Browsing articles by " Teresa Thompson"

Civil and Criminal Perspectives on Trade Secret Theft and Data Loss Prevention

On February 27, 2014, Fredrikson kicked off its new “Practical Perspectives” seminar series.  As the Chair of our Trade Secrets and Non-Competes Groups, I was fortunate to moderate the panel discussion with some of our trade secret litigators, as well as representatives from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.  I have summarized the key take-aways and practical perspectives shared by the panel below.

TRADE SECRET THEFT – A SIGNIFICANT PROBLEM

The ability to innovate and protect intellectual property drives business growth, development, and investment. However, businesses face increasing threats to their valuable trade secrets and other critical business information. Recent estimates suggest that trade secret theft costs U.S. businesses billions of dollars each year.  Panelists noted that the problem is exacerbated by the following common business practices and employee perceptions.

  • Business data is stored everywhere, including on employees’ home computers and mobile devices.  As a result, the potential for critical business information to walk out the door with an employee is high.
  • Most employees think that storing proprietary business information on personal devices is an acceptable way of doing business.
  • Most IT professionals acknowledge that they don’t know what data leaves their company on a daily basis.

COMPANIES SHOULD CONDUCT A DATA PROTECTION AUDIT NOW

The starting place for any successful data protection program is to determine what company information is confidential or a trade secret, who has access to that information, and where that information is stored.  A civil or criminal action alleging misappropriation of proprietary information must identify with particularity the proprietary information that was taken wrongfully.

Too many companies share information broadly with employees labeling everything as “confidential.”  While an open system may facilitate communication and spur creativity, it can have a disastrous effect on a company’s ability to protect their intellectual property down the road.  Take the important first step of clearly identifying true trade secrets and other confidential information and be careful to restrict and keep track of who has access to that information.

BEST PRACTICES FOR DATA PROTECTION 

Recent trade secret cases demonstrate that a simple trade secret policy or nondisclosure agreement with employees may not be enough. Companies should (1) take proactive steps to secure trade secrets and confidential information against theft and (2) take clear and consistent action to protect and recover data from departing employees.  See, my colleagues’ summary for employers:  Best Practices for Data Protection.

Panelists highlighted these steps to protect data from employee theft:

  • Create a “culture of protection” by training employees on the importance of confidentiality, clearly defining what that information entails, and addressing how such information must be handled.
  • Use clear, non-ambiguous policies for recovering any and all company property and information from departing employees.  Consider limiting access to company information, systems and equipment immediately upon receiving an employee’s notice of departure.
  • Set specific deadlines for return of company information stored on personal devices.  Note that words like “promptly” may not be specific enough.
  • Remember that data protection policies should also address the employee intake process. Take steps to avoid potential claims from former employers for theft of their trade secrets.  A strong process can protect you from claims when employees you hire engage in wrongdoing.

NEED TO EVALUATE AND UPDATE PROTECTIONS IS ONGOING

Good data protection is not a once-then-done process. Panelists recommended the following:

  • Periodically review your practices to ensure that only confidential and trade secret information is being treated as such, that only those employees with a need to know have access to the information, and that the information is secure.
  • Electronic policies (banners) alerting employees to authorized uses of company computers and systems should be updated as new best practices emerge.  For example, revising banner language can help companies avail themselves of emerging best practices under the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act.

BENEFITS OF AND BEST PRACTICES FOR WORKING WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT

Panelists stressed the value of having a good working relationship with law enforcement, such as the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The first call to law enforcement should not wait until a company experiences a theft.  Rather, companies should establish connections and build relationships now. Panelists also noted that:

  • Companies should contact law enforcement at their first suspicion of theft and not wait until after their civil actions against a former employee have stalled.
  • Federal law enforcement agencies have tools that may quickly resolve an issue before a company experiences any damage.  Such tools include the power of law enforcement to “knock and talk” to a suspect and access information through international treaties.
  • The DOJ has developed this this guide for reporting an intellectual property crime. (A checklist for reporting a crime can be found beginning on page 15.)

DOJ AND FBI MAKE ECONOMIC ESPIONAGE A PRIORITY

Intellectual property protection is a high priority for both the DOJ and the FBI, and they have prepared information and training tools to help companies safeguard their trade secrets, proprietary information, and research. Panelists shared these key resources:

  • The DOJ and FBI produced this guide to safeguard company trade secrets. The guide notes common theft tactics and insider threats that can help companies stay alert to possible internal and external threats.
  • Business professionals traveling abroad should take precautions to ensure the safety and security of business information. This guide provides specific recommendations for doing so.

Overall, this was an engaging discussion that many of you are likely having in your organization.  If you have thoughts to share, we would love to hear them.  If you have concerns about trade secret protection or data loss prevention, contact us off-line for more information.

