U.S. Supreme Court Partially Punts in Electronic Monitoring Case

We posted about Quon v. Arch Wireless here when it was just a Ninth Circuit case. There, the court of appeals held that a deputy sheriff had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his text messages sent on an employer-provided PDA.

On review, the U.S. Supreme Court ducked on the reasonable expectation of privacy issue that the courts below focussed on. The Supreme Court is concerned that the use of electronic data in the workplace and in society is still in flux and it does not want to pass judgment too soon on how privacy is maintained and expected in electronic communications. So we won't know about what policies are valid, whether a supervisor's oral statement could modify a written policy, and whether employers can destroy an expectation of privacy merely by furnishing the equipment. Another day, perhaps.

Instead, the court did hold that the City of Ontario was within its rights to look at Quon's text messages to see if he was using too much bandwidth for personal use. The court assumed there was a sufficient expectation of privacy without deciding the issue, and simply held that the search was "reasonable."
Because the search was motivated by a legitimate work related purpose, and because it was not excessive in scope, the search was reasonable under the approach of the O’Connor plurality. 480 U. S., at 726. For these same reasons—that the employer had a legitimate reason for the search, and that the search was not excessively intrusive in light of that justification—the Court also concludes that the search would be “regarded as reasonable and normal in the private-employer context” and would satisfy the approach of JUSTICE SCALIA’s concurrence. Id., at 732. The search was reasonable, and the Court of Appeals erred by holding to the contrary. Petitioners did not violate Quon’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Bottom line - this case would have more relevance to private sector employers in California if the Court had addressed the "reasonable expectation of privacy" issue. However, the court's discussion also concludes that employee monitoring is "regarded as reasonable and normal in the private-employer context."

For public sector employers, this case is significant because it clarifies the standard for the government-as-employer performing workplace monitoring even where employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The case is City of Ontario v. Quon and the opinion is here.