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Checking Facebook at work is not a crime, court says

In recent months in our Greenbelt Employment Law Blog, we've discussed some of the intricacies of Facebook as it pertains to employment law. For the most part, we have discussed whether Maryland area employers have the right to access their employees' Facebook profiles and passwords. Another employment law issue that is ever present in the digital age is that of employees using computers for personal use in the workplace.

While some companies have clear policies against employees shopping online, checking their personal e-mail accounts or logging into Facebook during the workday, doing so is not actually a crime under federal law. A U.S. appeals court ruled this week that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act does not apply to these circumstances.

The decision came out of a lawsuit in which an employee was charged with trade secret theft, mail fraud and other violations of the CFAA in relation to taking information from the company's database in order to start his own business.

A district court threw out the computer fraud charges, and now the appeals court verified that decision.

The judge on the case cited an earlier case in Florida in which an employee who was suing her company for wrongful termination was countersued for CFAA violations in relation to using work computers for personal activities. The counterclaims have been thrown out.

The judge also said that computers simply give employees a way to procrastinate, but even without computers, employees have found ways to procrastinate throughout history.

While this decision limits the ability of employers to sue employees who check Facebook or bank online during the workday, it does not necessarily limit their right to discipline employees for these activities within the boundaries of an employment contract and Maryland employment law.

Source: Bloomberg, "Checking Facebook at Work Isn't a Crime, Appeals Court Rules," Karen Gullo, April 10, 2012

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