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Employment Law Blog

Friday, June 20, 2008

Review of Employee Text Messages Deemed Invasion of Privacy

Workplace privacy rights can be tricky. Consider the following scenario: A company provides two-way alpha-numeric pagers to employees. The pager service plan allows for transmission of 25,000 characters per month, beyond which an overage fee is assessed. Employees are told to use the pagers for business purposes, and that they will have to reimburse the company for overage fees on account of personal use. A company policy warns employees that it may monitor electronic communications.

There are overages, but the employees do pay for them. But the company decides to conduct an audit because (1) it wants to make sure that employees are not asked to pay overage fees for business transmissions; (2) it wants to assess whether 25,000 characters per month is an efficient limit. To conduct the audit, the company prints and reviews transcripts of the text messages. Does the company act within its rights?

No, according to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a case titled Quon v. Arch Wireless. The case involved the Ontario Police Department’s review of text messages sent and received by police Sgt. Jeff Quon. The audited text messages included personal communications, including sexually explicit comments. Quon and others he texted sued the Department for violations of constitutional privacy rights. The trial court ruled against the employees, but the Ninth Circuit reinstated the case.

The court reasoned as follows:

(1) Employees may have constitutionally-based reasonable expectations of privacy in the workplace. This includes the expectation that employers will not monitor private communications. 

(2) Employers may dispel the expectation of privacy by warning employees that communications may be monitored. Like many employers, the Department had a “Computer Usage, Internet and E-mail Policy.” The policy limited use of electronic devices to Department business, and advised employees that the Department may monitor employee use of the systems, and that users should have no expectation of privacy.

(3) However, the “operational reality” was different. In practice, the manager responsible for the pagers told employees that he would not audit pager messages as long as employees paid for overage fees. They paid the fees, and therefore it was reasonable for them to expect that the Department would not monitor their communications. So the practice defeated the policy. The court suggested that the policy would have been sufficient to dispel the expectation of privacy, but for the manager’s assurances and practices to the contrary.

(4) Because the employees had a reasonable expectation of privacy in connection with the text messages, intrusion by the employer must be reasonable—but here it was not reasonable. Employers are permitted, during the course of workplace misconduct investigations, or for other business purposes, to review or monitor employee communications—but the employer must demonstrate that the intrusion is reasonable. ““Reasonable” means there was a reasonable basis for conducting the search, and that the scope of the search (or the degree of intrusiveness) was reasonable. The court determined that the Department could have used less intrusive means. It could have, for example, looked at the number dialed without reading the text. Or it could have asked the employees to black out personal messages before reviewing the transcript. 

Note that the decision was made in the context of a public employer, but employee rights in private industry may be affected by this decision. The court examined the federal Fourth Amendment as well as California’s constitutional privacy rights. The Fourth Amendment applies to government action—here the police department was the government entity.  But the California constitution applies to public and private employers alike.

Constitutional privacy rights in the private sector have not been well defined by the courts. You can expect further developments in area of workplace privacy rights, particularly given technological advances that make employee monitoring increasingly easy. 

Submitted by:
Christopher W. Olmsted
Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC