Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Not So "Customarily"?

New ImageAt the recent ALI meeting in Washington, where the Institute approved the current version of the Restatement of Employment Law's chapter on Privacy, I criticized one of the proposal's formulations of when an employee has a reasonable expecation of privacy. To no effect, I might add. But not being one to forebear from giving a dead horse another lick or two, let me explain my argument.

The structure of the proposed blackletter requires an employee to have a reasonable expectation of privacy before there can be a violation --although such an expectation does not necessarily mean that the employer's intrusion is actionable since the intrusion must also be "wrongful."  § 701

In other words, a REP is necessary but not sufficient, and the Restatement deals with such expectations in a variety of ways. The one I was concerned about had to do with when there was a REP in a physical or electronic location provided by the employer Section 703(b) allows an employer to expressly create such an expectation in subparagraph (1) but also provides in § 703(b) that a REP may be created by conduct when

the employer has acted in a manner that treated the workspace as private for employees, the type of location is customarily treated as private for employees, and the employee made reasonable efforts to keep the location private.

I understood the reciprocal requirements of employer and employee treating the location as private, but was confused by what it meant for "the type of location" to be "customarily treated as private."  The word "customarily" suggested looking to other employers' conduct, which seemed to me to put a major crimp in the protection that would otherwise be accorded.

I'm probably saying this more coherently here than I did at the Institute, but suppose an employer treats worker e-mails as private and workers zealously guard that privacy through passwords and other conduct. Should the fact that most employers act otherwise foreclose privacy protection in this setting? As I said in DC, perhaps not very elegantly, doesn't this push towards the lowest common denominator for privacy, maybe only regarding bathrooms?

At the time, I hadn't done much spadework in the cases, but more research since the ALI's Meeting has not alleviated my concerns, nor has it clarified where "customarily" comes from. None of the four cases cited by the Restatement for this section speaks of "custom," although one (Hernandez v. Hillsides, 211 P.3d 1063 (Cal. 2009)), does mention "social norms." I don't have any problem with recognizing privacy expectations when social norms push in that direction (we're back to bathrooms), but I'm not so sure why it would matter to the implied agreement concept that seems to underlay the Restatement's position.  

Plus, of course, recognizing a reasonable expectation of privacy in this situation would not open any floodgates since, to be actionable, any intrusion would have to be "wrongful," which requires that the intrusion be "highly offensive to a reasonable person" and that in turn takes into account the "employer's legitimate business and public interests" for the intrusion.

Now I do understand that the expectations of both parties might be shaped by social context, and in that sense broader norms may come into play, but the current phrasing seems ill-adapted to protecting actual privacy expecations in the workplace. I also understand there's only so far in advance of the law that a Restatement can go, but it doesn't seem to me that extirpating "customarily treated as private" from the blackletter would contravene any of the cases cited. 


Thanks to Nicole Zito for her terrific work in helping me on this.    



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Good post, but please tell me you mean "kick" a dead horse, not "lick."

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 21, 2012 8:04:46 AM

In response to Joe, de gustibus not est disputandum.


Posted by: Charlie Sullivan | Jun 22, 2012 3:51:36 AM

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