Friday, May 20, 2022
The New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the power of a private company to discharge an at-will employee for "racially insensitive comments" on a private Facebook page where her employment was "prominently stated"
The issue raised in this appeal is whether the First Amendment or Article I, Paragraph 6 of the New Jersey Constitution prevents a private employer from terminating one of its at-will employees for posting racially insensitive comments about the Black Lives Matter movement on her personal Facebook account. Defendants AtlantiCare Medical System Incorporated and Geisinger Health System Incorporated (AtlantiCare) employed plaintiff Heather J. McVey as a Corporate Director of Customer Service. During the height of the nationwide protests concerning the murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota, McVey posted that she found the phrase "Black Lives Matter" to be "racist," believed the Black Lives Matter movement "causes segregation," and asserted that Black citizens were "killing themselves." McVey's Facebook profile prominently stated she was an AtlantiCare Corporate Director. After it discovered the comments, AtlantiCare fired McVey and she filed a complaint alleging wrongful discharge. The trial court concluded that the First Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 6 of the New Jersey Constitution did not bar a private employer from terminating an at-will employee and dismissed McVey's complaint...we affirm.
She had been employed there since 2005.
The posts implicated the company's written social media policies
An AtlantiCare administrator discovered McVey's Facebook posts. On June 17, 2020, an AtlantiCare Vice President called McVey to discuss her remarks. McVey acknowledged the posts and discussed some of their content.
She was suspending pending an investigation
On June 23, 2020, AtlantiCare's Senior Vice President of Administrative Services and the Chief Administrative Officer met with McVey. After McVey revealed she was recording the conversation, "the meeting ended and plaintiff was terminated." AtlantiCare told McVey the firing was due to her "repeated instances of poor management judgment – a failure to uphold AtlantiCare values."
Dismissal of her suit affirmed
AtlantiCare had previously given McVey a copy of its social media policy, which warned her to avoid posting about "any topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory—such as politics and religion." The policy also stated that an employee's use of social media had "the potential to affect AtlantiCare employee job performance, the performance of others, AtlantiCare's brand and/or reputation, and AtlantiCare's business interests."
McVey posted her remarks at the height of the Floyd protest demonstrations and AtlantiCare appropriately considered that the comments, and her public identification as an AtlantiCare "Corporate Director," opened its business up to the possibility of unwanted and adverse publicity and criticism. As the AtlantiCare Vice President told McVey at the June 17, 2020 meeting, "[it] was bad."
We have balanced McVey's slight interest in publicly making her position on the Black Lives Matter movement known against AtlantiCare's strong interest in protecting and fostering the "diverse set of customs, values[,] and points of view of its physicians, staff, volunteers, vendors, customers[,] and partners[.]" Under the circumstances presented in this case, AtlantiCare did not violate a clear mandate of public policy when it terminated McVey's employment.