Jackson County

She was fired after a Facebook post. Here’s why she’ll stop getting unemployment

Sun Herald stock photo
Sun Herald stock photo

A woman who worked at St. Martin Library for more than seven years will not receive unemployment benefits after being terminated for posting a compromising photo of a library guest on social media, the Mississippi Court of Appeals ruled.

Johnell Fowler was terminated by the Jackson-George Regional Library System on Sept. 22, 2014, after she posted a photo to Facebook of a woman sitting at a library computer with her underwear exposed, according to a statement in the appeals court ruling. Fowler wrote “St. Martin’s finest” in the caption field before hitting publish.

According to the statement, Lori Barnes, director of the library system, learned of the photo and sent Fowler a letter of termination.

At the time of her firing, Fowler was on a six-month probationary period, implemented in June, that said Fowler could be suspended without pay or terminated if any “disciplinary actions or insubordination” occurred during her probation.

The library system said the Facebook post was grounds for immediate termination regardless of probation, because it violated their confidentiality policy that said employees should “never discuss customers with other employees in public areas.”

In the letter of termination, Barnes said she “could not fathom a more textbook violation of the policy.”

Fowler was denied unemployment benefits on Sept. 30, 2014, because a claims examiner found she violated the library system’s confidentiality policy.

Fowler appealed the decision to an administrative law judge. In a hearing over telephone on Dec. 5, 2015, the judge reversed the findings of the claims examiner, saying the evidence in the case “revealed JGRLS’s confidentiality policy was not uniformly applied.”

The library system appealed the decision to Jackson County Circuit Court. Judge Robert Krebs sided with the administrative law judge’s ruling on July 11, 2016. The library system then appealed Krebs’ decision to the state appeals court.

The Mississippi Court of Appeals sided with the library system and reversed the ruling handed down from Circuit Court on Tuesday.

According to the ruling, Fowler said in testimony that the photo she posted in 2014 was likely a year old and that, to her knowledge, “of the other employees who posted similar Facebook photos, none were disciplined.” Fowler could not provide names of other employees who posted similar photos and did not possess actual knowledge of other employees’ disciplinary records.

The administrative law judge stated in his opinion that “the best available evidence indicates those rules were not uniformly enforced against all employees.”

The Court of Appeals, however, agreed with the library system — Fowler’s testimony was hearsay not based upon any personal knowledge and could not be used as substantial evidence.

The court agreed that the administrative law judge’s findings were “arbitrary and capricious.”

“JGRLS employs over ninety employees across eight different branches. Yet Fowler failed to report any of the other employees allegedly engaged in similar conduct, and did not provide any statements by them to her that would have given her personal knowledge they had not been disciplined,” the court said in their opinion.

Justin Mitchell: 228-604-0705, @JustinMitchell_