Supreme Court Issues Highly Anticipated City of Ontario v. Quon Decision


On June 17, 2010 the United States Supreme Court issued the highly anticipated decision City of Ontario v. Quon. The case was closely watched by many in the human resources and employment law spheres because it was thought that the case would shed valuable light on employees' privacy rights in the area of employer-provided electronic devices. The Court admitted that the case raised issues of "far-reaching significance," but nonetheless unanimously decided the case on previously established legal principals, and left many questions unanswered.

Quon was appealing for many reasons, not the least of which were the facts of the case. In 2001, the City of Ontario, California, Police Department issued members of the SWAT team two-way pagers in an effort to help the team mobilize and respond to emergencies quickly. The City had a contract with Arch Wireless Operating Company (Arch), also a party to the litigation, to provide wireless services for the pagers. The City's "Computer Usage, Internet, and E-Mail Policy" applied to text messages sent via the pagers, and the policy specifically put employees on notice that they should have no expectation of privacy or confidentiality.

Quon and other officers exceeded the monthly text message limit many times, but a Lieutenant informed Quon, and others, that if they paid for the excess text messages, he would not audit the text message records to determine whether the excess messages were work-related or personal. Quon and other officers took advantage of this opportunity and paid for the excess text messages. After several months, the Chief of Police determined that an audit should be conducted to determine whether the text message limit was too low, or whether the officers were using the pagers for personal reasons too often. The audit revealed that Quon was "sexting" his wife and his mistress while on duty. Presumably, Quon was disciplined for his actions.

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