SCOTUS Rules on Worker Privacy Case
PRIVACY LAW—U.S.January 19, 2011
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court's ruling on worker privacy today, Bloomberg reports. In a unanimous decision, the justices ruled that background checks conducted on independent contractors at a National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility were reasonable, the report states. A San Francisco appeals court had previously ruled that the questions asked of workers at a California jet propulsion lab were too privacy invasive. But the high court deemed "The challenged portions of the forms consist of reasonable inquiries in an employment background check," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court. Philip Gordon of Littler Mendelson told the Daily Dashboard, "While the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in NASA v. Nelson addresses only background checks conducted by the federal government, the case is noteworthy for private employers because it recognizes the strong interest of all employers in conducting background checks to have their projects staffed, in the court's words, "by reliable, law-abiding persons who will 'efficiently and effectively' discharge their duties." More broadly, said Gordon, "the court's analysis in Nelson, like its analysis in last term's decision in the Quon text-messaging case, assumed that the employees in question had a reasonable expectation of privacy but nonetheless found no privacy violation because the government employer had a legitimate justification for its search and conducted the search in a reasonable manner. This analysis highlights the fact that private employers similarly can avoid liability on privacy-based claims, even when they intrude upon an employee's privacy interests, if the intrusion is for a legitimate purpose and done in a reasonable manner."