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Review privacy and surveillance policies in light of new California Supreme Court ruling

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

The California Supreme Court has ruled in a case involving video camera surveillance and employee privacy rights. The court said employees do indeed have a right to considerable privacy at work, but that in this particular case the employer had acted reasonably and limited the surveillance to what was necessary under the circumstances.

Recent case: Abigail Hernandez and Maria-Jose Lopez worked as clerical staff at the Hillsides Children Center, a private nonprofit residential facility for neglected and abused children.

The two women shared an office with a computer linked to the Internet. Both women later explained that they would sometimes lock the door in order to change clothes before leaving for the day, and that on one occasion, one of the women had shown the other her post-pregnancy figure.

Hillsides employed an IT staff and discovered that someone had been accessing the Internet and viewing pornography after normal business hours. Doing so was specifically banned by the center’s electronics communications policy. The center took violations seriously, since it houses troubled children who might have been sexually abused.

The center set up a surveillance camera in the office in the hopes of catching whomever had accessed the pornography.

The camera was programmed to record at night, and the IT manager personally disconnected the camera during the day when the women were at work because they were not suspected of any wrongdoing.

After three days, one of the women discovered the camera and demanded an explanation. She learned about the efforts to catch the pornography viewer and had a chance to review the tapes. There were no images of either woman on the recordings.

Still, the women sued, alleging a violation of their right to privacy. The case made its way to the California Supreme Court.

The court ruled that the women had a legitimate privacy interest in their office and that “they had a reasonable expectation that under widely held social norms their employer would not install video equipment capable of monitoring and recording their activities—personal or work related—behind closed doors without their knowledge or consent.”

The court then analyzed the specifics of the case and added that the employer hadn’t violated their privacy rights because “the actual surveillance was drastically limited in nature and scope.” (Hernandez v. Hillsides, No. S147552, Supreme Court of California, 2009)

Final notes: You may want to have your attorney review your privacy and surveillance policies in light of this case. Make sure the employees who are going to do any sort of monitoring understand the limitations on surveillance. Direct them to do all they can to ensure that employees who aren’t under suspicion aren’t caught up in the dragnet.

You may also want to provide employees with a separate room in which to change clothing, express breast milk and engage in other necessary but private activities.

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