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Employee's Facebook complaints suit settled

WASHINGTON — Employers should think twice before trying t o restrict workers from talking about their jobs on Facebook or other social media.

That's the message the government sent on Monday as it settled a closely watched lawsuit against a Connecticut ambulance company that fired an employee after she went on Facebook to criticize her boss.

The National Labor Relations Board sued the company last year, arguing the worker's negative comments were protected speech under federal labor laws. The company claimed it fired the emergency medical technician because of complaints about her work.

Under the settlement with the labor board, American Medical Response of Connecticut Inc. agreed to change its blogging and Internet policy that barred workers from disparaging the company or its supervisors. The company also will revise another policy that prohibited employees from depicting the company in any way over the Internet without permission.

Both policies interfered with longstanding legal protections that allow workers to discuss wages, hours and working conditions with co-workers, the board said.

"I think it certainly sends a message about what the NLRB views the law to be," said Jonathan Kreisberg, the NLRB regional director in Hartford who approved the settlement.

Terms of a private settlement agreement between the employee, Dawnmarie Souza, and the company were not disclosed, but Kreisberg said the parties reached a financial settlement. Souza will not be returning to work there.

Souza declined a request for comment. A representative for American Medical Response did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Souza posted the Facebook comments in 2009 from her home computer, hours after her supervisor said a customer had complained about her work. The expletive-filled posting referred to her supervisor using the company's code for a psychiatric patient.

Chuck Cohen, a labor and employment lawyer and former NLRB member during the Clinton administration, said the case will have employers around the country re-examining their policies.

But Cohen warned that the case doesn't give employees free rein to discuss anything work-related on social media.

"This is not without boundaries, but we just don't have a good sense yet of where the boundaries are," he said.

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