Firing Ruled Justified After Employer Finds Porn on Laptop

Rhett Pardon
PITTSBURGH – A court has ruled that the use of an employer's laptop to download pornographic material violates the employer's computer-use policy even where those downloads may have taken place off-premises and after working hours.

The case involves Edward Burchell Jr., a computer programmer who was employed by the University of Pittsburgh and later fired for the discovery of porn movies on his laptop.

Burchell applied for unemployment benefits and was subsequently denied by a unemployment compensation panel. He later turned to the courts after several appeals.

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled April 29 against Burchell, deciding that employers that have policies which prohibit employees from using employer’s computers “for the creation, design, manufacture, preparation, display, or distribution of any written or graphic obscene material” can terminate workers who break their rules.

Burchell contended that the unemployment compensation panel erred in concluding that he committed “willful misconduct” because the employer presented no evidence to establish that he downloaded or viewed pornography while at work.

Burchell also argued that while a workplace rule forbidding the viewing of porn at work is reasonable, the same policy becomes unreasonable if it is extended to conduct occurring off the employer’s premises when the employee is not working and, therefore, it cannot support a finding of willful misconduct.

He also denied downloading the material to the laptop as well as ownership of a CD containing porn.

The court, however, said Burchell’s arguments lacked merit, and cited a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case that held actions constituting a deliberate violation of the employer’s rules is reason for discharge.

The case is Burchell vs. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 2004 ILRWeb (P&F) 1671 [Pennsylvania Commonwealth, 2004].