A Pasadena employer that installed a hidden camera in an employee office did not invade the workers' privacy because the camera was turned on only when the workers were away, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday.
The state high court decision left privacy rights intact for employees in the workplace, but made it possible for courts to throw out lawsuits before trial if surveillance was limited and conducted for legitimate purposes.
Justice Marvin R. Baxter, writing for the court, said Monday's decision was not intended to encourage employers to conduct secret surveillance of their workers.
"We appreciate plaintiffs' dismay over the discovery of video equipment -- small, blinking and hot to the touch -- that their employer had hidden among their personal effects in an office that was reasonably secluded from public access and view," Baxter wrote.
But the surveillance, intended to catch someone who was downloading pornography late at night, was not "highly offensive" and did not amount to an "egregious violation of prevailing social norms," the court said.
Abigail Hernandez and Maria-Jose Lopez, who filed the lawsuit, said they were stunned and upset when they discovered a hidden camera in the office they shared while working for Hillsides Inc., the operator of a residential center for abused and neglected children in Pasadena.
Hernandez said she changed her clothes in the office at the end of the day before she went to the gym, and Lopez said she sometimes raised her shirt to show Hernandez how her body was recovering after pregnancy.
But the court observed that the company had a responsibility to protect its young charges. Because the camera was on only at night and never recorded or taped the women, they suffered no real harm, the court said.
Mark S. Eisenberg, who represented the women, called the ruling "a step backward for civil liberties in the workplace."
"The court has given employers a virtual green light to spy on employees via hidden camera for almost any reason, as long as little to no evidence of the intrusion is made available to the employee," Eisenberg said. "This is a sad day for individual rights and liberties."
Paul W. Cane Jr., who represented California employer groups in the case, said he was pleased the court recognized that employers have the right to ensure that company computers are not misused.
"Employers all long have understood that even in the workplace, there are certain zones of privacy that you don't normally enter into with surveillance equipment," Cane said.
"On the other hand, it is the workplace, and the employer does have a substantial interest in ensuring that misconduct does not occur there."
Monday's ruling came in Hernandez vs. Hillsides, S147552.