Court: Ignorance Of Facebook Privacy Settings Is No Excuse

By David Cohen 

Ignorance of Facebook’s privacy settings did not fly as an excuse in one courtroom, where a lawsuit alleging wrongful termination and privacy invasion was dismissed.

Sophos’ Naked Security blog summarized the case by Texas emergency medical technician Robert J. Sumien against former employer medical transport company CareFlite.

Sumien’s ambulance partner, Jan Roberts, posted a comment on the Facebook wall of CareFlite employee Scott Schoenhardt saying that she wanted to slap a patient she had recently transported. Roberts then posted on her Facebook wall:

Yes, I DO get upset on some calls when my patient goes off in the house and I have to have a firefighter ride in with me because I fear for MY own safety. I think that is a valid excuse for wanting to use some sort of restraints. Just saying.

And Sumien commented:

Yeah like a boot to the head. . . . Seriously yeah restraints or actual HELP from PD instead of the norm.

Delicia Haynes, sister of the company’s compliance officer, Sheila Calvert, saw the comment on Schoenhardt’s wall and alerted Calvert, also complaining in writing to the company’s management about the comments by Roberts and Sumien, who were both fired.

Sumien sued CareFlite on the grounds of unlawful termination, intrusion upon seclusion, and public disclosure of private facts, basing his case on the argument that employees cannot be fired for engaging in workplace-related discussions on Facebook.

He claimed that the company invaded his privacy, saying that he misunderstood his co-worker’s Facebook privacy settings, he didn’t know who had access to the wall posts, and he didn’t know his employer would be able to view his comment.

The court rejected that argument, saying that it was only considering whether or not CareFlite intruded on Sumien’s private affairs by reading the comment, and it dismissed all claims. Sumien appealed his privacy invasion claim, which was rejected by the Second District of Texas/Fort Worth Court of Appeals Thursday, with the court saying that Sumien hadn’t produced “a scintilla” of evidence regarding privacy invasion.

Santa Clara University of Law Associate Professor Eric Goldman wrote in a blog post:

Not all communication platforms are equally appropriate for every discussion. If you don’t understand how the communication platform works, don’t use it for anything you don’t want the world to know. Instead, stick to direct messages or email, and recognize that even then, “private” messages have a knack of leaking out to the wrong people.

In particular, commenting on someone else’s Facebook status report is not a private communication to that person. That should be obvious to even casual Facebook users, but apparently Sumien didn’t get it.

People in the healthcare industry (broadly conceived) should be especially careful about discussing patient-related matters in any online venue. We’ve seen problems with online discussions by people in the healthcare industry literally from cradle to grave.

Readers: Do you think CareFlite’s firing of Sumien and Roberts was justified?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.