Online harassment by employee
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The case of Rada-Ortiz v Espinosa-Vadillo
Online harassment can occur even if the published information is true. The case of Rada-Ortiz v Espinosa-Vadillo involved online harassment by an employee of the United Nations. In many respects, the legal position of United Nation bodies is complex, particularly in terms of jurisdiction. However, when it comes to online harassment, UN employees, who are located in England are protected by local laws and are fully covered by the Protection from Harassment Act.
Managers can find themselves in a tricky situation if after they leave their employment, an employee, who also by then left the company is targeting them with harassment. By that time, the employer often believes that their duty of care towards the retired manager has ceased and that they have no authority any longer over the former employee. This might as well be true, but the situation could leave former managers exposed to severe online harassment campaigns by a former employee who believed that he or she had been mistreated by them during the time when they both worked for the company.
There have been many examples of former employees who had been disciplined by their managers, and then waited until the manager retired or left their employment, before starting a campaign of harassment against their former manager. Having to deal with this type of harassment is often challenging because, at least part of the online harassment campaign in these circumstances, is supported with facts whilst the other part is often highly emotional and represents a one-sided view of the events that took place.
There are also financial challenges with these type of cases of online harassment by a former employee. The main financial challenge relates to the fact that the employer is no longer there to protect their former managers or to support legal action, which could turn out to be expensive.
In the case of Rada-Ortiz and Espinosa Vadillo  EWHC 2175 (QB) our solicitor Yair Cohen was instructed by a former senior employee at the United Nations, who was harassed online by another former UN employee. Yair’s goal was to obtain an injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act to protect the former senior UN employee. Mr Vadillo, was a former United Nations temporary employee. In 2014 he, who worked as an interpreter at the UN's International Maritime Organisation (the IMO) but he felt aggrieved about the way he believed he was being treated by his department manager.
During his employment, Mr Vadillo instigated a UN internal investigation concerning his alleged mistreatment. The matter was escalated all the way to an internal special investigation committee, which eventually dismissed most of his allegations but nevertheless made some minor findings in Mr Vadillo’s favour. Some time later, both Mr Vadillo and his former boss at the UN left the organisation. Ms Rada-Ortiz retired and the contract of Mr Vadillo was no renewed. Mr Vadillo held a grudge against his former manager as he blamed her for not being kept on by his former employer.
He then embarked on a campaign of harassment on the internet. He created a number of harassing websites against his former boss, setting out his grievances against her, including publishing online witness statements and documents which related to the numerous internal investigations that took place about his grievance. He alleged that his former manager was a harasser and an abuser, claims which had not been supported with any actual findings. He also published images of Ms Rada-Ortiz dressed up for a work function. Ms Rada-Ortiz felt harassed by these publications to the websites and wanted them removed from the internet.
As the publication of the harassing websites started to intensify, links to the harassing websites also started to reach the top of Google search results in relation to the Ms Rada-Ortiz. This warranted a need for an application to the High Court for an interim injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act. Prior to apply for the harassment injunction,
Solicitor Yair Cohen sent a cease and desist letter to Mr Vadillo. However since Mr Vadillo chose to ignore the request to stop his harassment of Ms Rada-Ortiz, Cohen Davis solicitors proceeded to apply for an injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 to compel him to do so. To enhance the likelihood of success of the injunction application, Mr Vadillo was tracked down and personally served with notice of the hearing.
When Mr Vadillo did not turn up to the hearing the injunction was granted by Cranston J, who ordered Mr Vadillo to delete the harassing websites and to never repeat the allegations therein again. The injunction was later renewed in a subsequent court hearing, this time in the presence of Mr Vadillo. This case has significant implications to victims of online harassment and to those who use the internet to harass others:
You can harass someone even if the information that you publish about the victim is true. The judge in the case of Vadillo agreed that even when a website contains information which might be true, the website might still be considered as harassing and therefore could become the subject of an injunction, regardless of the truthfulness of the information it contains.
You don’t have to harass someone in order to be able to exercise your right to free speech. Both legal rights can live peacefully side by side provided what is being published is not published in a manner which is intending to cause harassment and distress to the victim.
To constitute harassment, the perpetrator must be engaged in what is called a “course of conduct”. Traditionally, a course of conduct was considered as at least two separate occasions of an harassing acts. However, as websites are continuously published and are refreshed each time a new internet user visits a website, even a publication of a single website can amount to harassment. In fact, even the publication of one post, on an online discussion forum could be considered as harassing.
Often it is not the number of publications that matters but rather the ongoing nature of each of the publication and the nature of the information that is published. In this case, the court found that the continued publication of each of the websites amounted to conduct which had occurred at least twice and was calculated to cause alarm and distress as required by Section 7 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
This means that even the publication of a single website, or even a single page on a website, might be considered as a ‘course of conduct’ because the website is repeatedly being published and republished.
Websites are vocal, at least in the sense that they can be heard or read by anyone anywhere in the world and at any time. The judge in the case of Vadillo, accepted the proposition that “where there is continuous publication on a website, that is equivalent to a mode of delivery like the continuous use of a megaphone.”
This means that the constant presence of certain information on the internet, whether factual or not, continually alerts and notifies the general public about the information. It also means the information follows its victim wherever he or she goes, 24/7, day and night, and could be considered as harassing conduct by those who publish the information. Therefore a website might be harassing because it is considered the modern equivalent of the use of megaphone.
Online harassment can occur by the publication of written information as well as by publishing images. Publication of images of an individual, together with information about them, regardless of its accuracy, could also be considered as harassing conduct. This is largely because this indicates an intention by the publisher to have their victim identified and harass.
Often harassers post images of the their victim, which are not particularly complementary to the victim and which are intended to portray the victim in a particular light, which would fit into the harasser’s narrative. Publication of images, featuring someone other than yourself, may also amount to breach of privacy and to the misuse of personal data.
Excessive and repeated information may amount to online harassment, even if true
The court might find that excessive publication and the repetition of some of the information published on a websites about someone has elements of oppression which makes establishing a case for an injunction under the Protection from Harassment much more likely because oppression is a form of harassment.
This might mean that if you go on different websites to publish unpleasant information about an individual, you engage with oppression and therefore with unlawful harassment. Excessive and repeated publication is therefore a form of harassment regardless of whether the information published is true or false. If you feel that you are a victim of harassment, then you probably are. Even if the information published about you is true, even if it concerns tribunal or court decisions, the publication might still be considered harassing, which means we might be able to have it taken down for you.
The law on online harassment is moving fast with every case that we take on, which means that if you feel harassed on the internet it is worth you giving us a call to find out how we can help. Our very friendly, supportive and experienced team is always ready to give you the advice and guidance that you most likely need.
You can read the judgement of Mr Justice Cranston in the application for an interim injunction to delete a WordPress blog in the case of Rada-Ortiz v Espinosa-Vadillo.