VA Officials Must Face |Video-Spying Claims

     WASHINGTON (CN) — A lawsuit filed by two dozen Veterans’ Affairs police officers who objected to the secret installation of surveillance equipment in work areas will move forward, a federal judge ruled.
     U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle denied three motions for summary judgment filed on behalf of the defendants. They are Jerry Brown, chief of the Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Police Service; Brian Hawkins, medical director at the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; Johnson Controls Inc., the outside contractor that installed camera and audio recording devices; and Robert McDonald, former VA Secretary.
     According to background in Huvelle’s May 6 ruling, a lawsuit filed last year claims that Brown, with the consent of Hawkins, installed cameras in the police control operations office, the police report writing room and the watch commander’s office at the VA Medical Center in D.C., in violation of VA guidelines for audio surveillance.
     The plaintiffs — 24 current and former police officers employed at the D.C. VA Medical Center — allege Brown had both recorded footage and real-time access to a live feed from the devices.
     The officers reported finding the first of these cameras covertly mounted on CCTV monitors in January 2014.
     Within minutes of the discovery, Brown “‘stormed into the room and started berating [the officers] about being near his camera and microphone,’ and then demanded that the officers prepare statements as to why they were in that area,” the ruling states.
     Two more cameras were discovered in the following months. Brown allegedly used information recorded by one device to discipline one of the officers.
     The second device was discovered in a room that was “used on occasion” as a changing area for both male and female officers, according to court records.
     Last week, Huvelle denied the defendants’ first three motions for summary judgment.
     The first motion disputed the officers’ accusations that audio surveillance had ever occurred, arguing the surveillance was not in violation of wiretapping laws.
     Two more motions regarded a claim of conspiracy and violations of the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights.
     In denying the motions, Huvelle relied on the officers’ claim for discovery into the disputed facts regarding the recordings.
     “It is not apparent from the existing record, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, that the undisputed facts establish either that plaintiffs lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in their conversations or their actions in the rooms where the surveillance allegedly occurred or that, if they had a reasonable expectation of privacy, the search was reasonable in both its inception and its scope,” the judge wrote.
     “Given that plaintiffs have not yet had the opportunity to take discovery, and considering the disputed facts viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the court cannot find that defendants’ surveillance did not violate the Fourth Amendment. For the same reason, it is premature at this juncture to conclude that Chief Brown is protected from liability by the doctrine of qualified immunity,” Huvelle ruled.
     Huvelle did dismiss the claim against McDonald, on the grounds that the Federal Torts Claims Act does not allow for suits against federal officials or agencies, and that the officers would have had to name the United States as a defendant under that law.

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