CA Supreme Court: No Invasion of Privacy

The Supreme Court unanimously held that an employer did not invade the privacy of employees when it set up video surveillance in the employees' offices. We first blogged about Hernandez v. Hillsides here.

So, Hernandez and Lopez worked at Hillsides, a residential treatment center for children. The administration determined that someone was using one of the computers to view porn at night. The computer was in a private office - used by Lopez and Hernandez during the day. Administration did not suspect Lopez or Hernandez, but rather one of the night time workers.

Management set up a hidden camera in Lopez/Hernandez's office, which was activated after they left, and which was turned off in the morning. The camera never taped Lopez or Hernandez. On one occasion, the boss forgot to turn the camera off in the morning, but it did not tape either Plaintiff. They did not catch the person who was viewing the porn either.

Despite the seemingly insignificant injuries, Lopez and Hernandez sued Hillsides for invading their privacy. The trial court threw out the case, but the court of appeal reinstated it.

The Supreme Court on review first held that setting up a secret camera was enough to constitute an "intrusion" - an element of the invasion of privacy tort. Here are some quotes on this point:

defendants [are] a private employer accused of installing electronic equipment that gave it the capacity to secretly watch and record employee activities behind closed doors in an office to which the general public had limited access. As we discuss later with respect to the “offensiveness” element of plaintiffs' claim, an employer may have sound reasons for monitoring the workplace, and an intrusion upon the employee's reasonable privacy expectations may not be egregious or actionable under the particular circumstances. However, on the threshold question whether such expectations were infringed, decisional law suggests that is the case here.* * *

Finding an intrusion, the Court took into consideration that this was a private office, that cameras were surreptitious, and case law and statutes regarding monitoring:

Plaintiffs plausibly claim that Hillsides provided an enclosed office with a door that could be shut and locked, and window blinds that could be drawn, to allow the occupants to obtain some measure of refuge, to focus on their work, and to escape visual and aural interruptions from other sources, including their employer. Such a protective setting generates legitimate expectations that not all activities performed behind closed doors would be clerical and work related. As suggested by the evidence here, employees who share an office, and who have four walls that shield them from outside view (albeit, with a broken “doggieflap on the door), may perform grooming or hygiene activities, or conduct personal conversations, during the workday. Privacy is not wholly lacking because the occupants of an office can see one another, or because colleagues, supervisors, visitors, and security and maintenance personnel have varying degrees of access. . . .

Regarding another relevant factor in Sanders, supra, 20 Cal.4th 907, 923, the “means of intrusion,” employees who retreat into a shared or solo office, and who perform work and personal activities in relative seclusion there, would not reasonably expect to be the subject of televised spying and secret filming by their employer. As noted, in assessing social norms in this regard, we may look at both the “common law” and “statutory enactment.” (Hill, supra, 7 Cal.4th 1, 36.)
Now, a policy permitting such monitoring might have killed the employees' expectation of privacy and, therefore, the intrusion. But there was no such policy in place:

plaintiffs cannot plausibly be found to have received warning that they would be subjected to the risk of such surveillance, or to have agreed to it in advance. We have said that notice of and consent to an impending intrusion can “inhibit reasonable expectations of privacy.” (Hill, supra, 7 Cal.4th 1, 36; accord, Sheehan, supra, 45 Cal.4th 992, 1000-1001.) Such factors also can “ „ “limit [an] intrusion upon personal dignity” ‟ ” by providing an opportunity for persons to regulate their conduct while being monitored. (Hill, supra, at p. 36.) Here, however, the evidence shows that no one at Hillsides told plaintiffs that someone had used Lopez‟s computer to access pornographic Web sites. Nor were they told that Hitchcock planned to install surveillance equipment inside their office to catch the perpetrator on television and videotape.

Moreover, nothing in Hillsides' written computer policy mentioned or even alluded to the latter scenario. As noted earlier, the version in effect at the relevant time made clear that any monitoring and recording of employee activity, and any resulting diminution in reasonable privacy expectations, were limited to “use of Company computers” in the form of “e-mail” messages, electronic “files,” and “web site” data. Foster performed this administrative function when he used the network server to produce the list of pornographic Web sites accessed in both the computer laboratory and Lopez‟s office, and showed such computer-generated data to Hitchcock. There is no evidence that employees like plaintiffs had any indication that Hillsides would take the next drastic step and use cameras and recording devices to view and videotape employees sitting at their desks and computer workstations, or moving around their offices within camera range.

In sum, the undisputed evidence seems clearly to support the first of two basic elements we have identified as necessary to establish a violation of privacy as alleged in plaintiffs‟ complaint. Defendants secretly installed a hidden video camera that was both operable and operating (electricity-wise), and that could be made to monitor and record activities inside plaintiffs‟ office, at will, by anyone who plugged in the receptors, and who had access to the remote location in which both the receptors and recording equipment were located. The workplace policy, that by means within the computer system itself, plaintiffs would be monitored about the pattern and use of Web sites visited, to prevent abuse of Hillsides‟ computer system, is distinguishable from and does not necessarily create a social norm that in order to advance that same interest, a camera would be placed inside their office, and would be aimed toward a computer workstation to capture all human activity occurring there. Plaintiffs had no reasonable expectation that their employer would intrude so tangibly into their semi-private office
Next, the court considered whether the intrusion was sufficiently "serious" or "offensive" to constitute a tort. Here is where the employer won. The court considered factors such as the degree of the intrusion, the workplace setting, and the employer's justification. The Court concluded that the intrusion was justified and was slight under the circumstances. As such, the court of appeal had it wrong.

Finally, the court held that the employer does not have to prove there is no "less intrusive alternative" to prevail.

The key takeaway is that that notice to employees regarding employer procedures will defeat these claims in most cases by destroying the reasonable expectation of privacy.

The case is Hernandez v. Hillsides and the opinion is here.