In a recent decision, a Federal District Court for the District of New Jersey upheld a jury’s verdict that a chain restaurant violated the Federal Stored Communications Act and a similar New Jersey law by knowingly and intentionally accessing its employees’ private chat group on MySpace.com.
The managers of Houston’s Restaurant learned of the chat group from employee Karen St. Jean and gained access to it using her password. As a result, several employees lost their jobs based upon comments made about Houston’s on the site.
Those employees sued Houston’s and a jury trial was held. The jury decided the managers’ access to the site was unauthorized after hearing testimony from St. Jean that she felt pressured to provide her password to her managers. In addition, the jury decided that the managers knew St. Jean felt pressured to provide her password. As a result, the jury rejected Houston’s argument that its managers genuinely believed they had authority to access the chat group. The fact that the managers accessed the site on five separate occasions was sufficient to establish that they knowingly and intentionally accessed the site without authorization. In fact, the jury determined that the managers’ actions were so malicious as to justify an award of punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. Pietrylo v. Hillstone Restaurant Group, No. 06-5754, 2009 WL 3128420 (D.N.J. 2009).
This case illustrates the importance of creating a clear policy regarding an employee’s use of social networking sites, especially when comments about that person’s employer may be contained on the site.