When Coworkers Invade Your Space re: Personal Privacy in the Workplace
Invasion of personal privacy in the work place concerns all of us, but can you sue for that? A Connecticut trial court recently addressed this compelling privacy issue. A Board of Education employee sued her coworkers for intentional infliction of emotional distress and for invasion of privacy. The employee alleged that her co-workers had, for several months, gathered together without her knowledge or permission to open and read her personal materials that she had stored on her work computer. The Waterbury Superior Court held that the employee had not stated a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, as the alleged conduct was only “undesirable and inappropriate”, and thus did not meet the “extreme and outrageous” standard of an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. However, the court held that the employee had stated a claim for invasion of privacy, since her coworkers’ uninvited intrusion into her personal material was behavior that a reasonable person would find highly offensive. Referencing a 2009 District of Connecticut case, where the court held that employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy for their work emails, the Waterbury Superior Court noted that although the employee’s computer was a work computer, and not a personal device, this fact did not preclude her from bringing an invasion of privacy claim.
The right of privacy was first recognized by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1982, when the Court adopted the standards for invasion of privacy listed in the Restatement (Second) of Torts. The Restatement explains that “[o]ne who intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns, is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.” 3 Restatement (Second), Torts, Invasion of Privacy § 652B, p. 378 (1977). Following the Restatement, Connecticut law now categorizes four classes of invasion of privacy: 1) unreasonable intrusion upon the seclusion of another; 2) appropriation of the other’s name or likeness; 3) unreasonable publicity given to the other’s private life; or 4) publicity that unreasonably places the other in a false light before the public. Goodrich v. Waterbury Republican-Am., Inc., 188 Conn. 107, 127-28 1982). A few years later, a Connecticut Appellate Court adopted the invasion of privacy damages listed in the Restatement (Second) of Torts. In that decision, the court held that a plaintiff who has established a cause of action for invasion of his privacy is entitled to recover damages for: 1) the harm to his interest in privacy resulting from the invasion; 2) his mental distress proved to have been suffered if it is of a kind that normally results from such an invasion; and 3) special damages of which the invasion is a legal cause. Jonap v. Silver, 1 Conn. App. 550, 557 (. 1984)
This raises an interesting legal question. If a plaintiff’s claim is found to have fulfilled the standards of an invasion of privacy claim, yet not the standards of an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, what damages can the plaintiff recover? An intentional infliction of emotional distress claim must involve “extreme and outrageous” conduct, while an invasion of privacy claim must involve conduct that is “highly offensive to a reasonable person.” It seems incongruous that a plaintiff is unable to recover for emotional distress under an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, yet is able to recover for “mental distress” arising from an invasion of privacy claim. However, it appears that courts have determined that conduct qualifying as invasion of privacy needs to meet a less stringent standard of distress than conduct qualifying as intentional infliction of emotional distress. If this is true, then it makes sense that a plaintiff could be unable to recover for emotional distress under an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, while still being able to recover for mental distress under a less stringent invasion of privacy claim.