O'Connor v. Ortega

LOCATION: Wisconsin Eastern U.S. District Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 85-530
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 480 US 709 (1987)
ARGUED: Oct 15, 1986
DECIDED: Mar 31, 1987

Joel I. Klein - By invitation of the Court, argued the cause as amicus curiae in support of the judgment below
Jeffrey T. Miller - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1981, officials at a hospital, including Executive Director Dr. Dennis O'Connor, suspected improprieties in Dr. Ortega's management of a residency program. The officials conducted an investigation of Ortega, which included multiple searches of his office and seizure of a number of items. The items were later used in proceedings before the California State Personnel Board to impeach the credibility of witnesses that testified on Dr. Ortega's behalf.


Did the supervisor's search of the office violate Dr. Ortega's "reasonable expectation of privacy" guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment?

Media for O'Connor v. Ortega

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 15, 1986 in O'Connor v. Ortega

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 31, 1987 in O'Connor v. Ortega

Sandra Day O'Connor:

The opinion of the Court in No. 85-530, O'Connor against Ortega will be announced by Justice O'Connor.

This case comes to us on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The respondent, psychiatrist, was an employee of a State Hospital in California, and had primary responsibility for training positions 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 the resident.

While he was on the administrative leave pending investigation of the charges, hospital officials allegedly, in order to inventory and secure state property, searched his office and seized his personal items from his desk and file cabinets that were used then in administrative proceedings resulting in his discharge.

Respondent filed an action against the hospital officials in Federal District Court under Section 1983 alleging that the search of his office violated the Fourth Amendment.

The District Court granted summary judgment for the hospital officials, concluding that the search was proper because there was a need to secure state property in the office.

The Court of Appeals reversed in part concluding that the respondent had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office, and that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the District Court for determination of damages.

In an opinion file today, we reverse the partial summary judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remand the case for further proceedings.

We recognize that searches and seizures by government employers or supervisors of the private property of their employees are subject to Fourth Amendment restraints.

Majority of the Court finds on the facts of this case that Dr. Ortega had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office.

That does not end the inquiry however, because it still must be determined by the courts below whether the search at issue complied with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.

We hold that the standard to be applied in the context of a search by a government employer of an employee's office desk or file cabinet for a work related purpose, is one of reasonable most under all of the circumstances.

We reject the application of a warrant requirement or a probable cause standard in this context.

The opinion is joined by only four members of the Court.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment; Justice Blackman has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Brennan, Marshall and Stevens have joined.