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City of Ontario, California v. Quon

June 17, 2010





Argued April 19, 2010

Petitioner Ontario (hereinafter City) acquired alphanumeric pagers able to send and receive text messages. Its contract with its service provider, Arch Wireless, provided for a monthly limit on the number of characters each pager could send or receive, and specified that usage exceeding that number would result in an additional fee. The City issued the pagers to respondent Quon and other officers in its police department (OPD), also a petitioner here. When Quon and others exceeded their monthly character limits for several months running, petitioner Scharf, OPD's chief, sought to determine whether the existing limit was too low, i.e., whether the officers had to pay fees for sending work-related messages or, conversely, whether the overages were for personal messages. After Arch Wireless provided transcripts of Quon's and another employee's August and September 2002 text messages, it was discovered that many of Quon's messages were not work related, and some were sexually explicit. Scharf referred the matter to OPD's internal affairs division. The investigating officer used Quon's work schedule to redact from his transcript any messages he sent while off duty, but the transcript showed that few of his on-duty messages related to police business. Quon was disciplined for violating OPD rules.

He and the other respondents-each of whom had exchanged text messages with Quon during August and September-filed this suit, alleging, inter alia, that petitioners violated their Fourth Amendment rights and the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) by obtaining and reviewing the transcript of Quon's pager messages, and that Arch Wireless violated the SCA by giving the City the transcript. The District Court denied respondents summary judgment on the constitutional claims, relying on the plurality opinion in O'Connor v. Ortega, 480 U. S. 709, to determine that Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of his messages. Whether the audit was nonetheless reasonable, the court concluded, turned on whether Scharf used it for the improper purpose of determining if Quon was using his pager to waste time, or for the legitimate purpose of determining the efficacy of existing character limits to ensure that officers were not paying hidden work-related costs. After the jury concluded that Scharf's intent was legitimate, the court granted petitioners summary judgment on the ground they did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Ninth Circuit reversed. Although it agreed that Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his text mes-sages, the appeals court concluded that the search was not reasonable even though it was conducted on a legitimate, work-related rationale. The opinion pointed to a host of means less intrusive than the audit that Scharf could have used. The court further concluded that Arch Wireless had violated the SCA by giving the City the transcript.

Held: Because the search of Quon's text messages was reasonable, petitioners did not violate respondents' Fourth Amendment rights, and the Ninth Circuit erred by concluding otherwise. Pp. 7--17.

(a) The Amendment guarantees a person's privacy, dignity, and security against arbitrary and invasive governmental acts, without regard to whether the government actor is investigating crime or performing another function. Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Assn., 489 U. S. 602, 613--614. It applies as well when the government acts in its capacity as an employer. Treasury Employees v. Von Raab, 489 U. S. 656, 665. The Members of the O'Connor Court disagreed on the proper analytical framework for Fourth Amendment claims against government employers. A four-Justice plurality concluded that the correct analysis has two steps. First, because "some [government] offices may be so open . . . that no expectation of privacy is reasonable," a court must consider "[t]he operational realities of the workplace" to determine if an employee's constitutional rights are implicated. 480 U. S., at 718. Second, where an employee has a legitimate privacy expectation, an employer's intrusion on that expectation "for noninvestigatory, work-related purposes, as well as for investigations of work-related misconduct, should be judged by the standard of reasonableness under all the circumstances." Id., at 725-- 726. JUSTICE SCALIA, concurring in the judgment, would have dispensed with the "operational realities" inquiry and concluded "that the offices of government employees . . . are [generally] covered by Fourth Amendment protections," id., at 731, but he would also have held "that government searches to retrieve work-related materials or to investigate violations of workplace rules-searches of the sort that are regarded as reasonable and normal in the private-employer context-do not violate the . . . Amendment," id., at 732. Pp. 7--9.

(b) Even assuming that Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his text messages, the search was reasonable under both O'Connor approaches, the plurality's and JUSTICE SCALIA's. Pp. 9--17.

(1) The Court does not resolve the parties' disagreement over Quon's privacy expectation. Prudence counsels caution before the facts in this case are used to establish far-reaching premises that de-fine the existence, and extent, of privacy expectations of employees using employer-provided communication devices. Rapid changes in the dynamics of communication and information transmission are evident not just in the technology itself but in what society accepts as proper behavior. At present, it is uncertain how workplace norms, and the law's treatment of them, will evolve. Because it is therefore preferable to dispose of this case on narrower grounds, the Court assumes, arguendo, that: (1) Quon had a reasonable privacy expectation; (2) petitioners' review of the transcript constituted a Fourth Amendment search; and (3) the principles applicable to a government employer's search of an employee's physical office apply as well in the electronic sphere. Pp. 9--12.

