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Monday, October 28, 2013

Employee Sues Customer: What Happens When the Customer Isn't Always Right?

By: Peter J. Lamont, Esq.
New Jersey Business and Personal Law Attorney
Law Offices of Peter J. Lamont

Providing customer service in an attempt to please "all the people all the time" can be thought of as a fool's errand. Its not going to happen, I'm afraid.
Some people are difficult, if not impossible, to please - requiring a customer service agent to be satisfied when an irate customer incident doesn't escalate to physical violence.
The majority of customer service people accept rude and unreasonable people as part of the job, getting on with their workday after an altercation with a customer or client.
But what happens when a customer service representative, the face of a company, just can not let go after being assaulted verbally and over the internet via social media?
The following relates the case of a such a slight that escalated to a court battle, ending up in appeals court - now awaiting further action.
A defamation and invasion of privacy suit brought by a Southwest Airlines operations agent against a passenger made its way to all the way to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. (JENNIFER E. PATTERSON v. NATALIE D. GRANT-HERMS)
Adhering to airline rules and regulations,  Patterson (the Southwest employee) had prohibited Grant-Herms (the customer/passenger)  from boarding a plane with her four year old daughter, who was not in the same boarding group as her mother. The mother and her 18 month old infant child were traveling Business Select while her husband and two other children were traveling coach. The mother had intended to get on board with one of the two children in coach, and save seats for the rest of the family - seating her four year old in the selected seats.
The passenger, after being denied Business Select boarding privileges for the four year old, verbally assaulted Patterson, subsequently resorting to social media - using Twitter, Facebook and Southwest.com - to express her displeasure with her treatment at the hands of the both the airline and the agent. The online rants were not atypical of this type of tirade, and mentioned Patterson had acted this way previously - on four separate occasions.
Patterson, acting pro se (without a lawyer), brought suit against the customer alleging defamation and invasion of privacy. Grant-Herms' motion to dismiss was denied. A subsequent request for summary judgement, at close of discovery, was granted.
Patterson appealed and the decision to dismiss the defamation charge was upheld, but the decision on the invasion of privacy claim was reversed with the court holding that a number of the tweets were fallacious.
The decision to reverse was surprising to many observers, but as Patterson was acting pro se, she was given some degree of latitude in her pleadings.
The above gives a fairly clear picture where the combatant's stand, but one cannot help wonder how Patterson's employer views her actions in this easily avoided litigation.
One would expect Southwest to be somewhat displeased with the agent, even though they may appreciate her frustration. Do we expect the airline to look the other way when an employee sues a contentious, paying customer?
Few would argue against the statement that we are a litigious people. As such, we cannot be faulted for expecting further court action to result from this affair.

If you would like more information about this topic or have general legal questions, please feel free to contact me at (973)949-3770 or via email at plamont@peterlamontesq.com We answer legal questions on a daily basis and would be happy to discuss any issues or questions that you have with you.  Offices in: New Jersey New York, Colorado & Puerto Rico.  Affiliated throughout the country.
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