Are Your Corporate Policies Keeping Up With Technology?

As you may recall, we recently posted about the potential business impact of the relatively new app Confide (Confide – a New App Touted for “Off-the-Record” Business Discussions – Good or Bad for Business?).  We promised we would follow up with some practical reminders about why you should insure that your policies are keeping abreast of technology.  Corporate policies and employee education are often two of the most effective means of placing employees on notice of company expectations of behavior, communication, use of electronic resources, and protection of confidential information – just to name a few.  But what happens when those policies don’t even contemplate certain employee behavior because they don’t address the technology behind the behavior?  Will those policies be effective in light of emerging technology?

Let’s evaluate some of the policies and training regimes that could be implicated, and might need to be reviewed, in light of new technology, or apps, like Confide and Snapchat:

BYOD Policies

If you permit employees to access company systems on personal devices and those employees keep company contact information on that personal device, you might want to consider whether your BYOD policy should prohibit the use of certain applications that require access to that information.  Permitting employees to use apps, which require the User to grant access to the User’s entire address book, could later impact your ability to prevent the employee, or others, from using or disclosing that contact information.  We have raised this issue in the past when talking about the ease with which LinkedIn makes uploading your entire contact database (See Who Owns Your Company’s Social Media Profiles, Contacts and Content?).

Confidentiality Policies

You likely have a policy that prohibits improper use or disclosure of confidential or sensitive information (such as client or patient information).  Those policies could be updated to specifically reference that disclosure of confidential or sensitive information via any app or text message is prohibited – including taking or sending pictures of such information.  The policy should remind employees that all company information, whether generated through a personal or corporate device, belongs to the employer – not to the employee – and is subject to company policies limiting use and disclosure of such information.

Software/Application Policies

Stakeholders from HR, IT and corporate legal should discuss which apps the company will prohibit on corporate owned devices.  Those prohibited applications should be spelled out in the company software/application policies.  There are many reasons for preventing the use of certain apps (think possible malware) but companies should also think about how employee use of an application which automatically destroys the data being transferred will impact employer obligations to control or retain such information, particularly those in highly regulated areas, such as financial services or health care.

Code of Conduct

An organization’s Code of Conduct often addresses an employee’s obligation to prevent theft of trade secret information.  Such policies often discuss how trade secret theft occurs and how employees can actively assist the company in protection of its trade secret information.  Such policies – which also often prohibit the unauthorized use or disclosure of trade secret information – should specify whether the use of apps, like Confide or Snapchat, to transfer trade secret information is prohibited by the Company.

Electronic Monitoring/Electronic Use Policies

A company’s electronic monitoring and/or electronic use policies often provide notice to employees that the company will monitor employee conduct while using company provided electronic resources.  Such policies should address whether sending text messages or any similar communications to prevent detection of that communication is a violation of company policy, and that the company will take disciplinary action should it learn that employees are engaging in unauthorized text messages or other interactions.  Additionally, employees should further be reminded they have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their communications – whether sent via an app or via work email.  As with other policies, an employee should sign off on, consent to and acknowledge an understanding of this as a condition of employment.

Training

As we have often said in the past, training and education is key to preventing unauthorized behaviors, as well as insuring employees understand what is or is not appropriate use of electronic devices that access your systems.  Your training could address, for example, appropriate business communications for your industry (e.g. via business email) and possible inappropriate business communications (e.g. via personal email, or via apps, like Confide and Snapchat).  I have found that demonstrating the potential negative consequences of using a particular mode of communication provides employees a better understanding of why that communication is prohibited, could result in harm to the company, or might be viewed as unprofessional in your industry.

Litigation Holds/Employee Claims/E-Discovery Policies

Businesses must also recognize that certain applications, like Confide, could pose problems for e-discovery and data retention in the event of litigation or a potential claim.  Employee use of certain apps could also impact an employer’s ability to fully investigate employee/supervisor harassment and discrimination, or to monitor illegal or unethical conduct by employees.  If employees are using non-company supported means of communicating business information, a policy should require those employees to disclose that fact to IT and/or legal to insure the company can later meet any legal or compliance-related obligations to store and retain certain data.

Think back to when your company did not need a social media policy because social media did not exist – and no one ever thought that employees would share company information to 500 of their closest friends…but now most companies have policies to address employee use of social media.  Emerging technologies certainly make it difficult for IT, HR and corporate legal departments to keep on top of employee behavior and to keep company information safe.  What are you doing to keep abreast of technology?  As always, we welcome your input. 

