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Hernandez v. Hillsides, Inc. - 47 Cal. 4th 272, 97 Cal. Rptr. 3d 274, 211 P.3d 1063 (2009)

Rule:

Privacy expectations can be reasonable even if they are not absolute. Privacy, for purposes of the intrusion tort, is not a binary, all-or-nothing characteristic. There are degrees and nuances to societal recognition of expectations of privacy: the fact that the privacy one expects in a given setting is not complete or absolute does not render the expectation unreasonable as a matter of law. Various factors, either singly or in combination, affect societal expectations of privacy. One factor may be the identity of the intruder. Also relevant may be the nature of the intrusion, meaning, both the extent to which the subject interaction could be seen and overheard and the means of intrusion.

Facts:

Plaintiffs, employees of a private nonprofit residential facility for neglected and abused children, sued defendants, the operators of the facility, alleging, among other things, that defendants violated their right to privacy under both the common law and Cal. Const., art. I, § 1, by installing a hidden camera in their office. The 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. The camera was not operated during business hours, and plaintiffs' activities were not viewed or recorded. The trial court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. The appellate court reversed.

Issue:

  1. By installing a hidden camera in the office without plaintiffs’ knowledge, did the defendants intrude plaintiffs’ privacy?
  2. Granting that there was an intrusion, was such intrusion highly offensive and sufficiently serious to constitute a privacy violation?

Answer:

1) Yes. 2) No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of California reversed the judgment of the state appellate court insofar as 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 requisite 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—personal and work related—behind closed doors without their knowledge or consent. On the other hand, the Court of Appeal erroneously found a triable issue as to whether that intrusion was highly offensive and sufficiently 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.

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