Emptying the Nest: Recent Events at Twitter Prompt Class-Action Litigation, Among Other Things

Ted Mathiowetz, MJLST Staffer

You’d be forgiven if you thought the circumstances that led to Elon Musk ultimately acquiring Twitter would be the end of the drama for the social media company. In the past seven months, Musk went from becoming the largest shareholder of the company, to publicly feuding with then-CEO, Parag Agrawal, to making an offer to take the company private for $44 billion, to deciding he didn’t want to purchase the company, to being sued by Twitter to force him to complete the deal. Eventually, two weeks before trial was scheduled, Musk purchased the company for the original, agreed upon price.[1] However, within the first two-and-a-half weeks that Musk took Twitter private, the drama has continued, if not ramped-up, with one lawsuit already filed and the specter of additional litigation looming.[2]

There’s been the highly controversial rollout and almost immediate suspension of Twitter Blue—Musk’s idea of increasing the reliability of information on Twitter and simultaneously helping ameliorate Twitter’s financial woes.[3]Essentially, users were able to pay $8 a month for verification, albeit without actually verifying their identity. Instead, their username would remain frozen at the time they paid for the service.[4] Users quickly created fake “verified” accounts for real companies and spread misinformation while armed with the “verified” check mark, duping both the public and investors. For example, a newly created account with the handle “@EliLillyandCo” paid for Twitter Blue and tweeted “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.”[5] Eli Lilly’s actual Twitter account, “@LillyPad” had to tweet a message apologizing to those “who have been served a misleading message” from the fake account, after the pharmaceutical company’s shares dipped around 5% after the tweet.[6] In addition to Eli Lilly, several other companies, like Lockheed Martin, faced similar identity theft.[7] Twitter Blue was quickly suspended in the wake of these viral impersonations and advertisers have continued to flee the company, affecting its revenue.[8]

Musk also pulled over 50 engineers from Tesla, the vehicle manufacturing company of which he is CEO, to help him in his reimagining of Twitter.[9] Among those 50 engineers are the director of software development and the senior director of software engineering.[10] Pulling engineers from his publicly traded company to work on his separately owned private company almost assuredly raises questions of a violation of his fiduciary duty to Tesla’s shareholders, especially with Tesla’s share price falling 13% over the last week (as of November 9, 2022).[11]

The bulk of Twitter’s current legal issues reside in Musk’s decision to engage in mass-layoffs of employees at Twitter.[12] After his first week in charge, he sent out notices to around half of Twitter’s 7500 employees that they would be laid off, reasoning that cutbacks were necessary because Twitter was losing over $4 million per day.[13] Soon after the layoffs, a group of employees filed suit alleging that Twitter violated the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act (WARN) by failing to give adequate notice.[14]

The WARN Act, passed in 1988, applies to employers with 100 or more employees[15] and mandates that an “employer shall not order a [mass layoff]” until it gives sixty-days’ notice to the state and affected employees.[16]Compliance can also be reached if, in lieu of giving notice, the employee is paid for the sixty-day notice period. In Twitter’s case, some employees were offered pay to comply with the sixty-day period after the initial lawsuit was filed,[17] though the lead plaintiff in the class action suit was allegedly laid off on November 1st with no notice or offer of severance pay.[18] Additionally, it appears as though Twitter is now offering severance to employees in return for a signature releasing them from liability in a WARN action.[19]

With regard to those who have not yet signed releases and were not given notice of a layoff, there is a question of what the penalties may be to Twitter and what potential defenses they may have. Each employee is entitled to “back pay for each day of violation” as well as benefits under their respective plan.[20] Furthermore, the employer is subject to a civil penalty of “not more than $500 for each day of violation” unless they pay their liability to each employee within three weeks of the layoff.[21] One possible defense that Twitter may assert in response to this suit is that of “unforeseeable business circumstances.”[22] Considering Musk’s recent comments that there is the potential that Twitter is headed for bankruptcy as well as the saddling of the company with debt to purchase it (reportedly $13 billion, with $1 billion per year in interest payments),[23] it seems there is a chance this defense could suffice. However, an unforeseen circumstance is strongly indicated when the circumstance is “outside the employer’s” control[24], something that’s arguable given the company’s recent conduct.[25] Additionally, Twitter would have to show that it has been exercising “commercially reasonable business judgment as would a similarly situated employer” in their conduct, another burden that may be hard to overcome. In sum, it’s quite clear why Twitter is trying to keep this lawsuit from gaining traction by securing release waivers. It’s also clear that Twitter has learned its lesson in not offering severance but they may be wading into other areas of employment law with recent conduct.[26]

Notes

[1] Timeline of Billionaire Elon Musk’s to Control Twitter, Associated Press (Oct. 28, 2022), https://apnews.com/article/twitter-elon-musk-timeline-c6b09620ee0905e59df9325ed042a609.

