Jun 272009

In a time when chat rooms, social networking and online forums are commonplace, how far can a company go in monitoring them for negative comments from discontented employees before they are guilty of “cybersnooping”?

A case decided last week, involving two servers at the Houston’s Restaurant in Hackensack, posed that question, and a federal jury in U.S. District Court in Newark found there were clearly limits.

The jury sided with servers Brian Pietrylo and Doreen Marino, concluding that Houston’s managers violated state and federal electronic communications laws when they entered into a private MySpace page on which workers criticized the company.


At issue was a MySpace group created by Pietrylo and Marino – at the time a couple living in Dumont – called SpecTator.

They designed the group for fellow workers to privately discuss their grievances. Access was by invitation only through use of an e-mail address and password. And the postings included derogatory statements about customers and managers, graphic sexual language and “sarcastic comments” about Houston’s “quality, service and standards” according to court documents filed by the restaurant.

The group was brought to the company’s attention by a third worker, a greeter at the restaurant who was a member of the group, who showed the postings to a manager. She later gave her password and e-mail to another manager, at his request, and he showed the postings to company executives in San Francisco.

The couple’s suit, filed against the restaurant’s owner, Beverly Hills-based Hillstone Restaurant Group, claimed the company violated their right to free speech. The couple also accused the company of wrongful termination, invasion of privacy, and of violating the federal Stored Communications Act and the state Wire Tapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act.

The jury found the company guilty only of violating the state and federal communications laws, and concluded that its actions had been malicious.

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