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Law School Case Brief

O'Connor v. Ortega - 480 U.S. 709, 107 S. Ct. 1492 (1987)


A psychiatrist employed by a state hospital has a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office, and he is thus entitled to Fourth Amendment protections with respect to a search of his office conducted by hospital officials during an investigation into alleged work-related improprieties on his part.


A doctor employed by a state hospital managed the hospital's psychiatric residency program. Hospital officials became concerned about possible improprieties on the doctor's part, including his acquisition of a computer by means of possibly coerced contributions of residents, and alleged incidents of sexual harassment of female employees and inappropriate disciplinary action against a resident. The hospital placed the doctor on paid administrative leave and conducted an investigation of the charges. As part of the investigation, hospital officials searched the doctor's office several times and seized personal items as well as articles belonging to the state. No formal inventory was made of the property in the office, but all the papers that were not seized were put in storage for the doctor to retrieve. After the investigation, his employment was terminated. The doctor brought suit against the officials in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, alleging that the search of his office violated the Fourth Amendment. The District Court, granting the officials' motion for summary judgment, held that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment because there was a need to secure state property in the office. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed with respect to the § 1983 claim, holding that the search was unreasonable because the doctor had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office. The Court of Appeals said that the record justified a grant of partial summary judgment for the doctor on the issue of liability for an unlawful search, and it remanded the case for a determination of damages.


Was the summary judgment for state hospital doctor, based on warrantless search of his office during investigation of his alleged misfeasance proper?




On further review, the Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, ruling that neither party was entitled to summary judgment. A majority of the Court agreed that doctor had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office, subject to Fourth Amendment protection, but a plurality was of the opinion that there was a genuine issue as to the reasonableness of the inception and scope of the search, precluding summary judgment. Another justice concurring in the judgment wrote that the incomplete evidence in the record could not support a summary judgment.

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