Saturday, March 23, 2013

Court of Appeal Explains Invasion of Privacy Claim in California

Ignat worked for a Yum! Brands restaurant. She had bi-polar disorder.  While on a leave, her supervisor allegedly disclosed her condition to other employees, verbally.  Ignat sued for invasion of privacy, based on the common law claim "public disclosure of private facts."

The court of appeal reversed summary judgment.  The court explained that, contrary to the trial court's ruling, a claim for invasion of privacy based on disclosure of private facts is viable even if the disclosure is verbal as opposed to written:

We conclude that limiting liability for public disclosure of private facts to those recorded in a writing is contrary to the tort‟s purpose, which has been since its inception to allow a person to control the kind of information about himself made available to the public – in essence, to define his public persona. (See Briscoe, supra, 4 Cal.3d at p. 534; The Right to Privacy, supra, 4 Harv. L.Rev. at pp. 198-199.) While this restriction may have made sense in the 1890‟s – when no one dreamed of talk radio or confessional television – it certainly makes no sense now. Private facts can be just as widely disclosed – if not more so – through oral media as through written ones.

Because the trial court found no written dissemination of the plaintiff's condition, it ruled she could not prevail. The appellate court sent the case back to the trial court for re-evaluation.

However, the court also explained that the common law tort is not established based on mere disclosure to a few individuals. The court also distinguished between a claim for invasion of privacy based on the California constitution, and a common law claim.

Our Supreme Court regards the two legal theories as providing separate, albeit related, ways to insure privacy. The constitutional variety focuses on institutional record-keeping and does not require a wide dissemination of private information. (See Hill, supra, 7 Cal.4th at pp. 35-37 [elements of constitutional privacy violation].) Liability for the common-law tort requires publicity; disclosure to a few people in limited circumstances does not violate the right. (Porten v. University of San Francisco (1976) 64 Cal.App.3d 825, 840; Timperley v. Chase Collection Service (1969) 272 Cal.App.2d 697, 700; Schwartz v. Thiele (1966) 242 Cal.App.2d 799, 805.) Moreover, the facts disclosed must be offensive or objectionable to a reasonable person. (See, e.g., Shulman, supra, 18 Cal.4th at p. 214.) If they are not, there is no liability. (See, e.g., Johnson v. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., supra, 43 Cal.App.3d at p. 892 [facts disclosed not "„so offensive as to shock the community‟s notions of decency.‟ [Citation.]"]; Carlisle v. Fawcett Publications, Inc. (1962) 201 Cal.App.2d 733, 748.) The constitutional right, however, may be violated if any private record that was supposed to be kept confidential is disclosed, for example, a college transcript. (Porten v. University of San Francisco, supra, 64 Cal.App.3d at p. 827.)
Based on the papers filed in the case, Ignat was limited to the common law claim, and therefore will have to prove widespread dissemination.

This case underscores the need to limit communications about the nature of an employee's disability or other sensitive private facts that would be "so offensive as to shock the community" if disclosed.

The case is Ignat v. Yum Brands, Inc. and the opinion is here.