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Supreme Court Weighs in on Corporate Privacy, Employment Discrimination

March 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a pair of unanimous decisions on corporate privacy rights and employment discrimination.

In one case, the justices rejected a claim brought by AT&T, to find that companies’ internal records are not protected by personal privacy rights under federal law. In the other case, the court ruled in favor of a fired Army Reservist and said that employers can be held liable for workplace discrimination, even if they were not directly involved.

Well, here, as always, to take us through both decisions is Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal.”

Hello, Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE, “The National Law Journal”: Hi, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, two unanimous findings by the court.

Let’s take the job discrimination decision first.

MARCIA COYLE: OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This was a case, as we said, brought by an Army Reservist who was fired in his position as a hospital technician.

MARCIA COYLE: Right.

Victor Staub worked for Proctor Hospital. His immediate supervisor and her supervisor were extremely hostile to his Reservist obligations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is in Illinois; is that right?

MARCIA COYLE: That’s — that’s correct. They showed their hostility in a variety of ways, including comments to co-workers and creating what he said were special rules for him that he inevitably broke and then put disciplinary reports in his personnel file.

Back in 2004, one of the supervisors went to the vice president of human relations at the hospital to complain about Staub. And on the basis of that complaint and the vice president’s review of his personnel file, she fired Staub. He sued the hospital under the 1994 Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act saying that hostility to his Reservist duties was the motivating factor for his firing, and that violated the law.

A jury agreed, awarded him about $58,000 in damages. A lower federal appellate court reversed. And he brought the case to the Supreme Court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what did the court decide?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the court said here that the hospital was liable. Why? An employer is at fault when one of its agents takes an action based on discriminatory animus, with the intention to cause — and here, in fact, did cause — the adverse job decision, which was the firing of Staub.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So now, Marcia, is it thought that this is going to have an impact potentially on other job discrimination situations?

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely.

The analysis that Justice Scalia applied here — he wrote the majority opinion — was a very — essentially a very common agency principle, that a principal, here, the employer, is responsible for the acts of its agents.

It may well apply under the nation’s major job bias law, Title VII, and other job bias laws as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, let’s talk about the other decision today. This was over whether corporations have a right of personal privacy. This was the AT&T case. What was at issue and what was decided?

MARCIA COYLE: AT&T wanted to block the disclosure of certain investigative records and documents that were held by the Federal Communications Commission when a competitor, COMPTEL, sought disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

AT&T claimed that these records fell under an exemption from disclosure for records that could reasonably be considered to lead to an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. So, the court had to decide whether corporations had personal privacy rights under the Freedom of Information Act, this specific exemption. And the court said no.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what’s the significance of that?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, Chief — first of all, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion.

And, in his sometimes humorous analysis, he said that personal — he rejected AT&T’s argument that personal, because it has the root word person, and the Freedom of Information Act defines person to include corporations, that that means corporations have personal privacy rights.

He said that, while adjectives typically modify their root nouns, that’s not always the case. For example, crabbed mean — could mean handwriting that you can’t read, but it really — crab is a crustacean or a type of apple, and corny has nothing to do with corn.

So, he said when we talk in common language about personal privacy, personal correspondence, personal interest, personal influence, we’re really not talking about corporations. We’re talking about human beings.

And personal privacy, he said, evokes human concerns, not entities’ concerns like AT&T. And he had a kicker to his decision, sort of clever.

(LAUGHTER)

MARCIA COYLE: But think about it closely. He said, we trust that AT&T will not take it personally, meaning the decision.

(LAUGHTER)

MARCIA COYLE: AT&T has — AT&T has other exemptions that it can look to under the Freedom of Information Act.

But a lot of groups watched this case closely because of last year’s decision in the major campaign finance case, the now infamous or famous Citizens United, to see if the court would take an expansive view of corporations’ privacy rights, as it did…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tilting in favor of corporations.

MARCIA COYLE: Right, as it did of corporations’ free speech rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that didn’t happen in this case.

MARCIA COYLE: It did not. But, again, this was a narrow decision under the Freedom of Information Act.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Marcia Coyle, thank you very much.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Judy.