Want to Keep Your Dirty Laundry Private? Don’t Air It On An Employer-Issued Communications Device

Want to Keep Your Dirty Laundry Private? Don’t Air It On An Employer-Issued Communications Device

Facts of the Case

The employee in this case was not some floozy with limited knowledge of how the world works. Rather, he was a veteran sergeant of the Ontario, California, police force and a member of its S.W.A.T. team. In 2001, the Ontario Police Department (OPD) issued alpha-numeric pagers to his team in order to facilitate communications between members, which, as you can imagine, would be extremely useful in the field and efficient at the office.

OPD then put in place a “Computer Usage, Internet and E–Mail Policy” which the employee signed a statement that said he had read and understood the policy. It expressly reserved the right to monitor all of the network activity, which included e-mail and Internet use. Additionally, the policy said that there should be no expectation of privacy when using the network.

The problem was that the computer policy did not cover text messaging, at least expressly, since the pagers were contracted out to a company called Arch Wireless. Therefore, all communication passed through their network, and a copy of all communications was retained on their servers after delivery. However, the OPD made it clear to all of its employees, in a meeting that the employee attended, that the messages sent on the pagers were to be treated as e-mails, meaning that they were subject to the same computer policy.

As it turned out, the employee exceeded his monthly text character allotment, almost immediately, and for a period of a few months. He paid for those overages, but the OPD decided that enough was enough. The police chief launched an investigation, ostensibly in order to determine whether the employees were being forced to pay out of pocket for overages on work-related messages due to an overly-restrictive character limit, or if the messages were personal. Transcripts of the messages from the previous 2 months were obtained, and revealed material that was personal, and some sexually explicit, in nature. The employee was then disciplined.

Claims by the Employee

The employee essentially brought two claims: 1) that the OPD violated the Stored Communications Act (SCA) and 2) his Fourth Amendment privacy rights, by obtaining and reviewing the transcripts of the messages. The first claims was not before the Supreme Court on its merits, since the lower court decided that Arch Wireless was forbidden to turn over the transcripts, and this was not contested. However, the Fourth Amendment claim was alive and well.

As with most Fourth Amendment claims, the crux of the issue is whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy that was violated. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of people to secure against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government of their stuff. This has been applied to the government acting as an employer as well. The analysis of such claims, however, was the subject of dispute among the Supreme Court justices in a case called O’Connor v. Ortega. In that case, the plurality opinion of the Court said that the question of whether an employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy is to be decided on a case-by-case basis. If there is an expectation of privacy, is an intrusion on that reasonable under the circumstances. Justice Scalia said that there is a blanket expectation of privacy for government employees, but the employers can search to retrieve work-related materials, etc.

Here, the Court expressly punted the issue of whether there was, or is, an expectation of privacy for communications made on electronic equipment owned by a government employer. The Court cited the difficulty in predicting how the expectation of privacy will be shaped by the rapid changes in the dynamics of communication and information transmission. Instead, the Court cautioned “prudence” to avoid deciding this important issue, and instead decided the case without it.

The Court stated that even if the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his messages, and therefore protected by the Fourth Amendment, the “search” done by OPD didn’t necessarily violate it. The “special needs” of the workplace were said to be an exception to the rule that all warrantless searches are automatically unreasonable. There was a reasonable ground for assuming that the search was necessary for a work-related purpose, not just to invade the employee’s privacy. Rather, their interest was to ensure the employees were not paying out of pocket for work-related expenses. Therefore the review of the transcripts was reasonable.

Also, the employee should not have expected that his messages were going to remain private under all circumstances, since he was told that the messages were subject to auditing. Additionally, the scope of the search was reasonable as well, since it did not reveal the details of the employee’s life, since the private messages in the search sample were redacted.

Ultimately, the sergeant should have known better than to air his dirty laundry on a government-issued communications device. Although the Court avoided deciding whether there is an expectation of privacy, they made it pretty clear that if there was a well-distributed policy, and if the review of the messages is ostensibly for work-related issues, that such a “search” will be permissible.

Akiva Shepard received his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2014. Akiva has worked for a New York State Supreme Court Judge in Kings County and for a NJ real estate firm. 

Leave a Reply

  • Find an eLesson

  • Register for Post Notifications

    Subscribe to receive updates whenever a new eLesson is published.

    Manage Subscriptions
  • Let Us Blog Your Event!

    eLessons Learned is fast becoming the site of choice for employers, employees, judges, lawyers, and journalists who are interested in learning more about these areas without being intimidated by the complexity of the topic. In fact, organizations and event coordinators often feature eLessons Learned as their official eDiscovery blog. Fill out our simple registration form to have eLessons Learned be the official blog of your organization or event.

    Register Now
  • Recent Praise

    The blog takes a clever approach to [e-discovery]. Each post discusses an e-discovery case that involves an e-discovery mishap, generally by a company employee. It discusses the conduct that constituted the mishap and then offers its ‘e-lesson’ — a suggestion on how to learn from the mistake and avoid it happening to you.

    Robert Ambrogi

    Legal Tech Blogger and creator of LawSites




    Although I may have missed some, yours is the first article that I have seen addressing Zubulake II. It is often the lost opinion amongst the others.

    Laura A. Zubulake

    Plaintiff, Zubulake v. UBS Warburg


    Click here to see more.
zzzz