Data Protection and Trade Secret Theft – from Prevention to Enforcement

Companies are increasingly being pressured to defend their data protection programs and make trade secret protection a top priority.  This pressure arises from many sources, including, reports of corporate espionage by foreign governments,  employees’ increased use of smart phones, tablets and external storage devices, and studies showing that a large percentage of departing employees take confidential company information with them when they leave a company’s employ.  As a result, companies must evaluate whether their approach to protecting trade secrets is keeping pace with technological advances and whether they have established internal best practices.  So what are some of those best practices?  Here are just a few of the recommendations that have been created by and will be discussed by my colleagues Sten-Erik Hoidal and Timothy M. O’Shea at an upcoming seminar at Fredrikson & Byron (registration information below):

(1) Conduct a Data Protection Audit

Determine what information is confidential or trade secret, who has access to such information, and where it is stored.

(2) Deploy Security Measures And Policies

Use physical and electronic security measures such as access controls for the building and areas within the building, locked doors and cabinets, password protected files or encryption, ID badges for employees, restricting the location/time/and access to such information, and labeling documents as confidential and trade secret.

(3) Use Appropriate Contractual Protections

Include confidentiality clauses in employment agreements for those employees who will have access to confidential and trade secret information, and use a non-disclosure agreement with employees or any third parties given access to confidential data is critical for protecting confidential information and trade secrets.

(4) Implement Clear, Enforceable Policies Relating To Authorized Use Of Company Property

Implement an electronic use policy that alerts employees that computers are company property and remind them that the company reserves the right to monitor employees’ emails, internet, and computer use (i.e., that the employee has no expectation of privacy).

(5) Implement Procedures For Departing Employees

Conduct exit interviews, eliminate access to computer systems, require return of all company documents and information, and request acknowledgment that employee has complied.

These are just a few of the best practices relating to protection of your company data.  If you are interested in learning more about how you can best protect your company data, consider joining us for this seminar on Thursday February 27, 2014 (registration link).  In addition to some of the best practices above, the program will offer the following Practical Perspectives:

  • Key lessons learned from recent trade secret cases about what evidence is important to support a civil or criminal case for trade secret theft or misappropriation of confidential information.
  • How to work with law enforcement and the Department of Justice to seek criminal prosecution against former employees for trade secret and other data theft, as well as preventative best practices that will help support a criminal prosecution.

I will be moderating this discussion with a great group of panelists, including:

  • Timothy C. Rank, Assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice
  • Tamara L. White, Supervisory Special Agent – Minneapolis Counterintelligence Program, Federal Bureau of Investigations
  • Sten-Erik Hoidal, Attorney, Fredrikson & Byron, P.A.
  • Timothy M. O’Shea, Attorney, Fredrikson & Byron, P.A.

The seminar will take place on February 27, 2014, at 7:30 a.m. (Registration and Continental Breakfast), 8:00 – 9:30 a.m. (Panel Discussion and Q&A) at Fredrikson & Byron, 200 South Sixth Street, 40th Floor
Minneapolis.  If you are interested:

Click here to register for this seminar!  We hope that you can make it so we can continue this discussion!

Confide – a New App Touted for “Off-the-Record” Business Discussions – Good or Bad for Business?

In early 2013, Snapchat, an app that allows users to send self-destructing photos, became the second-most popular iPhone app with approximately 50 million snaps a day.  While Snapchat is aimed at a younger non-business audience (think teens sending “selfies” to their friends), we had recently been talking about the potential legal implications arising from employee use of Snapchat.  In the midst of that discussion, along comes Confide.  Confide is a free text-based iOS app that permits users to send text/email messages to others which disappear as soon as they are read by the receiving party (the app requires iOS 7.0 or later and is optimized for the iPhone 5).

Confide targets its service to professionals who want to discuss personal, business or legal issues without the fear of an evidentiary trail.   In the “Frequently Asked Questions” section of its website, Confide provided its “good use cases for Confide” as follows:

1. Anytime you send an email or text saying “Confidential — don’t forward”

2. Anytime you respond to an email or text with “I’ll call you”

3. Anytime you say “Can you send me your personal email; I’d prefer this conversation not be on work servers”

The FAQ’s go on to state that good uses could include discussions about “[j]ob referrals, HR issues, deal discussions, and even some good-natured office gossip.”

I admit the thought of business messages being sent purposefully so that employees (including management) can have “off-the-record” discussions – that immediately disappear – causes some level of anxiety for the employment lawyer side of me.  But, let’s look at how this app works before I provide any thoughts on its business use.

On a basic level, Confide’s interface operates like other message sending apps (it contains a recipient, subject line and a message), except that when users open a message, the text is covered by a colored box that only disappears when the user runs a finger over the words.  The box reappears after the user passes on to new words.  According to Confide’s website, this “wanding” ability is supposed to provide screen shot protection.  The app also sends a notification to the sender if the recipient tries to screen shot the message.  Confide also boasts “end-to-end” encryption, which means the key to deciphering the incoming message lies only on the recipient’s mobile device, not Confides’ servers.  Confide claims that it does not have the ability to read, or even retrieve, the user messages (this also means that no one else could later retrieve the message).  Confide does, however, require complete access to the user’s Address Book on the device used to access Confide.  Confide stores the Address Book data in order to provide the service.  (See Confide’s Privacy Policy).  By using the app, users agree to Confide’s access to that Address Book.

