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The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches conducted by the government, even when the government acts as an employer. The special needs of public employers may, however, allow them to dispense with the probable cause and warrant requirements when conducting workplace searches related to investigations of work-related misconduct. In these situations, the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches is enforced by a careful balancing of governmental and private interests. A public employer's search of an area in which an employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy is reasonable when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of its purpose.
After receiving anonymous allegations that an employee reasonably suspected to be plaintiff-appellant Gary Leventhal was neglecting his duties in the Accounting Bureau of the New York State Department of Transportation ("DOT"), DOT investigators, without Leventhal's consent, printed out a list of the file names found on Leventhal's office computer. The list of file names contained evidence that certain non-standard software was loaded on Leventhal's computer. This led to additional searches confirming that Leventhal had a personal tax preparation program on his office computer and to disciplinary charges against Leventhal for misconduct. After settling the disciplinary charges, Leventhal sued defendants-appellees, alleging that searches of his work computer violated the Fourth Amendment and that a demotion and salary increase denial violated due process. The United States District Court for the Northern District of New York granted the state employer and individuals summary judgment. Leventhal appealed.
The appellate court concluded that even though, based on the particular facts of the case, the employee had some expectation of privacy in the contents of his work-place computer, the searches were reasonable in light of the state employer's need to investigate the allegations of the employee's misconduct as balanced against the modest intrusion caused by the searches. With respect to the challenged employment actions, the employee's constitutional due process rights were not violated by his loss of a provisional job appointment and his failure to receive a discretionary salary increase because neither involved property or liberty interests protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Because the appellate court found that the state employer did not violate the employee's Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment rights, there was no need to address whether the individuals enjoyed qualified immunity from suit.