[2] Annie Palmer, Twitter Sued by Employees After Mass Layoffs Begin, CNBC (Nov. 4, 2022), https://www.cnbc.com/2022/11/04/twitter-sued-by-employees-after-mass-layoffs-begin.html.

[3] Siladitya Ray, Twitter Blue: Signups for Paid Verification Appear Suspended After Impersonator Chaos, Forbes (Nov. 11, 2022), https://www.forbes.com/sites/siladityaray/2022/11/11/twitter-blue-new-signups-for-paid-verification-appear-suspended-after-impersonator-chaos/?sh=14faf76c385c; see also Elon Musk (@elonmusk), Twitter (Nov. 6, 2022, 5:43 PM), https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1589403131770974208?s=20&t=bkkh_m5EgMreMCU-GWxXrQ.

[4] Elon Musk (@elonmusk), Twitter (Nov. 6, 2022, 5:35 PM), https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1589401231545741312?s=20&t=bkkh_m5EgMreMCU-GWxXrQ.

[5] Steve Mollman, No, Insulin is not Free: Eli Lilly is the Latest High-Profile Casualty of Elon Musk’s Twitter Verification Mess, Fortune(Nov. 11, 2022), https://fortune.com/2022/11/11/no-free-insulin-eli-lilly-casualty-of-elon-musk-twitter-blue-verification-mess/.

[6] Id. Eli Lilly and Company (@LillyPad), Twitter (Nov. 10, 2022, 3:09 PM), https://twitter.com/LillyPad/status/1590813806275469333?s=20&t=4XvAAidJmNLYwSCcWtd4VQ.

[7] Mollman, supra note 5 (showing Lockheed Martin’s stock dipped around 5% as well following a tweet from a “verified” account saying arms sales were being suspended to various countries went viral).

[8] Herb Scribner, Twitter Suffers “Massive Drop in Revenue,” Musk Says, Axios (Nov. 4, 2022), https://www.axios.com/2022/11/04/elon-musk-twitter-revenue-drop-advertisers.

[9] Lora Kolodny, Elon Musk has Pulled More Than 50 Tesla Employees into his Twitter Takeover, CNBC (Oct. 31, 2022), https://www.cnbc.com/2022/10/31/elon-musk-has-pulled-more-than-50-tesla-engineers-into-twitter.html.

[10] Id.

[11] Trefis Team, Tesla Stock Falls Post Elon Musk’s Twitter Purchase. What’s Next?, NASDAQ (Nov. 9, 2022), https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/tesla-stock-falls-post-elon-musks-twitter-purchase.-whats-next.

[12] Dominic Rushe, et al., Twitter Slashes Nearly Half its Workforce as Musk Admits ‘Massive Drop’ in Revenue, The Guardian (Nov. 4, 2022), https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/nov/04/twitter-layoffs-elon-musk-revenue-drop.

[13] Id.

[14] Phil Helsel, Twitter Sued Over Short-Notice Layoffs as Elon Musk’s Takeover Rocks Company, NBC News (Nov. 4, 2022), https://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/twitter-sued-layoffs-days-elon-musk-purchase-rcna55619.

[15] 29 USC § 2101(a)(1).

[16] 29 USC § 2102(a).

[17] On Point, Boston Labor Lawyer Discusses her Class Action Lawsuit Against Twitter, WBUR Radio Boston (Nov. 10, 2022), https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2022/11/10/shannon-liss-riordan-musk-class-action-twitter-suit (discussing recent developments in the case with attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan).

[18] Complaint at 5, Cornet et al. v. Twitter, Inc., Docket No. 3:22-cv-06857 (N.D. Cal. 2022).

[19] Id. at 6 (outlining previous attempts by another Musk company, Tesla, to get around WARN Act violations by tying severance agreements to waiver of litigation rights); see also On Point, supra note 17.

[20] 29 USC § 2104.

[21] Id.

[22] 20 CFR § 639.9 (2012).

[23] Hannah Murphy, Musk Warns Twitter Bankruptcy is Possible as Executives Exit, Financial Times (Nov. 10, 2022), https://www.ft.com/content/85eaf14b-7892-4d42-80a9-099c0925def0.

[24] Id.

[25] See e.g., Murphy supra note 22.

[26] See Pete Syme, Elon Musk Sent a Midnight Email Telling Twitter Staff to Commit to an ‘Extremely Hardcore’ Work Schedule – or Get Laid off with Three Months’ Severance, Business Insider (Nov. 16, 2022), https://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-twitter-staff-commit-extremely-hardcore-work-laid-off-2022-11; see also Jaclyn Diaz, Fired by Tweet: Elon Musk’s Latest Actions are Jeopardizing Twitter, Experts Say. NPR (Nov. 17, 2022), https://www.npr.org/2022/11/17/1137265843/elon-musk-fires-employee-by-tweet (discussing firing of an employee for correcting Musk on Twitter and potential liability for a retaliation claim under California law).

 

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