Office Tenants Sue Over Hidden Cameras in Public Restrooms
A New Jersey jury may soon decide whether a person has a reasonable right to privacy inside a public restroom.
A state appeals court ruled this month that a lawsuit filed over hidden cameras installed in an office building’s restrooms was wrongfully dismissed by a lower court. The lawsuit alleges that the building’s owner and their contractors violated the privacy rights of the tenant employees by operating surveillance cameras concealed inside smoke detectors in the bathrooms.
The defendants convinced the lower court that the hidden cameras, which they claim were installed to deter vandalism, were only trained on “common areas” of the restrooms like the sinks, mirrors and areas outside of stall doors.
But the appeals court found that “a rational jury could find that shielding the cameras from detection by placing them inside facially innocuous, yet ubiquitous safety devices, such as smoke detectors, is more suggestive of a sinister voyeuristic purpose than a good faith reasonable attempt at combating vandalism.”
The appeals court suggested that a jury might determine a property owner who wanted to scare off bathroom vandals would conspicuously advertise the presence of surveillance cameras rather than hide them away. The court also opined that a jury could find the threat of vandalism didn’t justify the invasive surveillance, or that gender-specific restrooms implied at least a gender-specific expectation of privacy.
Cameras Weren’t Meant to be Caught
Both courts found that the bathroom cameras were only active for a three-day period in 2007, and it was only a chance encounter that brought the secret surveillance to light.
The defendants claim that the cameras were active for the three-day period because an unknown person had repeatedly clogged the building’s toilets with paper towels, and security was working to identify the culprits. But during this period of surveillance, an employee who worked in the building walked past a security office door that was inadvertently left ajar. The employee looked into the room and saw that live feeds for the restrooms were being displayed on security monitors.
The employee immediately contacted police, who responded and disconnected the cameras. The police did not file criminal charges against the building’s management, however.
Plaintiffs in the case include not only the office building’s tenants, but also many of the tenants’ children, who visited the building and used the restrooms during “Take Your Child to Work Day.”
The plaintiffs claim a range of negative consequences that came about as a result of discovering the surveillance, including general anxiety, insomnia, migraines, obsessive-compulsive disorder and a fear of public restrooms that resulted in hypertension and bladder problems among employees who were too afraid to use the facilities in their building.
‘Clear Invasion of Privacy’
New Jersey attorney Mark J. Semeraro told Lawyers.com via email that the appellate court ruling was “sound and appropriate.”
“Bathroom facilities are either accessible to only one gender or locked off to the public during use — evidence of the sensitive and private nature of what takes place inside them,” Semeraro wrote. “Occupants of a public bathroom reasonably expect that: 1. The general public and members of the opposite sex are not viewing them; and 2. They are aware of who can see them.”
Semeraro also pointed out that when a person is alone in a public restroom, that person may do things that they wouldn’t do if they knew they were being watched, “such as adjust undergarments or engage in acts of hygiene.”
“While it is difficult to imagine that a video camera in a bathroom would be acceptable under any circumstance, hidden cameras, without any notice to the public, presents a clear invasion of privacy and under certain circumstances, may even justify a criminal investigation.”
Do you think a person has a reasonable right to privacy in the “common areas” of a public restroom? Tell us why or why not in the comments section below.