The Supreme Court recently ruled on a case involving an employer that paid the bill for employees who used text messages for official business — and an employee who thought his obscene personal messages would stay private.
The City of Ontario, CA, gave cell phones to police officers so they could communicate via text message. The officers were told that while the devices were intended for official business, they could use them for private purposes as long as they paid for any overcharges on their accounts. The department said it would not read the messages as long as employees paid the overage.
The city later changed its policy and decided the messages would no longer be private. The written policy stayed the same, but according to the city, management announced in meetings that the texts “are considered e-mail messages,” meaning they would be included in the city’s policy saying employee e-mail can be monitored by IT.
While investigating one officer who’d gone over his message allotment four times, the city discovered he’d exchanged hundreds of sexually explicit messages with several women.
When he was reprimanded, he and three of the women he was in touch with (two outside the police force) sued for violation of privacy.
A district court ruled in favor of the city, but the plaintiffs appealed, arguing they had a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the messages. The appeals court agreed and reversed the ruling.
The case then went to the Supreme Court, which reversed again, ruling in favor of the city.
The justices ruled searching through the messages was a reasonable way to determine if they were work related. The decision was narrow — the Court was careful to point out that it was dependent on the specific facts of this particular case — but lawyers say the case offers clear advice for employers:
Have clear written policies describing what communications can be monitored by IT. That should keep employees from believing text messages, e-mails and other activities are private in the first place.
Cite: City of Ontario vs. Quon