Court: Can’t fire employee for snooping on co-worker’s files

Accessing files and documents without authorization is generally considered a pretty serious offense. But as this recent court case shows, it pays to be careful before taking any disciplinary action.

The case involved a nurse who claimed she was sexually harassed by a doctor at the hospital where she worked.

One part of her complaint was that she had witnessed the doctor viewing pornography on his office computer. The hospital’s IT department investigated and found that was true, and the doctor was given a warning. He was again caught viewing pornography at work and was placed on administrative leave during a further investigation, and he eventually resigned.

However, before the resignation, the nurse accessed information in the doctor’s personnel file — without authorization — and forwarded the documents to her lawyer. She was fired for violating her co-worker’s privacy.

However, she claimed the firing was in retaliation for her sexual harassment complaint and sued the hospital.

The hospital asked the judge to throw out the case, arguing that the nurse had committed a clear privacy violation by accessing files without authorization. However, the judge refused and let the case move forward — the timing of the firing, coming so soon after the nurse filed her complaint, was suspicious enough to let the case move forward.

The hospital must now settle or endure a costly jury trial.

Employees often have good luck in court when they bring retaliation claims. That’s why businesses must not only enforce policies consistently, but also consider the timing of their actions and document the reasons behind their decisions.

Cite: Daigle v. Stulc, et al.

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  • Paul Brown

    I don’t understand the lesson you’re trying to convey with this article. First of all, the title is misleading. According to the article itself, the Court hasn’t ruled anything yet, except that the case will not be thrown out and will have to be heard.

    And are you suggesting that the hospital should have deviated from it’s privacy policy in this case and not fired the nurse, thereby opening the door for the next person who is fired for looking at personnel files to sue because this nurse was not fired for the same offense?

    It’s always best to follow your policies, whatever they may be, to the letter. Breaking policy to avoid lawsuits will only bring more lawsuits.