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Technology Addiction Lawsuits: Will they Succeed?
Until There is a Clear Answer, Employers Need to Take Steps to Prevent Employees from Misusing or Overusing the Internet


Tuesday, Jan. 09, 2007

Just last month, in a U.S. District Court in New York, IBM asked a federal judge to dismiss an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit brought against it by a former employee. Plaintiff James Pacenza, who had been with IBM for 19 years, alleges that he was wrongfully fired for misusing his workplace computer.

More specifically, Pacenza claims he is "addicted" to the Internet - and thus suffers from a disability. He also says the root of his disability is another disability - post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) based on his service in Vietnam.

Pacenza thus argues that, legally, IBM was required to take steps to help him before terminating him - as it would have done with someone addicted to alcohol or narcotics. He seeks $5 million in damages.

Will Pacenza's suit, and others like it, succeed? In this column, I'll discuss that question.

Pacenza's Allegations in the Suit Against IBM

Pacenza was caught when a fellow employee saw on his screen a chatroom discussion of a sex act. Pacenza admits that he spent too much time in Internet chat rooms, discussing sex in some of them. He had even discussed his problem with overuse of the Internet at home with a superior, he says.

IBM reportedly fired Pacenza because he had violated IBM's workplace policies and had misused company property. Typically, such a firing would be valid. But not in this case, Pacenza and his attorney say.

They claim Pacenza did what he did because he is addicted to the Internet. In addition, they allege that he is self-medicating for his Vietnam-induced PTSD. Rather than firing him, they say, IBM should have simply blocked his usage or limited his Internet access.

"Internet Addiction" Is Not Currently Recognized as a Disability

Can this argument succeed, under the ADA?

PTSD is a valid disability, but Pacenza may have trouble causally connecting it to the reason for his firing -- especially due to the long time period between his service in Vietnam and now. What about a claim that the disability was "Internet addiction" itself?

At present, there is insufficient evidence to classify chronic Internet usage as a true addiction, and no consensus in the scientific or medical community. For example, the American Psychiatric Assn. (APA) doesn't list Internet addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) -- which serves as the basis for many ADA claims related to mental disabilities.

Indeed, the very term "Internet Addiction Disorder," far from being a medical diagnosis, was coined as a parody. It reportedly derives from a spoof created 11 years ago by New York City psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg, who posted it on an Internet bulletin board as a joke for his peers.

But some believe that Internet addiction may eventually be recognized as a valid disability. For instance, Gayle Porter, a professor at Rutgers's School of Business, predicted in a study that there will be many lawsuits by employees who feel unable to turn off their personal digital assistants and cell phones. She claims this may cost corporate America hundreds of millions of dollars.. Indeed, she believes that a corporation's giving an employee Blackberry on his first day of work could be seen as enabling an addiction to technology. (The Blackberry is famously nicknamed the "crackberry" due to its supposedly addictive power.)

Porter points to one recent case, in particular: a Salomon Smith Barney trader struck a motorcyclist while making calls on his cellphone. As a defense, the broker claimed he was distracted because he was making sales calls for his employer. Salomon Smith Barney officials responded by saying that the broker wasn't acting in the scope of his employment by making such calls while driving. Other Salomon brokers testified at trial that, their employer encouraged them to make sales calls wherever they happened to be. .

What Should Companies Do to Prevent Claims of Technology Addiction?

Even if the current legal risk is modest, it's still a good idea for U.S. employers to take action. After all, apart from legal considerations, it's not good for the bottom line if employees spend lots of hours surfing, rather than working. Thus, employers should take steps to offer employees education, and even counseling, if they are visiting inappropriate sites or spending too much time glued to the screen for non-work-related reasons.

Alternatively, when it comes to Internet overuse, some companies are finding prevention is the best cure - Some employers limit Internet access to only those employees who need it to do their jobs, and deploy filtering and blocking software to keep employees away from pornographic sites or online casinos.

While the U.S. has not yet embraced Internet addiction as a true medical malady, other countries have. China, for example, does recognize Internet addiction as a problem and offers workers counseling and treatment for chronic use. Before the U.S. potentially moves in the same direction, companies are well-advised to stop this problem before it starts, to the extent that they can, and, if not, address it when it arises in ways other than simply terminating the employee.

Anita Ramasastry is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and a Director of the Shidler Center for Law, Commerce & Technology. She has previously written on business law, cyberlaw, and other legal issues for this site, which contains an archive of her columns.

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