No Unemployment Compensation For Worker Fired for Disparaging Tweets

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court upheld the denial of unemployment benefits to a claimant whose former employer fired him for posting disparaging comments about his workplace and co-workers on the micro-blogging website Twitter. Burns v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, No. 1268 C.D. 2011 (Pa. Comw. Oct. 16, 2012).

As explained by the court, the employer, A.O. North America, Inc., maintained a code of conduct that provided “that employees are to treat each other with respect, and harassment of any kind to another employee, customer or vendor would not be tolerated.” The claimant, Mr. Burns, was an employee of A.O. North America. While he was so employed, Burns published several Twitter posts that referred to his work environment as “toxic[,]” his co-workers as “morons[,]” and his administrative assistant as “dysfunctional[,]” “psychotic[,]” and “schizophrenic[.]” When Burns’s co-workers complained, the employer investigated. Burns admitted that he had published the “tweets,” and that he knew the posts violated the code of conduct. Based on these admissions, the employer terminated Burns’s employment.

Burns applied for unemployment compensation. A state referee initially ruled that Burns was entitled to unemployment compensation, but the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Board of Review reversed that determination and found that Burns could not recover compensation because he had been discharged for willful misconduct. Burns appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court held that the Review Board’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. The court explained that under Pennsylvania law, an employee is ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits when his unemployment is due to discharge from work due to “willful misconduct” connected to his work. For this purpose, willful misconduct includes “a deliberate violation of the employer’s rules” and “a disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has a right to expect of an employee.”

The court deferred to the Review Board’s factual findings. Those findings included a determination that although Burns claimed that the tweets were about individuals who were not employed by A.O. North America, he actually was referring to his co-workers. The court concluded that–

Employer had a reasonable policy against disparaging other employees, or the organization, that Claimant was aware of the policy, and that Claimant violated said policy.  Thus, there was substantial evidence to support the UCBR’s finding that Claimant’s actions rose to the level of willful misconduct.

by Shawn N. Sullivan, Oct. 21, 2012.

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