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Supreme Court Sides with Employers on Texting Privacy Rules in the Workplace

June 21, 2010

Our California Labor and Employment Lawyers have been following the Supreme Court's ruling last week in an electronic workplace privacy issue case where an Ontario, California police officer claimed that his privacy rights in the workplace were violated, after a supervisor read text messages that he had sent using his work-issued pager.

This is reportedly the first Supreme Court decision considering privacy rights of employees who send text messages in the workplace--an important case, as the decision affects more than 20 million local, state, and federal government employees who spend time conducting business on cell phones or sending text messages and emails on devices provided by their employers. The issue in this case was whether the Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches" can limit a public employer's right to search.

In the case, Sergeant Jeff Quon, a SWAT team officer, received a pager from the City of Ontario, to be used for sending work text messages. The city paid for the text and pager plan, which included a 25,000 characters per month limit, as well the wireless service fees. Any texts after this would accrue overage fees.

Quon claims that he was told he could use the pager for personal messages as long as he covered the cost--so when he started exceeding the text message limits, he personally paid the overage fees and charges. But after a few months of receiving overage bills, Quon's boss Chief Lloyd Scharf reportedly decided to order transcripts of the text messages and perform an "audit" to see whether the character limit should be raised, and to see if Quon was wasting time texting personal messages when he should have been working.

Scharf reportedly read the messages, and learned that most of Quon's texts were of a personal and even sexually explicit nature. After Quon learned that his messages had been read, and the city exposed his personal affairs, he sued Scharf and the city, claiming that his privacy rights were violated by the city's text inspection. Quon won the ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the judges claimed that there was no need for Quon's supervisor to read the messages.

In the Supreme Court's unanimous (9-0) ruling last, week, the court justices rejected workers' privacy rights, and ruled that if a supervisor suspects that work rules are being violated, and an employer has a "work-related purpose"--they could inspect an employee's desk or read text messages. The Supreme Court claimed that they will "proceed with care" in the future with issues regarding electronic privacy in the workplace.

In cities in Orange County and throughout Southern California, our Anaheim-based Labor & Employment Attorneys know how to find the best solution to your labor or employment issue. Contact Howard Law, PC today.

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of California Police Chief Who Read Employee's Texts, The Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2010

Supreme Court Rules for Employer in Text-messaging Case, Chicago Tribune, June 17, 2010

Supreme Court: No Sexting at Work, The Orange County Register, June 18, 2010

Court's Text Message - Supremes on Privacy Rules, The New York Post, June 21, 2010

Related Web Resources:

Supreme Court: Ontario v. Quon, June 16, 2010