Lawsuit a reminder of email’s perils
Fired water agency manager alleges bosses enforced rules selectively.
office can run without email. It’s a necessary but sometimes dangerous tool. Few are the office workers who haven’t at least temporarily forgotten that their work email account may have their name on it, but it doesn’t belong to them. The personal messages you send from work can come back to haunt you.
This thought about the potential perils of sending personal messages on work email accounts occurred to us last week after we read a news story about Diane Hyatt by the American-Statesman’s Marty Toohey.
The Texas Water Development Board fired Hyatt in May, accusing her of using her work email to raise money for Brigid Shea’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor last spring against incumbent Lee Leffingwell. Hyatt, a former manager at the board, is suing the agency in U.S. District Court because she says she was fired for supporting a candidate whose liberalism is contrary to the politics of the directors appointed to run the agency.
Now, this editorial’s admonition about email in the workplace is one Hyatt appears to have understood, according to her version of her dismissal. As Toohey reported, Hyatt was planning a fundraising party for Shea. Hyatt says she merely forwarded emails to her personal account that Shea’s campaign mistakenly had sent to her work address, and that she asked Shea’s campaign to correct its contact information to include her personal email address rather than her work address.
Hyatt, who had worked at the Water Development Board since November 2006 and, according to her lawsuit, had no prior disciplinary record, says she did not plan the fundraiser from work, but from home.
Hyatt says Shea’s email messages were used by the agency as a pretext to fire her, that she was really fired for supporting a liberal candidate while working for an agency whose board of directors are appointees of Republican Gov. Rick Perry. She says her firing coincided with an AmericanStatesman article that quoted her as a Shea supporter and identified her as an employee of the Water Development Board.
She was fired May 11, the day after the article appeared in print.
As part of her lawsuit, Hyatt and her attorney filed an open records request for emails sent to and from the Water Development Board. They found that at least a dozen other board employees used their state computers and their state email accounts to send polit- ical messages. None of these other employees has been fired or punished, according to Toohey’s article, even though some of the emails revealed by Hyatt’s open records request are ... insensitive, let’s call them.
As Toohey reported, one email from Water Development Board employee Mark Michon to fellow employee Sanjeev Kalaswad reads: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Give the man a welfare check, a forty ounce malt liquor, a crack pipe and some Air Jordans and he votes Democrat for a lifetime.”
Not clever. Not funny. Never was. Never will be. But here’s the point, says Hyatt’s lawyer, Derek Howard:
“It’s our contention that a rule that isn’t enforced isn’t a rule at all. It should not be used as a silver bullet to fire employees who hold political views you disagree with. The only conclusion is that the email was a pretextual excuse for firing” Hyatt.
The Water Development Board’s rules, Toohey reported, prohibit “any political activity on state time or using state resources for any political activity.” So if others were doing the very thing Hyatt apparently was fired for doing — and “any political activity” covers a pretty broad range of possible activities, from organizing fundraisers to making inappropriate jokes — and if they weren’t held to the same standard as Hyatt, then the board selectively enforced its policies.
The merits of Hyatt’s lawsuit against the Texas Water Development Board are for the courts to decide.
But we can find two reminders of useful lessons in her case, for workers and companies or agencies alike. Company policies should be applied evenly. And your work email is not a personal email account; you can’t always control what you’re sent but you can watch what you send.