Reference no: EM131274370
Michael A. Smyth v. The Pillsbury Co.
United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania 914 F. Supp. 97 (1996)
This case arose when Pillsbury Company fired Michael A. Smyth for transmitting inappropriate and unprofessional comments over Pillsbury's e-mail system. In particular, Smyth made threats related to sales management (he threatened to "kill the backstabbing bastards") and referred to a holiday party the company had planned as the "Jim Jones Koolaid affair."37 Pillsbury had repeatedly assured its employees that it would keep all e-mail communications confidential. After his employer read Smyth's comments, the company fired him.
At issue in the case is whether Smyth can maintain a wrongful discharge action under the public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine. A Pennsylvania court had previously stated that it was possible that a discharge related to an employer's tortious invasion of an employee's privacy might violate public policy. The court made this statement in the context of privacy related to an employer's drug and alcohol policy that requires urinalysis and/or personal property searches. Smyth asked the court to extend this idea of privacy as a public policy exception to privacy in e-mail communications. Pillsbury filed a motion to dismiss.
District Judge Weiner
As a general rule, Pennsylvania does not provide a common law cause of action for the wrongful discharge of an at-will employee such as plaintiff. Pennsylvania is an employment at-will jurisdiction and an employer "may discharge an atwill employee with or without cause, at pleasure, unless restrained by some contract."
However, in the most limited of circumstances, exceptions have been recognized where discharge of an at-will employee threatens or violates a clear mandate of public policy. A "clear mandate"of public policy must be of a type that "strikes at the heart of a citizen's social right, duties and responsibilities." This recognized public policy exception is an especially narrow one.
Plaintiff claims that his termination was in violation of "public policy which precludes an employer from terminating an employee in violation of the employee's right to privacy as embodied in Pennsylvania common law."
[W]e find that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. In the first instance . . . we do not find a reasonable expectation of privacy in e-mail communications voluntarily made by an employee to his supervisor over the company e-mail notwithstanding any assurances that management would not intercept such communications. Once plaintiff communicated the alleged unprofessional comments to a second person (his supervisor) over an e-mail system, which was apparently utilized by the entire company, any reasonable expectation was lost. Significantly, the defendant did not require plaintiff, as in the case of a urinalysis or personal property search, to disclose any personal information about himself. Rather, plaintiff voluntarily communicated the alleged unprofessional comments over the company e-mail system. We find no privacy rights in such communications
In the second instance, even if we found that an employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of his e-mail communications over the company e-mail system, we do not find that a reasonable person would consider the defendant's interception of these communications to be a substantial and highly offensive invasion of his privacy. Again, we note that by intercepting such communications, the company is not . . . requiring the employee to disclose any personal information about himself or invading the employee's person or effects. Moreover, the company's interest in preventing inappropriate and unprofessional comments or even illegal activity over its e-mail system outweighs any privacy interest the employee may have in those comments.
In sum, we find that the defendant's actions did not tortiously invade the plaintiff's privacy and, therefore, did not violate public policy.
CRITICAL THINKING ABOUT THE LAW
As a critical thinker, you know there are many ways to phrase an issue. How a judge decides to describe the issue often tells the reader who is likely to win the case. Case 6-4 helps readers think about ways to word an issue. It also presents a good reminder of the importance of analogies in legal reasoning.
1. In Case 6-4, the judge carefully chose how to word the issue. Step into Smyth's shoes and write the issue as he saw it. In other words, if Smyth, through his lawyers, were allowed to state the issue, how would the issue be read?
Clue: Reread the part of the case containing Smyth's main arguments.
2. Smyth wants the court to look at what happened to him regarding privacy and view any violations as comparable to violations of privacy related to urinalysis and/or personal property searches. Why does the court reject Smyth's comparison?
Clue: Reread the part of the decision in which the court discusses privacy rights.