Employment Law Case Study

Pages: 5 (1882 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 0  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Business - Law


Employment Law

Hernandez v. Hillsides Inc., 47 Cal.4th 272 (2009)

Facts: In September 2003, the plaintiffs Hernandez and Lopez filed a suit against defendants Hillsides and Hitchcock over the use of video surveillance equipment in plaintiffs' office. The complaint consisted of three related causes of action, and sought compensatory and punitive damages. The first cause of action claimed an invasion of privacy. The hidden camera was installed after the director of the facility learned that late at night, after plaintiffs had left the premises, an unknown person had repeatedly used a computer in plaintiffs' office to access the Internet and view pornographic Web sites.

Noting that neither Hernandez nor Lopez had been seen or recorded, the trial court found that there had been no intrusion on their expectations of privacy and granted Hillsides and Hitchcock's motion for summary judgment. The California Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that triable issues of fact existed as to whether Hernandez and Lopez had suffered an intrusion into a protected zone of privacy and whether any such intrusion was so unjustified and offensive as to constitute a privacy violation. The Court of Appeal concluded that Hernandez' and Lopez' assertion that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in their office was not defeated merely because they had never been viewed or recorded. It also held that whether or not any intrusion on their expectations of privacy was so offensive and unjustified as to create liability was a question for the jury.

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On appeal, the Supreme Court of California reversed the decision of the Court of Appeal and held the trial court had properly granted the motion for summary judgment filed by Hernandez and Lopez. However, it did not entirely disagree with the decision of the Court of Appeal. It concluded that the Court of Appeal did not err in determining that a jury could find that Hernandez and Lopez suffered an intrusion into an area as to which they possessed a reasonable expectation of privacy, but that it did err in finding a triable issue as to whether the intrusion was highly offensive and sufficiently serious to constitute a privacy violation.

Case Study on Case Study Employment Law Assignment

Issues: The question before the court was whether there was a privacy violation based on the common law tort of intrusion. Intrusion consists of two elements. The first is that the defendant must intentionally intrude into a place, conversation, or matter in which the plaintiff has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Second, the intrusion must happen in a manner that is highly offensive to a reasonable person. These boundaries on the right to privacy are not irrelevant. Nevertheless, the cause of action distinguishes a measure of personal control over the individual's autonomy, dignity, and serenity. As to the first element of the common law tort, the defendant must have penetrated some zone of physical or sensory privacy or obtained unwanted access to data by electronic or other covert means, in violation of the law or social norms. In either case, the expectation of privacy must be reasonable. The reasonableness of privacy expectations is thought to include such factors as (1) the identity of the intruder, (2) the extent to which other people had access to the subject place, and could see or hear the plaintiff, and (3) the means by which the intrusion took place. The second common law element involves a policy determination as to whether the alleged intrusion is highly offensive under the particular circumstances. Applicable factors include the degree and setting of the intrusion, and the intruder's motives and objectives. Even in cases involving the use of photographic and electronic recording devices, which can raise difficult questions about covert surveillance, California tort law provides no bright line on offensiveness and so each case must be taken on its facts.

Holding: The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal in the fact that it allowed the privacy claim to proceed to trial, holding that the trial court properly granted summary judgment. On the one hand, the Court of Appeal did not err in determining that a jury could find the necessary intrusion. While plaintiffs' privacy interests in a shared office at work were far from absolute, they had a reasonable expectation under widely held social norms that their employer would not install video equipment capable of monitoring and recording their activities, both personal and work-related, behind closed doors without their knowledge or consent. The Court of Appeal incorrectly found a triable issue as to whether that intrusion was highly offensive and adequately serious to constitute a privacy violation. Any actual surveillance was drastically limited in nature and scope, exempting plaintiffs from its reach, and defendants were motivated by strong countervailing concerns, which included providing a wholesome environment for the abused children in their care and avoiding legal liability.

The Court said that they appreciated the plaintiffs' shock over the discovery of video equipment that their employer had hidden in an office that was reasonably private from public access and view. They went on to say that there were in no way encouraging such surveillance measures, particularly in the absence of adequate notice to persons within camera range that their actions may be viewed and taped. Taking into consideration all the relevant circumstances, the Court found that the plaintiffs did not established that the particular conduct of defendants was highly offensive and constituted a violation of prevailing social norms. They stated that they reached this conclusion from the standpoint of a reasonable person based on defendants' dynamic efforts to avoid intruding on plaintiffs' visual privacy altogether. Establishment of the surveillance system was narrowly customized in place, time, and scope, and was provoked by legitimate business concerns. The plaintiffs were not at risk of being monitored or recorded during regular work hours and were never actually seen on camera or videotape. The Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal in that it reversed and vacated the trial court's order granting defendants' motion for summary judgment on all counts alleged in the complaint.

Rationale: The court stated that while privacy expectations may be significantly diminished within the workplace, they are not absent altogether. Relying on the elements of the intrusion tort set forth in Shulman, supra, 18 Cal.4th 200, the Court stressed that

The Court held that the evidence appeared to clearly support the first of two basic elements that are necessary to establish a violation of privacy. The defendants secretly installed a hidden video camera that was both operable and operating, and that could be made to monitor and record activities inside plaintiffs' office, at will, by anyone who plugged in the receptors, and who had access to the remote location in which both the receptors and recording equipment were located. The workplace policy, that by means within the computer system itself, plaintiffs would be monitored about the pattern and use of Web sites visited, to prevent abuse of Hillsides's computer system, is distinguishable from and does not necessarily create a social norm that in order to advance that same interest, a camera would be placed inside their office, and would be aimed toward a computer workstation to capture all human activity occurring there. Plaintiffs had no reasonable expectation that their employer would intrude so tangibly into their semiprivate office.

Analysis: Although the Supreme Court of California stated that as a matter of law, Hillsides and Hitchcock were not liable on the facts before it, a number of its conclusions have since proven troublesome to employers, including the Court's finding that employees have an expectation of privacy in office space provided by the employer, and that that privacy may be intruded upon although the occupants are never viewed or recorded. It seems that the Court is saying that the mere possibility that an employee could be viewed or recorded by a hidden camera may be enough to be an intrusion.

The real problem with the case is that it is heavily fact-oriented. Although the Court sets forth several things to be considered in determining the two elements involved in the cause of action, it did not set forth any rules to guide either employers or their counsel. The court stated that is reached its decision for reasons that were both varied and nuanced. Those nuances involved subjective judgments by individual judges as to how a particular fact influenced the situation. This is often a delicate, elusive and fragile balancing process. This logic only invites ideologic decision making.

The combination of slight variations in the facts that could impact the decision in this case is almost infinite. Employers that want clearer lines are going to have to draw their own. The Court suggests that liability may be avoided by simply informing employees in advance that they should have no expectation of privacy and by giving adequate notice to persons within camera range that their actions may be viewed and taped. Hitchcock claimed he did not notify Hernandez and Lopez of the placement of the camera because he was concerned… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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