April 3, 2012

Court Expands Employer Responsibility Regarding Online Bullying

online bullyingA federal appeals court in California recently ruled in favor of a state correctional officer when they held his employer liable for harassment the employee underwent after hours on his blog. The employee, Ralph Espinoza, who was born with a congenital hand deformation, claimed to have been badgered and persecuted by co-workers who posted humiliating messages on Espinoza’s blog.

Once alerted to the presence of the blog, upper management held an investigation to determine which work computers were used to access the blog and who was signed in during the times of the alleged harassment. Several employees were identified as having accessed the blog. In response to their findings, management sent out a mass email clarifying that blog posting was against organizational policy and began to block access to blogging sites; but their employees knew of a workaround.

Despite evidence that management knew some of the culprits, none were disciplined.  Espinoza filed several complaints with his supervisors to no avail. The lack of action eventually led to a harassment and discrimination lawsuit where Espinoza claimed to suffer from insomnia and depression brought on by the persistent ridicule. Meanwhile, the employer held that it wasn’t liable since the harassing behavior was outside the workplace.

The court responded by saying, “employers do not have a duty to monitor private communications of their employees, (but they do have a) duty to take effective measures to stop co-employee harassment when the employer knows or has reason to know that such (actions are) taking place … in settings related to the workplace.” The court ruled that the employer did too little to protect the employee and awarded Espinoza $820,000 in lost earnings and punitive damages.

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Marie is a writer for Recruiter.com covering career advice, recruitment topics, and HR issues. She has an educational background in languages and literature as well as corporate experience in Human Resources.