Privacy in the Work Place
In Wilhite v. HE Butt Co., 812 S.W.2d 1 (Tex.App. Corpus Christi 1991), the employee was accused of sexual harassment. His employment was terminated after many years at HEB. Mr. Wilhite sued for defamation and invasion or privacy. The district court granted summary judgment regarding the invasion of privacy.
On appeal, the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals found that summary judgment to be error, sort of. Texas, said the court, recognizes a tort known as intrusion upon a person’s seclusion or solitude, or into his private affairs. Physical acts such as eavesdropping on a conversation or physical invasion of a person’s property are associated with this sort of invasion of privacy. The court found that the plaintiff did not allege this sort of privacy invasion. Instead, Mr. Wilhite described his employer not allowing him to confront his accusers and by invading his private life by trying to control what he could do or not do. There was no physical invasion of the plaintiff’s privacy by his employer.
The Court noted that the plaintiff’s description sounded more like the torts of 1) disclosure of embarrassing facts or 2) publicity which places the person in a false light. But, said the court, the HEB officials did not make public any private acts or accusations. So, summary judgment was appropriate. So, the court of appeals affirmed the summary judgment. See the Wilhite decision here.
The decision then recognizes that invasion of privacy at work can occur if the employer eavesdrop on conversations or invades an employee’s seclusion or solitude. The question then becomes at work, what are those areas of seclusion?
One case that answers the question is K-Mart Corp. Store No. 7441 v. Trotti, 677 S.W.2d 632 (Tex.App. Hou. 1984). That decision found that a worker did have an expectation of privacy in his locker, which the employer provided. The locker was used to store personal effects. The lockers were sometimes locked, sometimes not. In this instance, the employee did lock her locker, with her purse inside. Later, she found the locker open and her purse had been ransacked. The manager had opened all the lockers, because he believed some unknown employee had stolen a watch.
This invasion of privacy amounted to an intrusion of the plaintiff’s seclusion, said the court. In providing her own lock with the employer’s consent, the employee showed a legitimate expectation of privacy to the locker and the contents of the locker. See the decision in the Trotti case here.