A man creates an account on a website associated with adultery while married, has an affair, and then gets fired after filing a sexual harassment complaint against his ex-wife. To make matters worse, all parties involved are co-workers. So what rights does an employee have when his personal life gets mixed up with his professional life?
In Wallace v. Desoto Cty. Sch. Dist., 3:16CV287-M-P, 2018 BL 96451 (N.D. Miss. Mar. 21, 2018), a head football coach, athletic director, and high school teacher was cited for immoral conduct after reporting that his now ex-wife and/or her friend allegedly posted a nude picture of him on his Ashley Madison account to the school district.
Seen, but not Heard
The teacher argued that there was substantial evidence proving that his ex-wife played a role in his picture being posted; she admitted to knowing his account password and to taking the picture while they were married, and there are also text messages that show her giving the account information to her friend.
Despite the district arguing that the teacher’s firing was justified—due to the picture becoming public, past misconduct, and pressure from a state senator—the court said that based on the colorful circumstances of this case, a jury could reasonably view the teacher as the victim of an unauthorized, inappropriate posting. It also said that while a hearing may not have saved his job, he was entitled to one as an opportunity to clear his name and defend his reputation.
Explaining the teacher’s right to a name-clearing hearing, the court said that it found numerous articles about the firing after a quick internet search. Most of the articles implied that the teacher personally posted the nude picture, and the court stated that the district should’ve clarified that he played no part in the posting of the picture. The district said that it didn’t intentionally make the details of the teacher’s firing public, but a jury could find that the anonymous sources used in the articles were in fact district employees.
School District Fumbles
Further, the court took issue with the fact that the district knew that the teacher and one of his co-workers had Ashley Madison accounts one year before his firing, yet neither was disciplined. Not only was the district aware of the account, but its conditional offer was made months before the teacher was fired. Its plan to re-hire him somewhat negates its immoral conduct argument, and it also shows that the existence of an account on an adultery-related website by itself wasn’t enough to warrant the firing of an employee.
The court said that there was nothing technically immoral about a married couple taking nude pictures of one another, and that there’s a strong argument—to be decided by a jury—that the district essentially punished the teacher for something he didn’t do.
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