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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

US Supreme Court to Review Employee Privacy Issues

The US Supreme Court has granted certiorari in a case involving the application of the constitutional right to informational privacy to an employee questionnaire. NASA, et al. v. Nelson, Robert M., et al. No. 09-530, March 8, 2010.

The Supreme Court will be reviewing a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision involving contract employees of the Jet PropulsionLaboratory (JPL) who filed suit against the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and others. The suit claims that contract employees in non-sensitive or “low risk” positions should not be required to submit to in-depth background investigations.

The Circuit Court below held:
We have repeatedly acknowledged that the Constitution protects an “individual interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters.” In re Crawford, 194 F.3d 954, 958 (9th Cir.1999). This interest covers a wide range of personal matters, including sexual activity, Thorne v. City of El Segundo, 726 F.2d 459 (9th Cir.1983) (holding that questioning police applicant about her prior sexual activity violated her right to informational privacy), medical information,Norman-Bloodsaw v. Lawrence Berkeley Lab., 135 F.3d 1260, 1269 (9th Cir.1998) (“The constitutionally protected privacy interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters clearly encompasses medical information and its confidentiality.”), and financial matters, Crawford, 194 F.3d at 958 (agreeing that public disclosure of social security numbers may implicate the right to informational privacy in “an era of rampant identity theft”). If the government's actions compel disclosure of private information, it “has the burden of showing that its use of the information would advance a legitimate state interest and that its actions are narrowly tailored to meet the legitimate interest.” Crawford, 194 F.3d at 959 (internal quotation marks omitted). We must “balance the government's interest in having or using the information against the individual's interest in denying access,” Doe v. Att'y Gen., 941 F.2d 780, 796 (9th Cir.1991), weighing, among other things:
“the type of [information] requested, ... the potential for harm in any subsequent nonconsensual disclosure, ... the adequacy of safeguards to prevent unauthorized*878 disclosure, the degree of need for access, and whether there is an express statutory mandate, articulated public policy, or other recognizable public interest militating towards access.”
Id. (quoting United States v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 638 F.2d 570, 578 (3d Cir.1980)) (alteration in original).
Both the SF 85 questionnaire and the Form 42 written inquiries require the disclosure of personal information and each presents a ripe controversy."

".....The balance of hardships tips sharply toward Appellants, who face a stark choice-either violation of their constitutional rights or loss of their jobs. The district court erroneously concluded that Appellants will not suffer any irreparable harm because they could be retroactively compensated for any temporary denial of employment. It is true that “monetary injury is not normally considered irreparable,” L.A. Mem'l Coliseum Comm'n v. Nat'l Football League, 634 F.2d 1197, 1202 (9th Cir.1980), and the JPL employees who choose to give up their jobs may later be made whole financially if the policy is struck down. "