Have you ever had one of those days when your client or customer drives you up the wall? We all vent from time to time, to a fellow employee or on social media, but a recent Idaho Supreme Court holding should make everyone think twice before venting about problems on Facebook. On June 10, 2014, Idaho’s highest court denied a nurse unemployment benefits after he was terminated for ranting on Facebook that he wanted to slap a patient.
Joseph Talbot, a full-time practical nurse at Desert View Care Center (Desert View) in Buhl, Idaho, posted on Facebook:
“Ever had one of those days where you’d like to slap the ever loving snot out of a patient who is just being a jerk because they can? Nurses shouldn’t have to take abuse from you just because you are sick. In fact, it makes me less motivated to make sure your call light gets answered every time when I know that the minute I step into the room I’ll be greeted by a deluge of insults.”
After Desert View discovered Talbot’s post, the hospital fired Talbot for violating a provision of its social media policy that read:
“[Desert View] also expects employees to treat physicians, providers, vendors, conservators, regulators, competitors, fellow employees, managers, and family members of our patients with respect electronically, as well as in-person. . . . [E]mployees will at all times avoid slanderous, vulgar, obscene, intimidating, threatening or other “bullying” behavior towards any of the groups identified above.”
After his termination, Talbot applied for unemployment benefits, which the Idaho Department of Labor (IDOL) granted. As a general rule, the IDOL grants unemployment benefits to employees discharged through no fault of their own—employees fired for misconduct do not receive benefits. The Idaho Industrial Commission (Commission) reviewed Talbot’s case and denied his claim for benefits, concluding that Talbot engaged in misconduct by violating Desert View’s social media policy. Talbot appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court after his claim was denied.
The Idaho Supreme Court upheld the Commission’s denial of benefits, reasoning that Desert View “had a reasonable expectation that [Talbot] would not make a derogatory . . . or threatening statement about a patient on Facebook.” Desert View’s policy specifically prohibited any slanderous, vulgar, obscene, intimidating, threatening, or other electronic bullying towards patients, and Talbot violated this policy when he posted on Facebook that he would not respond to a patient’s call button. Talbot insisted that his post did not violate the hospital’s policy because it was only meant to “initiate discussion.” The Court failed to find Talbot’s argument persuasive, holding that Talbot’s statement indicated that he would not respond to a patient in need, which substantially put his patient care in question.
How Does this Holding Effect Idaho Employers?
This holding emphasizes an important moral: employers faced with potential harms arising from employees’ social media posts need not wait until those harms actually occur before taking action. When employees hold positions of trust, like nurses, doctors, social workers, psychologists, and even lawyers, it is imperative that employers protect their patients and/or clients at all times. This is especially true when, in cases like Desert View, employees joke about disregarding a patient’s care. If Desert View waited to take action and a patient suffered as a result, Desert View, just like other similarly situated employers, could have faced liability.
INSIGHTS FOR EMPLOYERS
Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.