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O’Connor v. Ortega


The defendant, a physician, was an employee of a state hospital. Hospital officials became concerned about possible improprieties in his conduct. Hospital officials entered his office while the defendant was on administrative leave pending the investigation. The officials entered the office to inventory and secure state property. They seized personal items from his desk and file cabinets. These items were later used in administrative proceedings resulting in his discharge.


  1. Whether the defendant, a public employee, had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office, desk, and file cabinet at his place of work?
  2. Whether a public employer must establish probable cause before searching an employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy?


  1. Yes. It is possible for an employee to establish a reasonable expectation of privacy in a work place environment.
  2. It depends. When the employer’s search is work-related, the search must be reasonable under the circumstances.


The Court recognized that employees may develop a reasonable expectation of privacy in government workplaces. Justice Scalia stated “[c]onstitutional protection against unreasonable searches by the government does not disappear merely because the government has the right to make reasonable intrusions in its capacity as employer.” The operational realities of the workplace, however, may make some employees’ expectations of privacy unreasonable when an intrusion is by a supervisor rather than a law enforcement officer.

The Court concluded the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office. Regardless of any legitimate right of access the hospital staff may have had to the office, the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his desk and file cabinets as he did not share these areas with any other employees.

A determination of reasonableness applicable to a search requires “balancing the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion.” In the case of searches conducted by a public employer, the court must balance the invasion of the employees’ legitimate expectations of privacy against the government’s need for supervision, control and the efficient operation of the workplace.

To ensure the efficient and proper operation of the agency, public employers must be given wide latitude to enter employee offices for work-related, non-investigatory reasons, as well as work-related employee misconduct. The Court held that public employer intrusions on the constitutionally protected privacy interests of employees for non-investigatory, work-related purposes, as well as for investigations of work- related misconduct, should be judged by the standard of reasonableness under all the circumstances.


480 U.S. 709, 107 S. Ct. 1492 (1987)

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