Employee Text Messages – No Guidance from the Supremes?
Back in April I addressed the Supreme Court’s review of City of Ontario, California v. Quon et al and the implications it might have on employer access and review of employee electronic communications. A few weeks ago the Court’s opinion was delivered and did little to shed light on the Court’s view of privacy rights in text messages for private employees.
As you may recall, the opinion dealt with a police department that decided to review the personal text messages of one of its officers that were made with a police owned phone. Justice Stevens upheld the search of the phone noting that Quon:
should have understood that all of his work-related actions–including all of his communications on his official pager — were likely to be subject to public and legal scrutiny
He also wrote:
The Court must proceed with care when considering the whole concept of privacy expectations in communications made on electronic equipment owned by a government employer. Moreover, agencies and officers should explore whether state privacy laws might create a different standard. Some states have statutes that require an employer to notify an employee when electronic communications are being monitored.
So the Court was unwilling to go beyond the public employee domain, not surprising. So questions remain: Is the employee that uses a company owned phone subject to having his text messages reviewed? What if there are personal emails on the company owned phone through a yahoo or gmail account? What if the phone is owned by the employee but the service is paid for by the company? These questions remain unanswered but employers should have policies in place that address these situations.