So – in light of all of those features, what do businesses need to be thinking about in deciding whether to embrace or reject this new technology?

Potential Benefits

  • Confide grants users the ability to engage in private communications that won’t be stored anywhere.  This could be used for communications that really don’t need to be permanently recorded, such as where to meet for lunch, whether you are attending a particular meeting, or the like.
  • The impermanence might be also be good if employees are simply venting to each other about the workplace – providing an outlet for employees to let off harmless steam without those remarks coming back to haunt them, or their employer.

Potential Cons

  • Confide grants users the ability to engage in private communications that won’t be stored anywhere.   This feature and the app’s impermanence might raise problems for businesses required by law to retain certain types of records or preserve documents or data for litigation purposes, or which are are prohibited from engaging in certain types of communications.
  • From an employment standpoint, these ultra-private communications could lead to inappropriate discussions between employees – leaving the employer left with trying to work out a “he said, she said” situation without any concrete evidence.
  • Confide requires the user to grant complete access to their Address Book.  This should raise concerns for companies seeking to protect certain contact information – such as client information.  Clients too might not appreciate their contact information being shared freely with Confide.
  • Employees may also make improper use of the app – whether to share confidential information, to make plans to go work for a competitor to name just a few, to share confidential information with that competitor, to discuss important internal matters that really ought to be recorded in some fashion, and the list goes on.

In light of the pros and cons above, businesses will have to decide whether they want to encourage “off-the-record” discussions between employees and permit the use of apps like Confide.  At the very least, the advent of apps like Confide should serve as a reminder for business to take affirmative steps to keep current with all new technologies to protect business interests, trade secrets, and regulatory and legal obligations.  Our next post will address some affirmative actions you can take to stay on top of new technologies.

Does your business or its employees use applications like Confide?  If so, how do you regulate the use, and the disappearing nature of the documents?  As always, we are interested in your thoughts.

Will Your Online Employment Application Hold Up to Minnesota’s Ban the Box Legislation?

We are always pleased to present posts from our colleagues in Fredrikson & Byron’s Employment & Labor group.  This week, we are happy to re-post our colleague Krista Hatcher’s article relating to an employer’s inquiry into an applicant’s criminal history in light of Minnesota’s recent “Ban the Box” law.  We thought her commentary relating to online applications may be of particular interest to our readers – so please do read on!

New Guidance from MDHR on “Ban-the-Box” Law, by Krista Hatcher

Minnesota’s new “Ban the Box” law prohibits most employers in Minnesota from inquiring into an applicant’s criminal history until after selecting the applicant for an interview or making a conditional offer of employment. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which enforces the new law, recently presented a Ban the Box webinar and published a Technical Guidance document. Although the MDHR’s interpretation is not binding on courts, which may disagree with the agency and construe the law differently, there are a few takeaways that employers may find instructive.

Compliance Will Not Insulate Employers from Discrimination Claims

Minnesota’s Ban the Box law regulates the timing of criminal history inquiries. Even if an employer complies with Ban the Box, however, its use of criminal history information may result in liability if it discriminates against individuals in protected classes. The MDHR suggests employers review the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says that employers should either: (1) have their criminal history screening practices validated in accordance with EEOC Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures; or (2) develop a targeted screening process that takes into consideration at least the nature of the crime, time that has elapsed, and nature of the job for which the individual is applying, and provides for an individualized assessment. Employers that fail to comply with one of these two methods may face claims that their exclusion of applicants based on a criminal record is discriminatory.

Multi-state Employers May Use a Single Electronic Application That Contains a Clear and Unambiguous Disclaimer

According to the MDHR, employers that have operations in multiple states may continue to use a single electronic application, but must clearly and unambiguously inform Minnesota applicants that they need not answer criminal background questions on the application. The MDHR recommends that such language be in bold text and a different font, and cautions that if a Minnesota applicant does answer a criminal background question on the application the employer should not use or track the information. Although the MDHR did not discuss the use of paper applications by multi-state employers, the implication seems to be that a disclaimer on the application would be insufficient and multi-state employers should use a separate paper application in Minnesota that does not include any criminal history inquiries.

For more information on this issue, please see Ingrid Culp’s article, “New Minnesota Law Will Render Most Employment Applications Now In Use Unlawful.” For assistance with complying with the Ban the Box law or other questions related to background checks, please contact an attorney in Fredrikson & Byron’s Employment & Labor Law Group.

