The plaintiff is a Michigan lawyer. She was placed on the assignment list of the County Probate Court and, as a result, received several case assignments. She made a comment on Facebook about what she believed to be inefficiency at the Clerk’s Office at the Court in a particular case she was handling. She tagged two people in the post, mistakenly identifying them as employees at the Clerk’s Office.
One of the two employees brought the post to the attention of the Court administrator. The administrator never saw the actual post. Two days later, the Court administrator notified the plaintiff by letter that she had been removed from the assignment list because of her comment on Facebook.
The plaintiff attempted to get back on the list multiple times but was unsuccessful and filed suit. The suit alleges several constitutional claims, all but one of which were dismissed by the court. The claim that survived is a claim for unlawful retaliation in violation of the First Amendment—i.e., a free-speech claim.
The court declined to dismiss the free-speech claim for several reasons. First, it held that the plaintiff was speaking as a private citizen—not as an employee—when she made the post. I tend not to agree but, well, we can’t all be right all of the time.
Second, the court held that she was speaking on a matter of public concern. This finding was based, in large part, on the fact that no one could produce a copy of the actual post and, therefore, the court was left to decide the nature of the speech without ever having seen the speech. Yikes.
Why, you ask, did no one produce the post? According to the opinion, because the plaintiff deleted it. Hmmm. That doesn’t seem like exactly the right outcome, does it? Because the plaintiff destroyed evidence, she gets the benefit of the doubt?
Maybe not. But it does teach an important lesson to employers. If you are going to discipline or terminate an employee due to something the employee posted on Facebook—get and keep a copy of the actual post if at all possible. Taking someone’s word for what the post says doesn’t mean that the termination is unlawful but it does likely mean that you’re going to have to work a lot harder to prove your case.
Butler v. Edwards-Brown, No. 13-13738, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62032 (E.D. Mich. May 5, 2014) [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com subscribers].
Read more Labor and Employment Law insights from Margaret (Molly) DiBianca in the Delaware Employment Law Blog.
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