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Court nixes bid to see employee phone data

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

A recent decision in a federal lawsuit—ruling against the crowd-sourced referral service Angie’s List—shows the limits on the kind of employee data employers may seek when defending themselves against charges they violated overtime law.

Recent case: A group of outside sales representatives sued Angie’s List.

The company has a system in which employees log in to timekeeping software when they start their shifts. The system logs them out if it detects no activity for four hours. The workers claimed they were working 10- to 12-hour days, but the company was not paying them overtime.

Angie’s List asked the court to subpoena GPS data from the employees’ cellphones, as well as email and text messages, social media posts and blog and website posts for an entire year.

The workers argued the request was overly broad and would provide no more detail than the company’s timekeeping software did. For example, workers often had to visit clients to negotiate terms and have documents signed. GPS data showing they were traveling, they argued, would not prove they were not working. Plus, they argued that asking for a year’s-worth of social media posts was overly broad and infringed on the employees’ privacy. The court agreed and denied the company’s motion. (Crabtree, Myers, Town v. Angie’s List, SD IN, 2017)

Note: This case is what lawyers call “fact-specific”—so unique that it might not apply to many other situations. For example, Angie’s List wanted data from employees’ personal phones, not company-provided devices. Its timekeeping software was not robust enough to capture data that would defend against wage-and-hour violations.

Employer-owned phones and better software might have provided data that could have helped Angie’s List prevail. Generally, courts give credence to the employer’s timekeeping method unless employees can show that the method is flawed. In this case, Angie’s List had to argue its own timekeeping method was flawed—hardly the best legal stance.

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