The Impact of Social Media on Privacy is Unsettled

Illustration of Facebook mobile interface

Illustration of Facebook mobile interface (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent New Jersey District Court case underscores the rise in tensions between employers and employees when it comes to Social Media Accounts. In Ehling v. Monmouth-Ocean Hospital Service Corp., the Court denied an employer’s motion to dismiss a former employee’s invasion of privacy claim that alleged a supervisor accessed the employee’s Facebook account. Ehling worked for Monmouth-Ocean Hospital Service Corporation (“MONOC”) and became Acting President of the local union for Professional Emergency Medical Services. Ehling alleged that MONOC began engaging in a pattern of retaliatory conduct against her eventually leading to termination of her employment.

Posting Limited to “Friends”

Ehling maintained an account on Facebook, but kept access to her wall post limited to Facebook “friends,” many of whom were coworkers, but none of whom were members of MONOC’s management. Ehling alleged that MONOC surreptitiously gained access to her Facebook account when a supervisor summoned a MONOC employee, who was a Facebook friend, and coerced, strong-armed, and/or threatened the employee to access his Facebook account in the supervisor’s presence for the purpose of viewing and copying Ehling’s posts.

Ehling alleged that MONOC then sent letters regarding a certain posting to the New Jersey Board of Nursing and the New Jersey Department of Health, Office of Emergency Medical Services as it was concerned that Plaintiff’s Facebook posting showed a disregard for patient safety. Ehling alleged the letters were malicious and meant to damage her professionally.

Accessing Wall Postings Alleged to be Common Law Invasion of Privacy

Ehling’s claim for common law invasion of privacy was premised on Defendants’ alleged unauthorized “access of her private Facebook postings” The Court denied MONOC’s motion to dismiss which argued that Ehliong did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in her Facebook posting. The Court stated that Under New Jersey law, to state a claim for intrusion upon one’s seclusion or private affairs, a plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to demonstrate that (1) her solitude, seclusion, or private affairs were intentionally infringed upon, and that (2) this infringement would highly offend a reasonable person. See Bisbee v. John C. Conover Agency Inc., 186 N.J. Super. 335, 339 (App. Div. 1982). “[E]xpectations of privacy are established by general social norms” and must be objectively reasonable – a plaintiff’s subjective belief that something is private is irrelevant. White, 344 N.J. Super. 211, 223 (Ch. Div. 2001).

The Impact of Social Media on Privacy is Unsettled

The Court went on to make further observations on the impact of Social Media on Privacy:

“Privacy in social networking is an emerging, but underdeveloped, area of case law. See Robert Sprague, Invasion of the Social Networks: Blurring the Line between Personal Life and the Employment Relationship, 50 U. Louisville L. Rev. 1, 13 (2011) (discussing the undefined legal boundary between public and private communications on social  networking websites).

No Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

There appears to be some consistency in the case law on the two ends of the privacy spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, there are cases holding that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for material posted to an unprotected website that anyone can view. See, e.g., United States v. Gines-Perez, 214 F.Supp.2d 205, 225 (D.P.R. 2002), rev’d on other grounds, 90 F. App’x 3 (1st Cir. 2004) (“[I]t it strikes the Court as obvious that a claim to privacy is unavailable to someone who places information on an indisputably, public medium, such as the Internet, without taking any measures to protect the information”); Yath v. Fairview Clinics, N.P., 767 N.W.2d 34, 44(Minn. Ct. App. 2009) (holding that privacy was lost when private information was posted on a publicly accessible Internet website and “[a]ccess to the publication was not restricted”).

Some Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

On the other end of the spectrum, there are cases holding that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy for individual, password-protected online communications. See, e.g., Stengart v. Loving Care Agency, Inc., 201 N.J. 300 (N.J. 2010) (employee could have reasonably expected that e-mail communications with her lawyer through her personal, password-protected, web-based e-mail account would remain private); Pure Power Boot Camp, Inc. v. Warrior Fitness Boot Camp, LLC, 587 F. Supp. 2d 548 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy in personal, password-protected e-mail messages stored on a third party’s server, although the employee had accessed that outside server while at work).

Legal Approaches Continue to Develop

The Court note that a consistent approach hasn’t yet developed. While most courts hold that a communication is not necessarily public just because it is accessible there is disagreement as to how far that theory extends. Some courts have adopted the rule that when one shares private information to one or more persons, there may still be a reasonable expectation that the recipients of the information will not disseminate it further. What is clear is that privacy determinations are made on a case-by-case basis, in light of all the facts presented.

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