The Status Update That Cost $80,000

Facebook settlement (pic)You’ve probably seen the headlines. “Single Facebook Post Unravels $80,000 Settlement.” “Girl costs father $80,000 with ‘SUCK IT’ facebook post.” I first saw the story first on – surprise, surprise – Facebook.

In case you didn’t catch the story, the basic facts are these: Several years ago, a private prep school in Florida, Gulliver Schools, refused to renew its 69-year-old headmaster’s contract. The headmaster, Patrick Snay, brought suit against the school for age discrimination and retaliation. In 2011, Snay entered into a settlement agreement with the school for $80,000.  Like many settlements, it contained a confidentiality provision stating the Snay wouldn’t talk about the settlement to anyone other than his spouse or professional advisors.

Four days after the agreement was signed, the headmaster’s teenage daughter, who had learned about the settlement from her dad, bragged on Facebook:  “Mama and Papa Snay won the case against Gulliver. Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer. SUCK IT.”

Unfortunately for Papa Snay and his family, that Facebook boast did not just reach the people the daughter was hoping to impress. Her Facebook friends included current and former students of Gulliver, and the news quickly got back to school administrators. Just last week, an Appellate Court threw out the settlement agreement, ruling that the school did not have to pay the $80,000 to Snay. The court reasoned that Snay hadn’t kept up his end of the bargain – to keep the settlement confidential – and therefore the school did not have to keep up its end of the deal.

This story has gone viral, and in reading comments about it, the general theme I saw emerging was “What an idiot that girl is. I (or my kids) would never do something like that.”

Well, maybe you (or your kids) wouldn’t. But my guess is that this kind of confidentiality breach happens way more often than we’d like to think– and way more often than it should. Not all settlements are confidential. For example, in some cases the parties don’t agree to confidentiality. In other cases, such as in a court-approved class-action case or a settlement involving the EEOC, the law requires that the settlement be made public. And in cases against public entities, like the federal or state government, settlements can never be truly confidential because the details can be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, since the settlement involves taxpayer money.

But like it or not, confidentiality is a key part of most settlements. Employers who have been sued often insist on confidentiality as part of settling a case. In fact, often a key part of the defendant’s incentive to settle – aside from not wanting to risk losing more at trial and paying more in attorney fees – is that they want to keep the whole messy issue out of the public eye. And plaintiffs often must decide whether confidentiality is something they are willing to agree to, in order to achieve a faster and more certain resolution of their case.

Confidentiality provisions in legal settlements typically have only a few very narrow exceptions (as was the case here) – for conversations with a spouse, attorney, or financial advisor. But we are not used to keeping major life events, like resolution of a multi-year, often emotional court battle, to ourselves. Like so many “secrets” that are important to us, it can be easy to let something slip in a casual conversation with a friend or relative and assume that nothing will come of it. But in an increasingly networked and Facebooked world, it is more and more likely that those casual comments will be shared, forwarded, reposted.

In the end, for me the story of Patrick Snay losing his $80,000 settlement is not an opportunity to single out Snay’s daughter or congratulate ourselves on how discreet we would be in that situation. Instead, it’s a chance to reflect on how quickly and easily confidentiality agreements can be breached, and the terrible consequences of those breaches.  Patrick Snay and his attorneys likely worked for years pursuing his claims of age discrimination and achieving the $80,000 settlement – and it was all lost in the 10 seconds it takes to post a Facebook status update.

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