Key Decisions

April 2013 – Verbal Invasion Of Privacy Exists

(filed under: Key Decisions Archive | April 10, 2013)

Verbal Invasion Of Privacy Exists

Ignat v. Yum! Brands, Inc.
(Cal. Ct. of App., 4th Dist.), filed March 18, 2013

KEY FACTS

Melissa Ignat worked for Yum! Brands.  She suffered from bipolar disorder, which was treated with medications.  Sometimes the medications were effective and sometimes they were not.  Side effects of medication adjustments occasionally forced Ignat to miss work.

Ignat alleged that after returning from one such absence in mid-2008, her supervisor, Mary Shipma, informed her that Shipma had told everyone in the department Ignat was bipolar.  Ignat alleged her coworkers subsequently avoided and shunned her, and one of them asked Shipma if Ignat was likely to “go postal” at work.

Ignat was terminated in early September 2008.  She filed suit against Yum!  Brands and Shipma alleging one cause of action for invasion of privacy by public disclosure of private facts.  Yum! Brands and Shipma moved for summary judgment or summary adjudication.

The trial court granted the motion on the grounds that the right of privacy can be violated only by a writing but not by word of mouth.  Because Ignat had not produced any document disclosing private facts, she could not pursue this cause of action.  The trial court lamented the “irrationality” of this rule, but felt itself bound by precedent.

HOLDING & REASONING

The Court of Appeal reversed.  It ruled that, to the extent, the rule is that a cause of action for invasion of privacy by the disclosure of private information exists only if the disclosure is in writing, it “is outmoded and interferes with a person’s right to privacy without any corresponding benefit to any other right or policy.”

The court reasoned that other restrictions on liability for invasion of privacy serve other important interests, such as free speech or freedom of the press.  However, it noted that “no one has come up with a good reason for restricting liability to written disclosures, and it has long been acknowledged that oral disclosures can be just as harmful.”

Because the lack of a writing was the sole basis for the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, it would express only one opinion about the other issues raised in Yum! Brands and Shipma’s motion.  As to that, the court held:  “We conclude that alleging a violation of a person’s common-law right to privacy is not the equivalent of alleging a violation of the constitutional right to privacy.”

ANALYSIS

The only logical reason to confine privacy violations to written disclosures would involve the ability to prove the disclosures.  A written disclosure may be perceived as less easy to fabricate.  The court did not accept such a distinction or see any legitimate reason to draw a sharp distinction between written disclosures and verbal disclosures.