CA Court Overturns Ruling on Office Privacy Case

October 12, 2006 ( - A California Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court's ruling that two female employees whose office was monitored with a hidden camera had a diminished expectation of privacy due to the employer's concerns for clients.

In Hernandez, et. al. v. Hillsides, Inc., et. al., the appellate court said Hillsides, a residential facility for abused and neglected children, failed to prove the employees had a diminished expectation of privacy and that it was sufficiently justified to monitor the office to protect the needs of the children. According to the opinion, testimony from the females that they conducted activity in their office such as changing clothes for the gym supported the conclusion that they did have an expectation of privacy in their office.

The court rejected the facility’s argument that the lack of a flap on a “doggie door” in their office door, the fact individuals could peek into the employees’ office window, and the fact 11 people had keys to their office meant the employees should not have reasonably expected privacy.

Further, the court disagreed that any expectation of privacy was overcome by Hillsides’ concern that employees were accessing pornographic Web sites at night and its desire to protect the children from exposure to the sites. According to the opinion, the facility did not provide the titles of the Web sites, did not describe what sort of Web sites were “pornographic,” and had not provided the Web logs that justified their decision to conduct the surveillance.

Additionally, the court noted that there were other non-intrusive means for the facility to monitor employees’ Web activities.

Hillsides had placed a motion-activated camera in the office shared by the two plaintiffs after being advised by their computer technician that some staff computers, including one in the plaintiffs’ office, were accessing pornographic Web sites. The facility’s director claimed nothing was ever recorded because the camera was only hooked up after work hours.

When the females noticed a flashing light on an office bookshelf while at work and discovered it was a camera, they notified their supervisors. Though the facility director showed them what was recorded and the recordings contained no images of them until that day, they sued their employer.

The appellate court found that it was not necessary to determine if the employees were viewed to establish a privacy violation.