Yesterday the United States Supreme Court issued a long-anticipated decision in City of Ontario v. Quon, unanimously ruling that a search of sexually explicit personal text messages sent by a police officer using his department pager was reasonable and did not violate the individual officer’s privacy rights. At issue was the right of a government employer to monitor its workers private communications because it believed employer-owned equipment was being abused. Even if a public employee has a legitimate privacy expectation, an employer’s intrusion on that expectation “for noninvestigatory, work-related purposes, as well as for investigations of work-related misconduct, should be judged by the standard of reasonableness under all the circumstances,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. Click here to read the Supreme Court’s full decision in Quon.
In Quon, the employer, the City of Ontario, distributed to its police officers pagers with texting capability. The City audited the use of text messages by the officers to determine whether coverage charges may have been caused by personal use of the service. During the audit, it discovered that Quon had sent several personal, sexually explicit text messages. Quon sued the City, asserting violations of his right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as under Article I, Section I of the California Constitution. The federal District Court dismissed Quon’s suit after a jury found that the City conducted the audit to investigate usage, not misconduct. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the City violated Quon’s constitutional privacy rights by reading his private texts, and the City’s articulated policies did not give Quon sufficient notice that his texts could be read by others to overcome his privacy rights. The Ninth Circuit’s decision, which we blogged on the World of Employment, was unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court.
What does the Supreme Court’s decision mean for employers? The Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling in a case involving a public, not private, employer. For most private employers, this case could have little or even no impact because federal privacy rights such as those that come from the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment apply only to public, and not private, employers. Justice Kennedy cautioned that even with regard to public employers, the “Judiciary risks error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of technology before its role in society has become clear . . . .” Private California employers should continue to be wary: California courts have sometimes applied state constitutional rights to private employers, and could rule that their employees have privacy rights in work-provided email and text systems. For all employers, whether or not the Fourth Amendment applies to them, it remains a “best practice” to adopt and distribute policies clearly stating that employees have no expectation of privacy in employer-owned equipment, or in communications they make using or interfacing with employer-provided equipment and systems, such as email, text messages, cell phones, social media and other avenues of technology.