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Hernandez v. Hillsides

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Citation Edit

Hernandez v. Hillsides, Inc., 47 Cal.4th 272, 97 Cal.Rptr.3d 274 (2009) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

Plaintiffs Abigail Hernandez and Maria-Jose Lopez were employed by defendant Hillsides, Inc. at the Hillside Children Center, a private nonprofit facility for neglected and abused children, including victims of sexual abuse. In an effort to catch an unknown person who was using a computer located in plaintiffs’ office after hours to view pornographic websites, defendant Hitchcock (director of the facility) set up a hidden camera in their office.

The covert surveillance system consisted of a camera hidden in some plants attached to a motion sensor tucked into the lap of a stuffed animal, which transmitted images wirelessly to a monitor in a storage room attached to recording equipment. According to the defendant the monitor and recording equipment were only plugged in after hours and no images of either plaintiff were ever captured. Several employees other than the defendant had access to the storage room. The plaintiffs’ office had three windows on exterior walls, blinds, and a door that could be closed and locked, however there was a “doggie” door near the bottom of the office door allowed for a small opening into the room.

Trial Court Proceedings Edit

When plaintiffs discovered the camera they filed a suit against defendants alleging causes of action for invasion of privacy (under both the common law and the state Constitution of California), intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Appellate Court Proceedings Edit

The Court of Appeal reversed, finding triable issues that plaintiffs had suffered an intrusion into a protected zone of privacy that was so unjustified and offensive as to constitute a [[privacy] violation.

California Supreme Court Proceedings Edit

Reaching its conclusion for different reasons, the California Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims.

A privacy violation based on the common law tort of intrusion has two elements: (1) the defendant must intentionally intrude into a place, conversation, or matter as to which the plaintiff has a reasonable expectation of privacy, and (2) the intrusion must occur in a manner highly offensive to a reasonable person. Under the California Constitution a plaintiff alleging invasion must (1) possess a legally protected privacy interest, (2) have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and (3) show that the intrusion is so serious in “nature, scope, and actual or potential impact as to constitute an egregious breach of the social norms.”

While the plaintiffs’ expectation of privacy may have been significantly diminished in the workplace, it was not lacking altogether. The defendants provided plaintiffs with a workstation that could be closed off from the rest of the office and be reasonably secure from prying eyes. Plaintiffs contended that on occasions they would lock the door and change clothes or reveal private areas of their bodies to one another. Even though defendants never intended to record plaintiffs, and in fact never did, the presence of the recording equipment was a sufficient intrusion into plaintiffs’ privacy in their office. Additionally, there was nothing in the employee handbook that indicated the possibility of being subjected to video cameras in the workplace further increasing the plaintiffs’ expectation of privacy from that particular form of invasion.

That defendants disabled viewing and recording equipment during work hours weighs in their favor when determining whether the invasion was highly offensive to a reasonable person. Further, the surveillance was conducted for the purpose of preventing access of the children at the facility to objectionable material rather than for a socially repugnant or unprotected reason. When plaintiffs discovered the equipment defendant Hitchcock promptly showed them the tapes and reassured them that no recording was taking place while they were in the office. The Court was unpersuaded by any “less intrusive” alternatives proffered by the plaintiffs.

Ultimately the Court decided that the defendants’ surveillance system was narrowly tailored in place, time, and scope, and was prompted by legitimate business concerns. Plaintiffs were not at risk of being monitored or recorded during regular work hours and the actions of the defendants could not be considered highly offensive to a reasonable person.

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