Morris Manning & Martin, LLP

Privacy Rights Do Not Extend to Company-owned Devices

10.19.2010

It is common for companies to supply employees with mobile phones for business use.  A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision provided answers to how Fourth Amendment privacy rights apply to the electronic communications of public employees; they do not apply.  The decision could have an impact on future court decisions involving private employers.

In City of Ontario v. Quon, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the search of a police officer’s personal text messages on a city-owned pager.  Although the search was warrantless, the court ruled that it was not an unreasonable violation of the officer’s constitutional rights because it was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose.  The city was trying to determine whether it needed to modify its wireless contract which imposed overage fees after employees exceeded character limits on text messages.  

As a part of its contract needs assessment, the city obtained a transcript of Quon’s messages to determine whether officers were using their pagers for personal messages. The transcripts showed not only that the majority of Quon’s messages were indeed personal, but that he had been exchanging sexually explicit messages as well.

The Court did not lay down any broad rules about the privacy of workplace electronic communications.  The decision was tied closely to the facts of this particular case.  Still, it provides an interesting look into how Supreme Court rulings may progress to accommodate the rapid evolution of technology in the digital age. 

The decision generally allows government employers to look at workers' electronic messages if employers have reasonable, work-related grounds.  Although this case involved a public employer, the Supreme Court related the situation to private employers by noting that the search would be “regarded as reasonable and normal in the private-employer context."  However, the Supreme Court also made certain to stress that not a lot should be read into this one decision since it was decided on such narrow grounds. 

Employers should tread carefully and consult an attorney before accessing an employee’s electronic communications.  Employers would be wise to adopt broad policies informing employees that there should be no expectation of privacy when using company-owned devices.

The decision can be read at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1332.pdf.