Friday, October 31, 2014

Employers May Be Liable for Failing to Investigate Employee’s Email Threats

In Regions Bank v. Joyce Meyer Ministries, Inc., 2014 Ill. App. (5th) 130193, the Appellate Court for the Fifth District held that an Illinois employer may be liable for failing to investigate an employee’s e-mail threats to murder his family made from his work computer.

On May 5, 2009, Sheri Coleman and her two sons (the decedents) were murdered in their home in Columbia, Illinois.  Christopher Coleman, the husband of Sheri and the father of the boys, was charged with and subsequently convicted of the murders.  At the time of the murders, Christopher Coleman had been employed in high-level security positions by Joyce Meyer Ministries, Inc. (JMM).  It was alleged that in the months leading up to the murders, Coleman used his work computer to email death threats directed at himself, the decedents, and Joyce Meyer Ministries, Inc.

During the period of Coleman’s employment, JMM enacted an electronic communications policy (E-Comm Policy) which governed its employees’ use of its electronic communications system and equipment.  The policy prohibited its employees from sending or viewing inappropriate, obscene, harassing, or abusive images, language, and materials on its electronic communication systems and equipment.  Pursuant to the policy, JMM reserved the right to monitor and inspect communications sent, received, and stored on its electronic communications systems and equipment.  The policy further stated that JMM “Management” had the sole discretion to take disciplinary action against the violators of said policy.

The Estate of Sheri Coleman and her two sons filed a wrongful death complaint against Christopher Coleman and JMM.  In response, JMM filed a Motion to Dismiss the case on the ground that it failed to state any legal claim.  In the motion, JMM argued that the case should be dismissed because it did not allege sufficient facts to establish that the employer undertook to protect the decedents from the harmful acts of a third party, and that the plaintiff did not allege a logical connection between retaining Coleman as an employee and his murderess acts. The circuit court dismissed the case and an appeal followed.

On appeal, the plaintiff contends that the trial court erred in dismissing with prejudice its claims against JMM.  The plaintiff argued that the complaint contained sufficient allegations of fact to establish duties owed by JMM to the decedents under the legal theories of (1) voluntary undertaking, and (2) negligent retention.

The Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal of the negligent retention claim finding insufficient facts to show that Coleman’s “misuse of his position of employment” or his “misuse of the employer’s chattel (computer) was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm to the decedents.  Id. at ¶26.  However, the Appellate Court reversed the dismissal of the wrongful death claim.  The Court found the estate had alleged facts sufficient to show that JMM voluntarily undertook to protect the decedents from the criminal acts of a third person.  Under the voluntary undertaking doctrine in Illinois, an employer may be liable if it voluntary undertakes to provide services to another and negligently performs its voluntary undertaking.  Under Illinois law, a claim for misfeasance in performing a voluntary undertaking can be stated by alleging facts establishing: (1) employer voluntary undertook to provide services necessary to protect another person or took charge of another person’s protection, (2) employer negligently performed the undertaking; and (3) employers’ negligence increased the risk of harm to the other person.  Id. at ¶13.

The Appellate Court applied this legal standard to find that JMM’s electronic communications policy could constitute a voluntary undertaking to protect the decedents.  Based on this premise, the Court found the complaint sufficient to show that JMM allegedly failed to investigate or negligently investigated the source of the death threats despite knowing that the threats directed at Coleman and his family were “made or received from JMM’s electronic communications system and equipment, and that JMM’s negligent acts or omissions increased the risk of danger to the decedents.  Id. at ¶19.

The Appellate Court further held that the allegations were sufficient to survive a Motion to Dismiss because the threats were specific, allegedly made from Coleman’s JMM-issued computer, and JMM supposedly knew or should have known of the threats and protected the decedents.  The case was sent back to the trial court for further proceedings.

The Regions Bank case suggests that if the employer had complied with its electronic communications policy and thoroughly investigated the source of the murder threats, dismissal of the wrongful death claim may have been affirmed on appeal.  This case emphasizes the importance of employers appropriately investigating all threats of violence received by or generated from the employers’ computer system.

This is the first reported case of this kind in Illinois. Unfortunately, the decision raises numerous legal questions about the viability of plaintiff’s legal theory (voluntary undertaking) and liability for employers for e-mails sent from work-issued computers that relate to criminal acts which occur outside of work. It is highly questionable whether this case will ultimately survive in the trial court.

Questions about appropriate investigation of workplace violence threats or your organization’s electronic communication policies, please contact Margaret Kostopulos or Darcy Proctor.