(2) Petitioners' warrantless review of Quon's pager transcript was reasonable under the O'Connor plurality's approach because it was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose, and because it was not excessive in scope. See 480 U. S., at 726. There were "reasonable grounds for [finding it] necessary for a noninvestigatory work-related purpose," ibid., in that Chief Scharf had ordered the audit to determine whether the City's contractual character limit was sufficient to meet the City's needs. It was also "reasonably related to the objectives of the search," ibid., because both the City and OPD had a legitimate interest in ensuring that employees were not being forced to pay out of their own pockets for work-related expenses, or, on the other hand, that the City was not paying for extensive personal communications. Reviewing the transcripts was an efficient and expedient way to determine whether either of these factors caused Quon's overages. And the review was also not "excessively intrusive." Ibid. Although Quon had exceeded his monthly allotment a number of times, OPD requested transcripts for only August and September 2002 in order to obtain a large enough sample to decide the character limits' efficaciousness, and all the messages that Quon sent while off duty were redacted. And from OPD's perspective, the fact that Quon likely had only a limited privacy expectation lessened the risk that the review would intrude on highly private details of Quon's life. Similarly, because the City had a legitimate reason for the search and it was not excessively intrusive in light of that justification, the search would be "regarded as reasonable and normal in the private-employer context" and thereby satisfy the approach of JUSTICE SCALIA's concurrence, id., at 732. Conversely, the Ninth Circuit's "least intrusive" means approach was inconsistent with controlling precedents. See, e.g., Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kennedy

560 U. S. ____ (2010)

Opinion of the Court

This case involves the assertion by a government employer of the right, in circumstances to be described, to read text messages sent and received on a pager the employer owned and issued to an employee. The employee contends that the privacy of the messages is protected by the ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures" found in the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, made applicable to the States by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U. S. 643 (1961). Though the case touches issues of far-reaching significance, the Court concludes it can be resolved by settled principles determining when a search is reasonable.



The City of Ontario (City) is a political subdivision of the State of California. The case arose out of incidents in 2001 and 2002 when respondent Jeff Quon was employed by the Ontario Police Department (OPD). He was a police sergeant and member of OPD's Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team. The City, OPD, and OPD's Chief, Lloyd Scharf, are petitioners here. As will be discussed, two respondents share the last name Quon. In this opinion "Quon" refers to Jeff Quon, for the relevant events mostly revolve around him.

In October 2001, the City acquired 20 alphanumeric pagers capable of sending and receiving text messages. Arch Wireless Operating Company provided wireless service for the pagers. Under the City's service contract with Arch Wireless, each pager was allotted a limited number of characters sent or received each month. Usage in excess of that amount would result in an additional fee. The City issued pagers to Quon and other SWAT Team members in order to help the SWAT Team mobilize and respond to emergency situations.

Before acquiring the pagers, the City announced a "Computer Usage, Internet and E-Mail Policy" (Computer Policy) that applied to all employees. Among other provisions, it specified that the City "reserves the right to monitor and log all network activity including e-mail and Internet use, with or without notice. Users should have no expectation of privacy or confidentiality when using these resources." App. to Pet. for Cert. 152a. In March 2000, Quon signed a statement acknowledging that he had read and understood the Computer Policy.

The Computer Policy did not apply, on its face, to text messaging. Text messages share similarities with e-mails, but the two differ in an important way. In this case, for instance, an e-mail sent on a City computer was transmitted through the City's own data servers, but a text message sent on one of the City's pagers was transmitted using wireless radio frequencies from an individual pager to a receiving station owned by Arch Wireless. It was routed through Arch Wireless' computer network, where it remained until the recipient's pager or cellular telephone was ready to receive the message, at which point Arch Wireless transmitted the message from the transmitting station nearest to the recipient. After delivery, Arch Wireless retained a copy on its computer servers. The message did not pass through computers owned by the City.

Although the Computer Policy did not cover text messages by its explicit terms, the City made clear to employees, including Quon, that the City would treat text messages the same way as it treated e-mails. At an April 18, 2002, staff meeting at which Quon was present, Lieutenant Steven Duke, the OPD officer responsible for the City's contract with Arch Wireless, told officers that messages sent on the pagers "are considered e-mail messages. This means that [text] messages would fall under the City's policy as public information and [would be] eligible for auditing." App. 30. Duke's comments were put in writing in a memorandum sent on April 29, 2002, by Chief Scharf to Quon and other City personnel.

Within the first or second billing cycle after the pagers were distributed, Quon exceeded his monthly text message character allotment. Duke told Quon about the overage, and reminded him that messages sent on the pagers were "considered e-mail and could be audited." Id., at 40. Duke said, however, that "it was not his intent to audit [an] employee's text messages to see if the overage [was] due to work related transmissions." Ibid. Duke suggested that Quon could reimburse the City for the overage fee rather than have Duke audit the ...

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