Online Defamation – Can Web Providers Be Held Responsible For Online Gossip?

In the past, we have discussed defamation claims against individuals arising from their own online reviews and posts.  (See Should Healthcare Professionals Sue to Protect Their Online Reputations?)  The case we discuss today adds a new twist.  In December 2013, briefs were filed in the Sarah Jones v. Dirty-World Entertainment Recordings, LLC d.b.a theDirty.com with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals challenging a federal district court’s ruling that allowed a defamation claim to proceed against an Arizona-based gossip website (thedirty.com) for the anonymous posts of its readers.  Following a failed motion for summary judgment, the case against thedirty.com proceeded to trial, and the jury awarded $338,000 to Sarah Jones for the defamation claim.

The case stems from posts to thedirty.com which disclosed details of the sexual history of Sarah Jones, a former school teacher and Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader, and her ex-husband.  According to the Associated Press, Internet Giants Weigh In On Defamation Lawsuit, Nik Richie, thedirty.com owner, views each post, decides which submissions merit publication, and then adds commentary to the posts if warrant.  In the posts concerning Ms. Jones, Richie added commentary regarding the culpability of high school teachers having sexual encounters with minor students (Sarah Jones had earlier pled guilty to having a sexual relationship with a former teenage student.)

So what is the significance of this case – it’s just one tabloid-gossip website – right? Well, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft, Gawker, Buzzfeed and Google all must have found the case significant since each entity participated in filing an amicus brief with the Sixth Circuit so that their concerns could be heard in the appeal.  The web providers are troubled that the federal district court’s ruling will have a “significant chilling” aspect to online speech.  According to the amicus brief filed in the case, the decision undermines the Communications Decency Act – which fosters online speech and grants broad immunity to web providers.  The Act provides, in part:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

47 U.S.C. § 230 (c)(1).

In the brief, the web providers argued that if the case is allowed to stand, online providers would be put in the precarious position of having to judge the authenticity and accuracy of each post – which would be a daunting, if not, an impossible feat.  The brief went on to state that “[i]f websites are subject to liability for failing to remove third-party content whenever someone objects, they will be subject to the ‘heckler’s veto,’ giving anyone who complains unfettered power to censor speech.”  The amicus brief further points out that the decision is contrary to hundreds of court cases upholding immunity for web providers under the Communications Decency Act.

Commentators have questioned whether the Court’s ruling in thedirty.com decision is based on the judge’s personal bias and distaste for websites like thedirty.com – pointing to the Court’s holding that Richie’s style and commentary encourage offensive comments on the site.  The Court’s personal distaste for the website may have had on impact on the decision, but the Court’s decision primarily focuses on Richie’s own involvement in the commentary.  The Court reasoned that Richie’s commentary about Jone’s conviction for sexual misconduct with a minor validated the anonymous posts, and tied Richie to the defamation claim (i.e. he was being held liable for his own commentary, not that of a third-party).  The Court concluded:

…[A] website owner who intentionally encourages illegal or actionable third-party postings to which he adds his own comments ratifying or adopting the posts becomes a “creator” or “developer” of that content and is not entitled to immunity.

It certainly would have been interesting to see how the Court would have ruled had Richie himself not posted any commentary regarding Jones’ criminal past.

So how does this affect business and social media?  Web providers are concerned that the ruling, if allowed to stand, would significantly limit the immunity provided to web providers under the Communications Decency Act, thus imposing an obligation on web-based businesses to act as a gatekeeper for online speech.  Online businesses are reasonably concerned that this would open the floodgates to potential litigation.

What would happen if a website, such as Yelp, could be sued for the negative posts of online reviewers? How would Yelp, from a practical business standpoint, know, or find out, the truth behind a reviewer’s post that a particular restaurant’s food or service was inadequate, or conversely whether the reviewer simply had a grudge against this particular business?  It is a good question – and one that has web providers on edge.  For me the real question is – would Yelp be held responsible for that bad restaurant review under thedirty.com analysis outlined above, or would that potential liability be limited to situations where Yelp (or one of its employees) decided to weigh in on the discussion – i.e. adding its own opinions or commentary?  And remember, truth is an absolute defense to a claim for defamation – so if the commentary is true, the defamation claim would fail.

So what do you think?  Should web providers be provided broad immunity against defamatory posts on their web sites – particularly when the web providers include their own, potentially defamatory, commentary?  As always, we are interested in your thoughts and comments.

Facebook Post Doesn’t Count as a Sexual Harassment Complaint

Can a Facebook post count as a sexual harassment complaint to an employer?

