California court allows for narrowly tailored employee surveillance

Kathy Woods Aug. 7, 2009, 10:00pm

Marvin Baxter

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline)-The California Supreme Court has ruled that a non-profit group did not violate the privacy rights of its employees when it used hidden cameras because the equipment did not record workers.

In a unanimous ruling the California Supreme Court said Hillsides Children's Center had a legitimate business purpose in mind when installing the hidden camera. The two employees who sued the company did not suffer any harm because the camera was only turned on when they were away, the high court ruled.

Child pornography was being viewed at the Hillsides Children's Center in Pasadena, Calif., and the employer was merely trying to find out who was using the center's computers to view the material, the court found.

"We appreciate plaintiffs' dismay over the discovery of video equipment-small, blinking and hot to the touch-that their employer had hidden among their personal effects in an office that was reasonably secluded from public access and view," Associate Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the court.

The business was a center for abused and neglected children, and it had an obligation to keep those children safe, Baxter said.

Mark Eisenberg, he attorney who represented the women, called the ruling "a step backward for civil liberties in the workplace."

He said: "The court has given employers a virtual green light to spy on employees via hidden camera for almost any reason, as long as little to no evidence of the intrusion is made available to the employee."

Paul Crane Jr., who represented California employer groups in this case said: "Employers all along have understood that even in the workplace, there are certain zones of privacy that you don't normally enter into with surveillance equipment. On the other hand, it is the workplace, and the employer does have a substantial interest in ensuring that misconduct does not occur there."

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