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An HR lesson from the Amy Cooper lawsuit

Employers face pressure to take action against employees for non-work activities. But, as Amy Cooper's recent lawsuit illustrates, doing so is not without risk.

Social media is prompting some firms to announce employee terminations in response to a social media storm. But it's not without risk, as a lawsuit stemming from a confrontation between a dog walker and a birdwatcher in New York's Central Park proves.

This week, Amy Cooper, the dog walker, filed a lawsuit against her former employer, Franklin Templeton. The lawsuit includes claims of gender and race discrimination as well as defamation.

Last May in Central Park, birdwatcher Chris Cooper (no relation) reportedly asked that Amy Cooper leash her dog, recording the encounter in a video that quickly went viral. During the encounter, Amy Cooper calls the police and explains that there is an "African American" who is "recording me and threatening me and my dog," while the portion of the confrontation made public shows otherwise.

Franklin Templeton, an investment firm, quickly fired Amy Cooper, saying it had conducted an internal review of the incident. The company also tweeted about the incident, saying, in part: "We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton."

The lawsuit states in part that, "This confrontation became international news as a racial flashpoint, characterized as a privileged white female 'Karen' caught on video verbally abusing an African American male with no possible reason other than the color of his skin." But the lawsuit also argues that the characterization was nurtured by her employer's statements.

The lawsuit alleges that Franklin Templeton didn't investigate the incident. It said that Amy Cooper's response to Chris Cooper was "because she was alone in the park and frightened to death."

The risk of going public

The lawsuit "really does point to the risks of going public with a firing," said David Kurtz, an employment attorney at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP in Boston. He believes that the defamation claim may have some teeth to it.

An employer could have said that it had completed an investigation and "while we do not comment publicly on employment matters," it is announcing that the employee is no longer with the company, which could have meant a resignation or termination, Kurtz said.

[The lawsuit] really does point to the risks of going public with a firing.
David KurtzEmployment attorney, Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP

Instead, Franklin Templeton "told the whole world why she was terminated," Kurtz said. That opened the door for Amy Cooper "to try to challenge that reasoning, which has obviously had a major impact on her life."

In response to the lawsuit, Franklin Templeton said in a statement: "We believe the circumstances of the situation speak for themselves and that the Company responded appropriately. We will defend against these baseless claims."

Social media puts employers under pressure to take action against employees for non-work activities, such as what happened in Central Park. At the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, social media users, for instance, linked protestors to employers -- one participant wore his employee badge -- and demanded their employers take action.

Employers have "to be a little more contemplative" before making any definitive statement about an employee, said Mark Kluger, employment attorney and founding partner at Kluger Healey LLC, a law firm in New Jersey. "From a human resources standpoint, Franklin Templeton probably jumped the gun a bit," he said.

But the pressure on employers to go public is growing, from the #MeToo movement to social protests, Kluger said.

Generally, employers are trying to stay ahead of social media firestorms, especially with high-level employees, and not be labeled as misogynistic workplaces or fail to take an allegation seriously enough, Kluger said. "Employers began to do these terminations and not just do them, but publicize them," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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