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Privacy At Work: You May Be Entitled To Less Of It!


Appeals Lawyer Criminal Convictions Privacy At Work

O’Connor v. Ortega

480 U.S. 709

U.S. Supreme Court

Decided on: March 31,1987

Privacy At Work: You May Be Entitled To Less Of It!

See Also: The Contents Of Your Computer Can Be Searched Remotely Without A Warrant

Summary: Dr. Ortega, a physician at a state hospital, was responsible for training younger physicians in a residency program. He was granted administrative leave until further investigation for prior improprieties with staff. Hospital officials searched his office and seized personal items from his desk and file cabinets that were used in administrative proceedings.

     Defendant Ortega filed an action against hospital officials, stating that the search of his office violated the Fourth Amendment. The District court granted summary judgment for the hospital officials and held that the search was proper because there was a need to secure state property in the office. The U.S Supreme Court held, a public employer’s intrusion in a government employee’s workplace/desk/files must be judged by a standard of reasonableness under all circumstances in whether the search was reasonable both at its inception and in its scope.

The U.S Supreme Court held that government employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy; however, the extent of that expectation of privacy will depend on the amount of access or work related reasons other government employees and the employer had to enter that space in question. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court for factual determination as to what extent hospital officials had work related reasons to enter his office.

Issue: Whether or not a government employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy in his workplace, desk and files, and, if he or she does have a reasonable expectation of privacy, is that expectation diminished by virtue of the fact that his employer is a government entity.

Holding: The U.S Supreme Court held, whether a search of a public employer’s office by a governmental entity is reasonable, both in its inception and scope, must be judged by a standard of reasonableness. A reasonable search depends on the context within which the search takes place, and requires balancing the employee’s legitimate expectation of privacy against the government’s need for supervision, control, and the efficient operation of the workplace.

Facts: Dr. Ortgea was a physician at a state hospital and was part of a psychiatric residency program teaching young physicians. Accusations of wrongdoing led to him taking leave from work. Government officials searched his office and seized personal belongings in his desk and file cabinet. Defendant argued that the illegality of the governmental search was a violation under the Fourth Amendment. The trial court held that the search was proper because there was a need to secure state’s property in the office. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court for factual determination as to what extent hospital officials had work related reasons to enter his work office.

Legal Analysis: The U.S Supreme Court held that the District court and The Court Of Appeals erred because summary judgment was inappropriate. In the trial court, the parties were in dispute about the actual justification for the search, and the record was inadequate for a determination of the reasonableness of the search and seizure. What is reasonable depends on the context within which a search takes place and requires balancing the employee’s legitimate expectation of privacy against the government’s need for supervision, control, and the efficient operation of the workplace.

The Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. This case established that Dr. Ortega’s Fourth Amendment rights are implicated only if the conduct of the hospital officials at issue in this case infringed an expectation of privacy that society is prepared to consider reasonable.

In determining whether a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, The U.S. Supreme Court has given weight to such factors as the intention of the Framers of the Fourth Amendment, the uses to which the individual has put a location, and our understanding that certain areas deserve the most scrupulous protection from government invasion. There has been no talisman that determines in all cases those privacy expectations that society is prepared to accept as reasonable. The U.S Supreme Court has rejected the contention that public employees can never have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their place of work. Individuals do not lose their Fourth Amendment rights merely because they work for the government instead of a private employer. The employee’s expectation of privacy must be assessed in the context of the employment relation.

The U.S Supreme Court held, Dr. Ortgea had not yet been terminated and was still on administrative leave. The record does not reflect whether the hospital had a policy of inventorying the property of investigated employees. There was incomplete evidence to support a summary judgment that the search did not have a validating purpose. Five Members of the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the decision must be reversed and remanded. Accordingly, The U.S Supreme Court Reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court for further determination as to what extent hospital officials had reason to enter his work office.