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Albert J. Muick v. Glenayre Electronics

280 F.3d 741, No. 98 C 3187 (7th Cir., February 6, 2002)

Seventh Circuit affirms dismissal of claims brought by former employee against his employer arising out of employer's seizure of a company lap top used by plaintiff in the course of his employ, and subsequent delivery of that lap top to federal authorities in response to a search warrant. Defendant employer could not be held to have violated plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights because plaintiff had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the lap top in light of the company's computer use policy, which permitted the company to inspect the lap top at any time. Moreover, as the defendant was neither the state or a public entity, it could not be liable for violating plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights.

Plaintiff, an employee of defendant, was provided a lap top computer for use in performing his job. Defendant had in a place a computer use policy pursuant to which it reserved the right to inspect company lap tops such as the one given to plaintiff. At the request of federal law enforcement authorities, defendant seized plaintiff's lap top and held it. Upon receipt of a search warrant, defendant subsequently delivered the lap top to federal authorities. Plaintiff was convicted of receiving and possessing child pornography, presumably as a result, in part, of evidence found on the lap top in question.

Plaintiff brought this suit against his former employer, charging that defendant, acting under color of federal law, seized the lap top in violation of plaintiff's Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. Plaintiff also asserted claims arising under Illinois state law.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's federal claims. First, the Court held that the defendant, a private corporate employer, could not be held liable for damages for violating plaintiff's federal rights, even if defendant had been acting under color of federal law, which the court concluded it was not. Defendant was not acting under color of state law, the court held, because the company refused to deliver the lap top to the federal authorities without a search warrant, despite their requests therefor.

More importantly, the Seventh Circuit held that plaintiff had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the lap top, a prerequisite to a Fourth Amendment claim. Said the Court:

Glenayre had announced that it could inspect the laptops that it furnished for the use of its employees, and this destroyed any reasonable expectation of privacy that Muick might have had and so scotches his claim. (citations omitted). The laptops were Glenayre's property and it could attach whatever conditions to their use it wanted to. They didn't have to be reasonable conditions; but the abuse of access to workplace computers is so common (workers being prone to use them as media of gossip, titillation, and other entertainment and distraction) that reserving a right of inspection is so far from being unreasonable that the failure to do so might well be thought irresponsible.

The Court vacated so much of the decision of the district court which dismissed plaintiff's Illinois state law claim for violation of his right of privacy. Importantly, this claim did not arise out of the seizure of the company lap top. Instead, it arose out of defendant's alleged retention of a private investigator to perform surveillance of plaintiff after he left defendant's employ. Without ruling on the merits of this claim, the court held that plaintiff had appropriately pled a claim for violation of plaintiff's right of seclusion (a branch of the right of privacy). Left for another day was a determination as to whether this right was recognized by Illinois state law, and if so, whether defendant had violated it.

The full text of the court's decision can be found on a web site maintained by Findlaw.

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