The Tenth Circuit recently said no in Debord v. Mercy Health Sys. Of Kan., Inc., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 23733 (10th. Cir. Nov. 26, 2013).  The case involved Sara Debord, a nuclear-medicine technician, who claimed her employer, Mercy Hospital in Independence, Kansas, retaliated against her for making a complaint of sexual harassment.  The “complaint” in question was a Facebook post Debord made stating:

“Oh, it’s hard to explain…basically, the MRI tech is getting paid for doing MRI even though he’s not registered and myself, nor the CT tech are getting paid for our areas…and [her supervisor] tells me ‘good luck taking it to HR because you’re not supposed to know that’ plus [her supervisor] adds money on peoples [sic] checks if he likes them (I’ve been one of them)…and he needs to keep his creapy [sic] hands to himself…just an all around d-bag!!” (Emphasis added.)

The post was viewed by Debord’s co-workers, who reported it to HR.  HR met with Debord, and she repeatedly denied making the posts.  When she eventually admitted she made the post, HR asked her about the “creepy hands” comment.  She said that she did not think that her supervisor sexually harassed her, but instead he was just “a pervert.”  Debord was eventually terminated for failing to cooperate with HR’s investigation, lying about the posts, and disrupting the workplace by sending false messages about the investigation to other employees.

Debord then sued Mercy Hospital, for, among other things, retaliating against her for making a claim of sexual harassment.  She claimed that the Facebook post was her way of reporting sexual harassment, and Mercy’s decision to terminate her for the post was unlawful. The Tenth Circuit rejected her argument, finding that Debord’s Facebook post “falls short.”  The court explained that Mercy had an “otherwise flexible reporting system,” and that her post, by itself, did not provide any notice to Mercy. The court noted that Debord did not attempt to avail herself of Mercy’s reporting system and, when confronted, denied making the posts.  Based on her conduct, the court refused to believe her argument that she was attempting to report sexual harassment to Mercy in a meaningful way and denied her retaliation claim.

Much of the court’s decision rested on the employee’s conduct in denying that she made the posts and failing to follow the employer’s reporting policy.  Under different circumstances, might there be situations in which a Facebook post could constitute a report of sexual harassment to an employer? What if the employer did not have a good reporting system in place?

Authored by Kristen Barlow Rand, Associate, Fredrikson & Byron, P.A.  Thanks, Kristen, for the great post!

IT Professionals Walk a Tightrope When Dealing With Illegal Activity of Employees on Company-Owned Devices

In our November 8, 2013, post No Hall Pass for School Officials in School Texting Scandal, we discussed the impact of inappropriate and possibly illegal employee activity on company-owned electronic devices for both employees and organizations.  Now, we turn our attention to the company’s IT staff, and the professional, legal and ethical dilemmas many might face when dealing with the improper conduct of employees.

The Importance of IT Protocols

Employee misconduct comes in many forms – the conduct might simply amount to a violation of company policy or it might amount to a criminal act.  Regardless, organizations should consider implementing protocols for IT staff to follow when reporting and/or investigating the possible misconduct.  For example, chain-of-command – to whom will IT staff report possible misconduct?  Is there a direct line to a supervisor, or does the IT professional report these incidents to a senior level manager?  What happens if, as in the Coatsville case, the IT staffer believes the supervisor is involved in the illegal conduct?  Does corporate protocol anticipate these circumstances?  These questions should be discussed with all stakeholders so that the IT protocol includes a procedure that works for the organization.  So, what are the important takeaways relating to IT protocols?

  • The protocol should tell IT staffers what to do with evidence of possible misconduct.  For example, who is responsible for and/or authorized to report possible misconduct to senior management and/or law enforcement personnel.
  • Organizations should train IT staff on the protocol so that they know how to respond when confronted with possible misconduct.
  • The protocol should outline to IT staff when to engage with inside or outside legal counsel to insure that preservation obligations of the company are met.  IT staff should not be forced to make this important decision in a vacuum.

As we often say, a good protocol should tell employees what responsibilities that each employee holds, and the obligations of those employees to perform certain duties when they are faced with employee misconduct.

What to do When Law Enforcement Becomes Involved

Another issue that should be addressed for your IT professionals is what to do when, as in Coatsville, law enforcement personnel become involved.  For example, in the Coatsville matter, the IT Director was first told by the District Attorney to preserve the integrity of the computer system and its content as evidence of an alleged illegal act.  Then, the Acting Coatsville Superintendent directed the IT Director to give-up the computer codes to an outside computer firm.  The IT staffer walks a tightrope in complying with the directives of a supervisor while simultaneously following the legal requirements to preserve data and records for criminal prosecution.  What can a company do?

