Friday, October 14, 2011

Filming Co-workers In Partial State of Undress is Bad.... In Case You Didn't Know

In the legal world, common sense and the law do not always go hand-in-hand.  Sometimes what seems practically logical or predictable will not be legally sustainable (or vice-versa).  But, on those rare occasions when the law and common sense can exist side-by-side without destroying each other like sparring gladiators, it can be refreshing. 

This is one of those moments.  In the recent case of Jane Doe v. Luzerne County, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial court's dismissal of a claim brought by a deputy sheriff who alleged that her supervisors and co-workers in the Luzerne County Sheriff's office violated her Right to Privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment when they surreptitiously videotaped her partially nude, showed the video and still photographs to other co-workers in the department, and then stored the files on a county computer where any county employee who had access to the network could find and view them.  The district court had thrown out Jane Doe's Right to Privacy claim, finding that while the actions of Doe's supervisor and co-worker in making the video, were "likely ill-conceived and definitely poorly executed," they did not "fall within the zone of privacy protected by the Fourteenth Amendment." (Yes, you read that correctly). 

One day, Jane Doe, a Luzerne County deputy sheriff, and her partner entered a residence to serve a bench warrant, only to discover the inside of the residence strewn with garbage and at least one dead animal (a cat)  observed on the floor.  Doe and her partner soon found themselves crawling with fleas.  They radioed back to the Sheriff's Department for instructions on how to handle the flea exposure, and were told to proceed to a local Emergency Management Building (EMB), and wait there in their police cruiser until EMB personnel could construct a temporary decontamination shower and until their supervisors arrived.

After arriving at the EMB, Doe and her partner were met by Arthur Bobbouine, Chief Deputy of the Department and Deputy Ryan Foy, both of whom were Doe's supervisors.  Foy brought a video camera and immediately began to film Doe and her partner, who were still sitting in their police cruiser with the windows rolled up.  Foy testified that he was videotaping the proceedings for training purposes, and both Bobbouine and Foy instructed Doe and her partner that they had to remain inside the cruiser until the decontamination shower was constructed.  

Unfortunately, the EMB personnel were unable to construct the decontamination shower, so Bobbouine instructed Doe and her partner to drive to a nearby hospital, which was equipped with a decontamination facility.  After getting to the hospital and sitting in the cruiser for another forty-five minutes (as ordered), Doe finally entered the hospital with Foy videotaping her the entire way.  Doe testified that throughout her time in the cruiser, both at the EMB and the hospital, and during her walk into the hospital, she repeatedly asked Foy to stop filming, but he refused, stating it was for training purposes. 

Doe proceeded to the decontamination shower room, closed the door behind her, undressed and showered without incident.  When she finished showering, however, she noticed that there were no towels in the decontamination area - only a roll of thin tissue paper, of the kind that covers examination tables in doctors' offices.  A female Sheriff's Deputy, Joyce, instructed Doe through the closed door to wrap the hospital paper around her private areas so that Joyce could enter the room, examine Doe and ensure that all of the fleas had been removed.  Doe wrapped the paper around her private areas, but testified that either the paper itself was semi-transparent, and/or that her wet body caused the paper to become semi-transparent after she wrapped it around herself.  

Joyce entered the decontamination room, and closed the door behind her, but was unable to lock it, as the door was not equipped with a lock.  With Doe standing with her back to the door, Joyce began to inspect Doe for fleas.  Doe testified that at this point, most of her back, shoulders and legs were completely exposed, with only the semi-transparent paper wrapped around her buttocks and breasts. 

As Joyce was examining Doe for fleas, Foy opened the door to the decontamination room approximately one foot and began surreptitiously filming Doe.  Doe was then startled to hear Bobbouine's voice behind her saying "What's that shit all over your back?" in a reference to Doe's back tattoo.  Doe instinctively turned, saw the two men and yelled at them to leave the decontamination room.  Doe later testified that the video captured someone saying that he could see her "boobies," and that somebody should grab something to "cover [Doe] up."  Doe also testified that her buttocks were visible through the wet paper and that Bobbouine had made a statement (also allegedly captured on video) that he "could see [Doe's] ass."  

Joyce again closed the door to the decontamination room behind the men, and finished her examination of Doe.  After which, Doe left the hospital in scrubs. 

Later that same day, Foy uploaded the video he took of Doe onto his County work computer and showed the footage to several male and female officers.  At least one officer testified that Foy had displayed a still image of Doe's bare buttocks.  Foy then saved several still images (including one showing the tattoo on Doe's back) and the video he took that day in a public computer file, entitled "Brian's ass," which Doe testified could have been viewed by anyone who had access to the Luzerne County computer network.  Of the two still images Foy saved that depicted Doe, both showed the visible outline of her buttocks, covered only by thin, wet hospital paper. 

Doe sued the County, claiming that the actions of Foy and Bobbouine violated not only her Right to Privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment, but also her right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.  Doe also claimed that the County was liable for an alleged failure to train their officers. 

On appeal, the Third Circuit held that, on these facts, the district court committed error by dismissing Doe's Right to Privacy claim.  While noting that "the issue of whether one may have a constitutionally protected privacy interest in his or her partially clothed body is a matter of first impression in this circuit," the Court unambiguously found that "Doe had a reasonable expectation of privacy while in the Decontamination Area, particularly while in the presence of members of the opposite sex," and that the facts did not "support the assertion that Doe expressly or implicitly consented to Bobbouine and Foy opening the door or filming the events inside the Decontamination Area."  The Court noted that there was also a dispute of material fact as to which of Doe's body parts were exposed to Bobbouine and Foy - Doe had presented evidence that her unexposed breasts and buttocks were revealed to Bobbouine and Foy, while the County had argued that only Doe's back, shoulders, arms and legs were exposed.  As such, the Court determined that dismissal of Doe's claim in light of this factual dispute was improper. 

The Court also found that the following factors all weighed in favor of finding a Right to Privacy for Doe under these circumstances: (1) the video and pictures may have included images of Doe's exposed breasts and/or buttocks; (2) the potential harm to Doe of dissemination of non-consensual disclosure of those images or video over the Internet was great; (3) the context of the disclosure of the video and images at her work and to her co-workers could increase the harm suffered by Doe; and (4) there were inadequate safeguards imposed against non-consensual disclosure because Foy had uploaded the video and images to a public file where anyone with network access could view them. 

Consequently, the Court remanded the case back to the trial court and allowed Doe's Right to Privacy claim to continue. 

So, in case anyone out there was fuzzy on this issue, videotaping your co-workers partially nude is a no-no.  

You can read the Third Circuit's full opinion in Doe v. Luzerne County here: