May 19, 2011 Articles

City of Ontario v. Quon—The Supreme Court’s First Foray into Digital Privacy

One crucial lesson for businesses to learn from this case is they need well-conceived policies establishing employee expectations with respect to digital privacy in the workplace.

Cameron G. Shilling – May 19, 2011

“What are the legal boundaries of an employee’s privacy in this interconnected, electronic-communication age, one in which thoughts and ideas that would have been spoken personally and privately in ages past are now instantly text-messaged to friends and family via hand-held . . . electronic devices?” The opening words of the trial judge in Quon v. Arch Wireless Operating Co., Inc., 445 F. Supp. 2d 1116, 1121 (C.D. Cal. 2006), foreshadowed the significance of the social issues at stake in the lawsuit between Jeff Quon and his employer, the City of Ontario, California. Advocates for businesses and employees eagerly awaited the decision from the Supreme Court, hoping that the justices would embrace the countervailing public policy and personal privacy dilemmas arising from the complexities of a multitude of existing and emerging digital technologies. Companies and their legal counsel desperately needed clear rules establishing the boundaries between an employer’s right to access and review the electronic communications of employees, and an employee’s interest in ensuring that his or her personal matters remain private. Also laid at the courthouse steps was a golden opportunity for the high court to furnish sorely needed guidance on a key federal law, called the Stored Communications Act (SCA), which often is the front line for both the attack and defense in digital-privacy disputes.

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