  • Have a protocol in place that clearly delineates how IT personnel should react to involvement of law enforcement.
  • Supervisors or managers too should know how to respond to reports of misconduct.  For example, supervisors and managers should know that intimidation of IT professionals is not appropriate following a report of possible misconduct.  For a good example, see dailylocal.com, More details in alleged harassment of texting scandal whistleblowers, October 1, 2013.  (The Acting Superintendent’s email to the IT Director ordering compliance with his demands lest he be slapped with insubordination regardless of what the county’s district attorney ordered).

According to the District Attorney involved in the Coatsville matter, an organization facing a criminal investigation should map out a clear strategy for preserving any computer evidence, backing up files with minimal disruption to the organization’s operations, and then a plan to communicate the strategy to law enforcement personnel to prevent any inference of company interference in the investigation.  See edweek.com, Pa. Texting Scandal Highlights Complexities for IT Leaders, October 16, 2013.  “The IT director really at that point has a double set of duties,” Mr. Hogan said.  “They have to preserve any data that might be related to the investigation from the standpoint of the government.  They also have a duty to follow any lawful orders of the [enterprise] regarding that data.”  As noted above – thinking about this upfront so that IT professionals have a protocol to follow would have alleviated some of the strain on the IT Director in this case – as well as the possible conflict with local law enforcement.

Do you Hire an Outside Forensic Vendor?

Finally, another big issue commonly faced by organizations is when to hire an outside forensic firm to preserve computer evidence and the integrity of the entire computer systems. The retention of an outside firm can help negate any inference that the business is involved in covering-up, or worse, destroying, evidence.  A well thought out and documented protocol might include a section addressing when to hire a forensic computer firm, how that firm will be retained, and who will be responsible for working with the firm.  Preservation of evidence is an important component of any potential legal action – criminal or civil.  As a result, having a clear road map of how an organization responds to preservation of evidence can help save the organization from the threat of sanctions if litigation later develops.

Have you dealt with employee misconduct on employee devices?  Were you equipped to respond?  As always, we welcome your insight.

No Hall Pass for School Officials in School Texting Scandal

The texting/tweeting scandals just keep coming – and once again this one is all true.  This unfortunate episode comes from the Coatsville Area School District in Pennsylvania.  The scandal highlights technology, ethics and employment issues, as well as the complexities that IT staff must navigate when dealing with evidence of alleged immoral and illegal activities on company-owned devices.  In this first post, we will look at the issues businesses face when employees engage in nefarious activity on company-owned electronic devices.

So, let’s take a look at some of the facts.  The Coatesville, Pa., School District Superintendent Richard Como and Coatsville Area High School Athletic Director Jim Donato recently resigned following the disclosure of their inflammatory texting conversation.  The pair had exchanged a myriad of racist and sexist slurs directed at students, faculty, and administration officials on district-owned cell phones.  In one appalling exchange, Como and Donato used fourteen slurs using the “n” word.  In another text, the pair allegedly discussed financial misdealing within the district and monetary kickbacks.

The district’s IT Director (Hawa) discovered the racist slurs while performing a routine data transfer on Athletic Director Donato’s district-owned cell phone.  Mr. Hawa reported the incident to the district’s deputy superintendent, and then to the district’s attorney.  News reports confirm that Hawa ultimately sent the transcript to the Chester County District Attorney after he became concerned that some Coatsville school board members and their attorney were attempting to cover-up the texting scandal.  See Daily Local News, Coatsville school officials sighted at courthouse, dailylocal.com, October 18, 2013.  The District Attorney initiated a grand jury proceeding into the texting scandal, the alleged financial kickbacks, and other alleged improper activities of the school employees.  See abclocal.go.com, Grand jury investigation into Coatsville texting scandal, October 15, 2013.  The NAACP also conducted its own hearing into the incident revealing additional claims that the district discriminated against low-income and minority families, as well as disabled children.  The NAACP plans to investigate the claims made at the hearing for possible legal action against the district.  See philly.com, Coatsville school board denies accusation of bias, October 18, 2013.

So, what are the lessons learned from this scandal?  First, there are lessons for anyone who uses social media, electronic devices, etc.:

  • In the digital age, everyone must understand that electronic communications will NOT remain private.
  • Emails and texts – whether good or bad – do not disappear.  As discussed in prior posts, forensic experts can often easily retrieve “deleted” information from a cell phone or computer.  If you would not say what you are saying in front of a judge (or your grandmother) – don’t post it!
  • Don’t use your work provided device as if it were your own device.  As happened here, what happens if you turn in that device for a routine data transfer?  What will someone find?  Company officials and IT staff – under appropriate policies and procedures – will have the right to investigate information contained on company-owned cell phones and computers.  Employees must understand that even though they might be permitted to use a company-owned device for business and personal purposes, that device, and the content on that device, still remain the property of the business.

