CBC News in Canada is reporting that a Canadian long-term disability insurance carrier recently terminated the long-term disability benefits a Quebec woman was receiving for "major depression" after photos she posted on her Facebook page showed her "having a good time at a Chippendales bar show, at her birthday party and on a sun holiday." According to the CBC, the woman, 29-year-old Nathalie Blanchard, contends that her doctor recommended that she try "to have fun, including nights out at her local bar with friends and short getaways to sun destinations, as a way to forget her problems." Nevertheless, Manulife, the insurance carrier, which acknowledges that it uses Facebook for investigation purposes, terminated her long-term disability benefits.
Though anecdotal news flashes like this one may embolden employers to use Facebook and other social media to investigate employee activity while they are on a medical leave of absence or workers’ compensation leave, caution is still necessary. For instance, Manulife confirmed that ít "would not deny or terminate a valid claim solely based on information published on websites such as Facebook." Presumably, Manulife forwarded Ms. Blanchard’s Facebook photos and perhaps other evidence to a medical professional for an opinion as to whether the photos evidenced Ms. Blanchard’s ability to return to work. Similarly, employers should resist the urge to make their own medical judgments as to an employee’s ability to work when they obtain this kind of photographic or video evidence.
In addition, Ms. Blanchard apparently contends that she kept her Facebook photos private and does not understand how the insurance carrier obtained them. As I have preached before on this blog, employers should not circumvent an employee’s Facebook privacy settings in order to investigate alleged misconduct. In this instance, a co-worker or other Facebook "friend" of Ms. Blanchard likely dropped the dime on her. When faced with this kind of evidence, employers and their insurance carriers would be wise to consider the motivations of the person providing the evidence and to conduct its own investigation. If employers avoid the temptation to immediately jump to conclusions, they will find that Facebook can be their "friend" when conducting investigations of workers’ compensation or medical leave fraud.