When an employer discovered “cookies” indicating that a certain employee ID and password had been used to access porn websites, the company took swift action and terminated him for violating company policy that specifically prohibited “indecent, profane, obscene, intimidating, or unlawful material” from being sent or downloaded by any means, or displayed or printed on the company’s computer system.
The employee denied accessing the sites. It wasn’t until he filed for unemployment benefits, which the company successfully challenged, that the employee was shown the computer logs identifying the dates when prohibited websites were visited using his computer ID. Some of the computer log entries were dates he didn’t even work.
Angered about what he believed was an unfair dismissal, the employee believed the computer logs were a pretext for dismissal and due to a comment he had heard a member of top management make about wanting to hire younger people, he jumped to the conclusion that his firing constituted illegal age discrimination. So, he sued.
The case occurred in Texas. At the trial court level, the judge sided with the company and dismissed the case. The case was appealed to the next level, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (serving the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) on the basis that the lower court just didn’t apply the law properly to the facts in the case – that not all of the facts were properly considered and that the wrong burden of proof was applied.
Here again, the court again ruled in favor of the company, upholding the lower court’s dismissal, saying that even if the employee is innocent of accessing the unapproved websites as claimed, such proof was irrelevant as long as the employer “reasonably believed [the logs] and acted on it in good faith.” And as for the comment by senior management, that comment was made 18 months before the employee’s termination and that manager was no longer with the company at the time of the firing. He was therefore unlikely to have had any influence in the decision to terminate the employment.
It just goes to show you that the concept of employment at will is still strong and how not every act of unfairness in the workplace is necessarily illegal. Courts don’t like to second guess terminations when they are for non-discriminatory reasons.