O’Connor v. Ortega

480 U. S. 709

March 31, 1987

At a state run hospital, Dr. Magno Ortega was suspected of a broad array of work misconduct. While he was placed on administrative leave, hospital officials searched his office and filing cabinets, and seized several personal documents from them. When Ortega learned of this, he filed a section 1983 claim, arguing that his Fourth Amendment right to privacy had been violated.

The Court ruled 5-4 that the actions taken by the hospital were not per se unconstitutional. Appropriately, Justice O’Connor wrote for the Court. Because of the communal environment of a workplace, she held that Ortega’s office was not a place with a reasonable expectation of privacy, but she did admit that his filing cabinets had such a reasonable expectation. Despite this privacy interest, O’Connor argued that employers could still search the cabinets without a warrant or probable cause if there was some reasonable suspicion, and if the search was done for inventory purposes or misconduct prevention purposes. Relying on the New Jersey v. T.L.O. decision, she claimed that due to the ‘special needs’ of the workplace, it would be unreasonable to require employers to follow police-like procedures. Because the scope and purpose of the investigation was disputed though, she remanded the case for further findings of fact.

Scalia concurred only in judgment, making O’Connor’s opinion only a plurality opinion. Scalia thought that Ortega’s office had a reasonable expectation of privacy, and that the plurality’s standard of reasonableness was somewhat ill-defined, but agreed that the search did not sound per se unreasonable, and concurred in the remand. Blackmun wrote a dissent, which was joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens. After gracelessly accusing the majority of bias against state employees, he contended that the search was almost indistinguishable from the sort of search the police would do, and found that such warrantless investigative searches were beyond the pale. He also claimed that the majority undervalued workplace privacy interests, and overvalued the difficulties of employers complying with strict Fourth Amendment procedure.

As I see it, when you work for an employer, you do give up your privacy rights at the place of employment. This case only went to the Supreme Court because the hospital just happened to be state run. In my opinion, that really shouldn’t be so overwhelmingly Constitutionally significant. When it comes to Fourth Amendment rights, I don’t think a state run place of employment should be subjected to a higher standard than a private place of employment. Thus, I would say that the search of Ortega’s cabinets was properly within the powers of the hospital authorities.

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One thought on “O’Connor v. Ortega

  1. Pingback: 1986-1987: Conservative Victories | Vintage Bracketology

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