Second, there are important lessons for private and public corporate entities:

  • Implement policies and procedures that permit you to monitor, inspect and act upon inappropriate text messages or interactions.
  • Implement policies and procedures that outline the circumstances and procedures for reporting alleged illegal activities.  These policies could spell out the appropriate chain-of-command for reporting this activity, as well as the individual in the organization who has the authorization to discuss company matters with outside law enforcement officials.
  • Implement policies and procedures on appropriate and inappropriate use of company provided devices.   Then, train your employees on what that means – clearly not everyone understands this concept yet.

Third, evidence obtained from a company-owned device might be used in a termination decision, however, there could be consequences beyond loss of employment for inappropriate text messages:

  • For example, the former Coatsville Superintendent may find out his conduct might negate the school district’s obligation to pay-out his retirement pension.  I bet that Como never thought that his texts with the Athletic Director could ever jeopardize his reputation, career, and ultimately his retirement pension.
  • Depending on the content of the inappropriate exchanges, district attorneys could use employee text messages to prosecute employees or their employers under criminal statutes.  Just think of what may face the Superintendent – “Theft by deception or extortion, theft of services, tampering with public records or information, are a few stated crimes listed under the forfeiture act that could cause Como to forfeit his pension.”  See Daily Times News, delcotimes.com, Former Coatsville schools chief at center of racist text saga files for pension, November 6, 2013.
  • The EEOC, local departments of human rights or the NAACP may use those text messages to support claims of discrimination, retaliation or unequal treatment against the employer.

In short, employees need to exercise some modicum of restraint in their communications.  Employers, knowing that employees may not do so, need to have policies in place to respond to inappropriate and possibly illegal conduct by employees.  Are you prepared?

Anonymous Tweets Result in High Profile Termination

You really can’t make this stuff up.  The story sounds like the plot of a D.C. beltway suspense novel – senior White House director involved with national security and Iranian nuclear negotiations caught and fired after anonymously leaking sensitive national security information, and lobbing insults at Capitol Hill,  White House staffers and politicians via Twitter.  The abrasive tweets criticized government policies, and even the actions of the director’s boss, the President of the United States.  But someone did not make it up…sadly, it is all true.  See White House Official Fired Over Anonymous Tweets, Reuters.com, October 23, 2013. 

Jofi Joseph, was the director of nuclear non-proliferation on the White House National Security Council staff.  But his employment was terminated after the government discovered that for two and a half years, Joseph anonymously posted hundreds of the blunt tweets like those outlined above.  According to news reports, Joseph described himself in his Twitter bio as a “keen observer” of national security, noting that he was unapologetic for saying what others only thought (the Twitter account has since been shut down).  See White House Staffer Fired for Tweets Criticizing Bosses, NBCWashington.com, October 23, 2013.  The White House confirmed Joseph’s termination.

So have these highly publicized terminations deterred employees from posting negative comments regarding their employers?  Probably not.  Yet, the lesson from this recent termination (and so many of those in the past) is that even an employee’s anonymous posts can be uncovered and have a significant negative impact on that individual’s job security and reputation.  In this day and age, individuals should not rely upon the supposed anonymity of the internet to protect their identities.  As an aside, Joseph’s antics could also impact others… Joseph’s wife is currently employed in a high profile job on Capitol Hill.   I wonder whether Joseph had any thought about how his actions might affect his wife’s career.  Whether he thought about it or not, the circumstances surrounding his termination might affect how others view his family.  When conducting training on social media use for employees, I always caution employees to consider all the ramifications of their actions before proceeding down the road of negative posts.  This situation certainly highlights why this guidance is important.

From an employment perspective, companies should consider how their social media policies handle employees’ negative posts or, more importantly, the leak of sensitive information.  Employers should consider having procedures in place to investigate and address potentially damaging posts.  As you all know from past posts, certain laws, e.g. the National Labor Relations Act, may protect employees for negative comments on the internet (see A Reminder to Avoid Prying Into Private Group Facebook Pages!) but not all employee posts are protected.  Employers should be prepared to act on those that are not – particularly if the posts contain confidential information.

Have you ever personally posted something you later regretted, or have you had to address negative employee posts in the workplace?  Do you have the policies and procedures in place to handle these situations?  As always, we welcome your insight. 

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Contributing Authors

Teresa Thompson

Teresa Thompson Teresa is the Chair of Fredrikson’s Non-Competes and Trade Secrets Group, and an MSBA Certified Labor and Employment Law Specialist. She counsels business clients on risk management and policy development relating to employee use of technology, and also litigates their business and employment disputes. Teresa trains, writes and lectures extensively on legal issues arising from business use of technology and social media.

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Norah Olson Bluvshtein

Norah Olson Bluvshtein Norah is an employment law attorney representing businesses both in and out of the courtroom on employee issues from hiring, to firing, and everything in between. She writes, speaks, and consults on employee use (and misuse) of the Internet, social media, and technology.

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