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Administrative Law Judge Finds Employer Unlawfully Discharged Employees Based on Facebook Posts

Posted in Employment, Labor

by Stephen D. Erf, Heather Egan Sussman and Sabrina E. Dunlap

In a first of its kind ruling, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that an employer unlawfully terminated five employees because they posted comments on Facebook related to working conditions.  This is a landmark decision because, up to this point, employers have only been able to rely on the prosecution trends of the General Counsel’s office, including a recently issued report on the topic, and not actual decisions by the adjudicative body of the NLRB. 

This landmark case involved an employee of Hispanics United of Buffalo (HUB) (a nonunionized organization), who posted a message on Facebook sharing critical comments made by a coworker concerning employees’ poor job performance and asking for the employees’ reactions.  Five employees commented on the post, defending their job performance and criticizing the critical employee and their working conditions, including work load and staffing problems.  HUB later discharged the Facebook poster and the employees who responded to the post, stating that their comments constituted harassment of the critical coworker.

Based on an unfair labor practice charge filed by one of the employees, the NLRB’s Buffalo Regional Director issued a complaint in May 2011. The ALJ heard the case in July and, on September 2, issued a written decision finding that the employees’ Facebook posts were protected concerted activity under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) because they concerned a conversation among coworkers about the terms and conditions of employment and the employees’ conduct was not sufficiently inappropriate as to lose the protection of the NLRA.  The ALJ awarded the employees back pay and ordered HUB to reinstate the five employees.  The ALJ also ordered HUB to post a notice at its Buffalo facility explaining to employees their rights under the NLRA and committing not to violate those rights in the future. 

While NLRB complaints related to social media have been on the rise, this is the first ALJ decision specifically addressing employees’ use of Facebook.  As a result, employers are wise to consider the ALJ’s decision when disciplining employees based on social media activity.