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O'CONNOR V. ORTEGA, 480 U. S. 709 (1987)

U.S. Supreme Court

O'Connor v. Ortega, 480 U.S. 709 (1987)

O'Connor v. Ortega

No. 86-630

Argued October 16, 1986

Decided March 31, 1987

480 U.S. 709


Respondent, a physician and psychiatrist, was an employee of a state hospital and had primary responsibility for training physicians in the psychiatric residency program. Hospital officials became concerned about possible improprieties in his management of the program, particularly with respect to his acquisition of a computer and charges against him concerning sexual harassment of female hospital employees and inappropriate disciplinary action against a resident. While he was on administrative leave pending investigation of the charges, hospital officials, allegedly in order to inventory and secure state property, searched his office and seized personal items from his desk and file cabinets that were used in administrative proceedings resulting in his discharge. No formal inventory of the property in the office was ever made, and all the other papers in the office were merely placed in boxes for storage. Respondent filed an action against petitioner hospital officials in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging that the search of his office violated the Fourth Amendment. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the District Court granted judgment for petitioners, concluding that the search was proper because there was a need to secure state property in the office. Affirming in part, reversing in part, and remanding the case, the Court of Appeals concluded that respondent had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office, and that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. The court held that the record justified a grant of partial summary judgment for respondent on the issue of liability for the search, and it remanded the case to the District Court for a determination of damages.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

764 F.2d 703, reversed and remanded.


1. Searches and seizures by government employers or supervisors of the private property of their employees are subject to Fourth Amendment restraints. An expectation of privacy in one's place of work is based upon societal expectations that have deep roots in the history of the Amendment. However, the operational realities of the workplace may make some public employees' expectations of privacy unreasonable

Page 480 U. S. 710

when an intrusion is by a supervisor, rather than a law enforcement official. Some government offices may be so open to fellow employees or the public that no expectation of privacy is reasonable. Given the great variety of work environments in the public sector, the question whether an employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Because the record does not reveal the extent to which hospital officials may have had work-related reasons to enter respondent's office, the Court of Appeals should have remanded the matter to the District Court for its further determination. However, a majority of this Court agrees with the determination of the Court of Appeals that respondent had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office. Regardless of any expectation of privacy in the office itself, the undisputed evidence supports the conclusion that respondent had a reasonable expectation of privacy at least in his desk and file cabinets. Pp. 480 U. S. 714-719.

2. In determining the appropriate standard for a search conducted by a public employer in areas in which an employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy, what is a reasonable search depends on the context within which the search takes place, and requires balancing the employee's legitimate expectation of privacy against the government's need for supervision, control, and the efficient operation of the workplace. Requiring an employer to obtain a warrant whenever the employer wishes to enter an employee's office, desk, or file cabinets for a work-related purpose would seriously disrupt the routine conduct of business and would be unreasonable. Moreover, requiring a probable cause standard for searches of the type at issue here would impose intolerable burdens on public employers. Their intrusions on the constitutionally protected privacy interests of government employees for noninvestigatory, work-related purposes, as well as for investigations of work-related misconduct, should be judged by the standard of reasonableness under all the circumstances. Under this standard, both the inception and the scope of the intrusion must be reasonable. Pp. 480 U. S. 719-726.

3. In the procedural posture of this case, it cannot be determined whether the search of respondent's office, and the seizure of his personal belongings, satisfied the standard of reasonableness. Both courts below were in error, because summary judgment was inappropriate. The parties were in dispute about the actual justification for the search, and the record was inadequate for a determination of the reasonableness of the search and seizure. On remand, the District Court must determine these matters. Pp. 480 U. S. 726-729.

JUSTICE SCALIA concluded that the offices of government employees, and a fortiori the drawers and files within those offices, are covered by Fourth Amendment protections as a general matter, and no special circumstances

Page 480 U. S. 711

were present here that would call for an exception to the ordinary rule. However, government searches to retrieve work-related materials or to investigate violations of workplace rules -- searches of the sort that are regarded as reasonable and normal in the private employer context -- do not violate the Fourth Amendment. Because the conflicting and incomplete evidence in the present case could not conceivably support summary judgment that the search did not have such a validating purpose, the decision must be reversed and remanded. Pp. 480 U. S. 731-732.

O'CONNOR, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and POWELL, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J. filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 480 U. S. 729. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 480 U. S. 732.

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