Court Clarifies Law Regarding Verbal Violations of Privacy in the Workplace
On behalf of California Civil Rights Law Group on Monday, March 25, 2013.
In March of this year, in the matter of Melissa Ignat v. Yum! Brands, Inc., the California Court of Appeal recognized that in addition to other forms that are required for proving a breach of privacy occurred, privacy can also be breached verbally. The court held that “disclosure in writing is not required to maintain a cause of action for public disclosure of private facts.”
This decision overrides a previous binding court decision relied upon since the 1890s, at which time there were no radios or televisions to convey messages orally, thus requiring the original written document that disclosed someone’s personal information as proof.
UNLAWFULLY DISCLOSING AN EMPLOYEE’S MEDICAL CONDITION
In the matter of Ignat v. Yum! Brands, Inc., Melissa Ignat appealed the decision of the Orange County Superior Court. The trial court had reluctantly decided in favor of Melissa’s employer, who allegedly disclosed Ms. Ignat’s medical condition to her colleagues and caused her to endure undue harassment.
Melissa Ignat was employed between 2005 and 2008 as an assistant to paralegals in the Real Estate Title Department of Yum! Brands, Inc. (formerly known as KFC).
Ms. Ignat suffered and was treated for bipolar disorder, which sometimes would force her to miss work due to the side effects. Her supervisor, Shipma, was aware of her medical condition.
Upon her return to work after one of these absences in mid-2008, Shipma informed Ms. Ignat that she had verbally informed her colleagues of her condition. As a consequence of Shipma’s actions, Ms. Ignat experienced bullying from her coworkers. Others on staff expressed concern for their safety – one questioning if she was going to “go postal” at work.
In September of 2008, Ms. Ignat’s employment was terminated. The following month, she filed suit in Orange County Superior Court against Yum! Brands and Shipma for public disclosure of private facts.
COURT RULES THAT EMPLOYER IS NOT ACCOUNTABLE
The trial court decided in favor of the employer based solely on the understanding that “the right to privacy can be violated only by a writing, not by word of mouth” as defined in Evidence Code section 250. This includes not only documents but also photographs and films.
Although the court agreed and stated that “it has long been acknowledged that oral disclosures can be just as harmful,” it ultimately determined that it was bound by precedent and sided with Yum! Brands.
Ms. Ignat argued that Shipma’s actions had been a breach of her constitutional right to privacy and that written evidence was not necessary to demonstrate such a violation. Nevertheless, the court held that Ms. Ignat had not noted this in her initial complaint in order for the court to consider it.
Ms. Ignat then appealed the judgment after the employer’s motion to dismiss was granted on November 15, 2011.
APPELLATE COURT OVERTURNS DISMISSAL, CREATES NEW LAW
In its ruling, the appellate court found that there was no rule on oral evidence that had been legally recognizable. In fact, after considering in excess of 20 previous holdings of the court, it found that this so-called rule had actually been derived from judicial dictum.
The original decision relating to privacy in the Melvin v. Reid (1931) 112 Cal.App, had been applied to two cases in the 1960’s, thus creating a legally questionable foundation since there was no support in the case law on which the opinion was based.
The appellate court concluded:
[L]imiting liability for public disclosure of private facts to those recorded in writing is contrary to the tort’s purpose, which has been since it’s inception to allow a person to control the kind of information about himself made available to the public. . . . . We hold that disclosure in a writing is not required to maintain a cause of action for public disclosure of private facts.
The court added further that the trial court had properly refused to consider Ms. Ignat’s arguments of constitutional liability.
Ultimately, however, the judgement of dismissal was reversed and Ms. Ignat was allowed to recover her costs on appeal.
Most importantly, this decision of clarification effectively equated to a change in the law upon which the trial court had relied. In turn, this will allow future decisions to consider oral evidence in matters of privacy violations.
It may also now prompt the California legislature to amend Section 1550-1553 of the Evidence Code Act to incorporate oral information.