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California Employee Privacy Protections Strengthened

June 17, 2013

Although most employers are probably aware of the need to maintain the privacy of their workers, it's quite possible that managers and supervisors may not be. whisper1.jpg An employer's public disclosure of private employee facts, such as one's medical condition, could easily result in litigation against the company.

Now, Los Angeles Employment Attorney Vincent Howard of HOWARD LAW has learned of a recent decision by a California appellate court that could make proving an employee privacy violation claim that much easier.

The case, Ignat v. Yum! Brands, Inc. was recently heard before the Court of Appeals of California, Fourth District, Division Three.

Here's what happened: Yum! Brands, as you may know is the corporate parent of a number of fast-food chains, including KFS, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

Between 2005 and 2008, the plaintiff worked in the company's real estate title department, were she assisted paralegals in helping to secure titles to real estate on which the company's franchised stores operated.

The plaintiff suffered from bipolar disorder, a medical condition characterized by extreme mood swings, from mania to depression. It's generally treatable with medication and intensive therapy, but it can have very serious mental and physical consequences for the sufferer.

The plaintiff was reportedly being treated with medications, which were sometimes effective, though sometimes, they were not. The side effects, on occasion, forced the plaintiff to miss work.

After one such absence back in 2008, one of the plaintiff's supervisors informed her that everyone in the department had been told of her condition. As a result, people in the department began to systematically avoid her. They would ignore and shun her and one asked a supervisor whether it was likely that the plaintiff would "go postal."

Subsequently, the plaintiff was terminated a few months later.

She responded by filing suit against her former employer as well as the supervisor, alleging invasion of privacy by public disclosure of private facts.

The company responded by requesting a summary judgment for dismissal on the basis that:

  • The supervisor never directly informed title department workers of her condition;
  • The supervisor did not disclose the condition in writing;
  • The disclosure wasn't highly offensive to a reasonable person;
  • The plaintiff had already revealed her condition to a few of the people within her department, which therefore meant she had no expectation of any privacy regarding the matter.
The motion for summary judgment was granted, solely on the basis of the fact that the disclosure had not been written.

However, the appellate court overturned that ruling. What they concluded that was to assume liability for public disclosure of a private fact could be avoided simply because those facts were not recorded in writing were contrary to the purpose of the tort. The purpose of the tort, the court ruled, was to allow a person to control the kind of information about himself or herself made available to the public. In essence, it's the right to define his own public persona.

By relaxing the standards through which employees can bring about privacy claims, the plaintiff's claim in this case may go forward, and the door has been open for future claims of employee privacy violations.

Los Angeles Employment Attorney VINCENT HOWARD at HOWARD LAW can help. Call toll-free at 1-800-872-5925 or send us a message online.

Additional Resources: Employee privacy: California court expands rights, June 17, 2013,

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