Written by Martha.
On Monday, December 14, 2009, the United States Supreme Court announced that it will hear arguments in USA Mobility Wireless Inc. v. Quon, a case that may have a significant impact on employers’ rights to monitor employees’ electronic communications. The important facts of Quon may be summarized as follows:
The city of Ontario, California, issued text messaging pagers to members of its SWAT-team. Despite a clearly worded "Computer Usage, Internet and E-mail Policy" (the “Policy”) that prohibited the use of city-issued equipment for personal use, and despite the fact that Jeff Quon and his fellow SWAT-team officers signed statements acknowledging that users “should have no expectation of privacy or confidentiality when using these [city-owned] resources," Quon and his co-workers used their pagers to send and receive both personal and work-related text messages.
The city’s contract with its communications provider, Arch Wireless (now USA Mobility Wireless) allowed for 25,000 characters per month, per device, before overage charges were incurred. After some officers consistently exceeded the 25,000 character limit, the city obtained transcripts of the messages sent and received by the two officers with the highest usage, one of whom was Quon, ostensibly for the purpose of establishing whether the overage was attributable to business or personal use. The city found that Quon sent and received 456 personal and three work-related messages while on duty in a single month. Many of the personal messages, which included messages to his wife, his girlfriend, and a fellow officer, were sexually explicit.
Claiming that they were unaware that the city’s Policy applied to their department and believed there was an informal policy whereby the officers could maintain their privacy in their text messages as long as they paid any charges incurred by excessive usage, Quon and several of his fellow officers sued USA Mobility and the city for invasion of privacy. The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of Quon, finding that the review of the contents of the messages without Quon’s consent was “excessively intrusive” and, therefore, constituted an invasion of privacy.