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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

School May Be Liable for Spying on Own Security

(CN) - Two female guards who say Houston Community College used hidden cameras to spy on employees in a uniform-changing room can proceed with a lawsuit, a federal judge ruled.

Alfreda Jones and Kimberly Mason "fortuitously discovered the existence of the hidden camera" when a security contractor "misread a work order and came to remove one of the covert cameras in the a.m. instead of the p.m.," according to their third amended complaint. They say cameras were installed in the security and campus police office where they would routinely change clothes, and recorded them "in their most compromised conditions" for over two years.

Jones and Mason pointed to numerous emails between school employees and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, which they say reveal a concerted effort to hide the cost of the surveillance scheme. They also say Kratos employees falsified timesheet records to conceal when they checked on the equipment.

Unlike other visible campus surveillance cameras, some cameras were concealed in air ducts, behind clocks, in smoke detectors and over a lab restroom, according to the complaint. Some were even equipped to record audio.

Maintenance director Timothy Rychlec and finance director Gloria Walker allegedly approved the maintenance and purchase orders.

The guards say the cameras were installed "without warrant, without legal authorization and for private purposes." Before knowledge of the cameras became public, a professor and other employees who had covertly watched the camera feeds made flirtatious comments to workers, according to the complaint. One allegedly said, "Okay, I'm watching you, I'm listening to you." Anyone who knew the IP address of the covert cameras could also access the video feed remotely, according to the complaint.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal denied three separate motions to dismiss the complaint, which alleges invasion of privacy and violations of the Fourth and 14th Amendments.

Aramark Management Services and Kratos had claimed immunity as government contractors among other reasons to dismiss. The school said the plaintiffs' conclusory allegations were not strong enough to suggest the campus enforced a policy to covertly monitor employees.

Rychlec and Walker claimed that the guards failed to establish they had a right to be free from surveillance in the room was not established.

But these arguments failed to convince Rosenthal.

Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, only federal contractors are immune from suit and financial liability in judgments, not state contractors such as Kratos and Aramark, the decision statees.

Moreover, the United States did not approve the cameras specifications, and the hidden cameras were not stipulated in their contract with the college, Rosenthal said. Aramark and Kratos worked "extracontractually" on them.

The judge also found that Jones and Mason have alleged enough facts to support an inference that Kratos and Aramark conspired with school officials, a state entity, to violate workers' constitutional rights.

Jones and Mason also have a solid basis to allege violations of their Fourth Amendment rights to privacy and to be free from unreasonable search and seizure by government officials, the court found.

"The plaintiffs have alleged that security and police officers routinely used Room 136 to change clothes, that the office contained a locked drawer for the officers' items, that the public did not normally have access to the office, and that the entire office door was shut and locked when officers changed clothes and when no officer was in the room," the Friday decision states. "It is objectively reasonable to expect privacy in an office when it is routinely used as a locker room. That other campus security officers also had access to the office does not defeat the plaintiffs' expectation of privacy in Room 136."

Rosenthal cited the 8th Circuit's 2004 ruling in U.S. v. Falls, which held recognized the uniquely particular intrusiveness of video camera surveillance.

"It is clear that silent video surveillance results ... in a very serious, some say Orwellian, invasion of privacy," that decision states.

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