Can Co-workers Dodge the Right to Privacy?

Can Co-workers Dodge the Right to Privacy?

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Recent debates over a person’s right to privacy may propel the assumption that an employee’s right to privacy on a work computer is limited at best.  But is unwanted access by co-workers, as compared to employers, to personal materials on another employee’s computer considered an invasion of privacy? This debate was recently presented before a court in Mary Hurley v. Bernice J. Rizk et al (2015), when co-workers maliciously and secretively gathered around another employee’s computer terminal and gained access for the sole purpose of invading the employee’s privacy.  The employee sued the coworkers for both intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

The court found that there was an invasion of privacy, but not an intentional infliction of emotional distress. Although the court characterized the co-workers behavior as inappropriate and objectionable, the court concluded that intentional infliction of distress claims  can be established only if “the conduct has been so outrageous in character… [and is] regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”  In addition, because the defendants did not intend their misconduct to become known to the employee, there was no intent to cause distress.   However, they did intend to invade her privacy and that is unlawful.

The court decided that an intentional invasion of privacy took place. Connecticut law provides that “one who intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the [privacy] of another…is subject to liability to the other for invasion of [her] privacy if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.” In this case, where co-workers went onto another employee’s computer in search of private information, that conduct is highly offensive to a reasonable person.

Although employees should not expect that they have a right to privacy as to their employer’s search of their computers, they do have that privacy right when it comes to their co-workers.

Posted March 28, 2016.