media use rise to the level of concerted activity that falls under the protection of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”)?  The various decisions chronicled in the report provide some guidelines.  To begin, social media use is more likely to qualify as protected concerted activity where the employee discusses the terms and conditions of his or her employment in a manner that is meant to induce or further group action.  The General Counsel appears more inclined to characterize social media use in this fashion when it either is directed to fellow co-workers, or grows out of an earlier discussion about terms and conditions of employment among co-workers.

On the other hand, employee social media use is unlikely to rise to the level of protected concerted activity where it is best characterized as an individual complaint about working conditions specific to the employee, and is not directed to co-workers or meant to induce group action.

The report also suggests that employee comments that are “maliciously false,” a seemingly high standard, will not be protected under the NLRA and that offensive or inappropriate comments about an employer’s clients are also unlikely to be protected.

Second, where will the General Counsel draw the line between a valid and invalid employer social media policy?  The report suggests that social media policies will be found to be invalid where they would effectively prohibit employees from engaging in protected activity.  For example, the General Counsel found a social media policy to be overbroad where it prohibited “inappropriate discussions” about the company, its management, or its employees because this prohibition encompassed protected concerted activity.

Employers should not only avoid such overbroad prohibitions, but should also consider including a disclaimer in their social media policies specifically indicating that none of the prohibitions contained therein should be interpreted to interfere with employee rights under the NLRA.

At the end of the day, situations must always be examined on a case-by-case basis.  However, as the General Counsel investigates more cases and continues to issue guidance, and as the NLRB issues case decisions, the law in this area will quickly develop and produce more tangible guidelines for employers to consider.

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) remains vigilant regarding the interaction between social media and the workplace, and has continued to focus on the impact of restrictive social media policies on employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).  In an effort to issue uniform guidance on this emerging issue, all NLRB regional offices are now required to submit social media disputes to the NLRB’s Division of Advice before taking any action.  Specifically, the regional offices are required to submit for review all “cases involving employer rules prohibiting, or discipline of employees for engaging in, protected concerted activity using social media, such as Facebook or Twitter.”

Already, on April 21, 2011, the NLRB General Counsel published an Advice Memorandum regarding a social media complaint.  The case at issue involved an employee of The Arizona Daily Star (the “Daily Star”) who was terminated for posting “inappropriate and offensive” Tweets to a work-related Twitter account.  For example, the employee made the following posts:

“The Arizona Daily Star’s copy editors are the most witty and creative people in the world.  Or at least they think they are.”

“You stay homicidal, Tucson.
See Star Net for the bloody deets.”

“WHAT?!?!? No overnight homicide?
WTF? You’re slacking Tucson.”

The NLRB General Counsel centered his decision on whether these Tweets qualified as “protected, concerted activity,” and reasoned that they did not because the Tweets “did not relate to the terms and conditions of his employment or seek to involve other employees in issues related to employment.” Accordingly, the General Counsel concluded that the employee’s discharge did not run counter to the NLRA and declined to issue a complaint against the Daily Star.

In another social media case, the NLRB Regional Director in Buffalo, New York reached the opposite conclusion in a case involving a nonprofit organization.  Hispanics United, a group helping low-income Latinos, terminated five employees after they went on Facebook to criticize their working conditions.  Unlike the Tweets in Daily Star case, the comments posted on Facebook related to terms and conditions of employment, and the NLRB issued a complaint against the employer.  Trial in the Hispanics United case is expected to begin soon.

These cases illustrate the scrutiny that the NLRB is giving employer actions involving social media.  As the law continues to develop in this area, employers should review their current social media policies, consider revising overly broad restrictions and, as always, exercise caution before taking an adverse employment action against employees for their social media use.