Privacy: The Right to Freedom From Unwarranted Intrusion

Soliman v. The Kushner Companies, Inc., 433 N.J. Super. 153 (App. Div. 2013).  Defendants secretly installed hidden surveillance cameras in bathrooms in an office building that they operated.  The stated reason for doing that was that there had been “complaints of toilet paper being stuffed down toilets with resulting backup, overflow, etc.”  Despite that, defendants also contended that the cameras did not show the bathroom stalls themselves, but only the so-called “public area” of the restrooms.  Though a local police department had suggested that a sign be posted alerting users of the restrooms that cameras were present, defendants did not post such a sign.

Reversing the Law Division, Judge Fuentes applied the de novo standard of review of summary judgment rulings and found that there were material issues of fact that precluded summary judgment on plaintiffs’ privacy claims.  Plaintiffs’ claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, however, were properly dismissed.

Judge Fuentes noted that both article 1, paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution and common law protect the right to privacy.  That privacy right includes the right to be “protected from any wrongful intrusion into his [or her] private life which would outrage or cause mental suffering, shame or humiliation to a person of ordinary sensibilities,” also known as “the tort of intrusion on seclusion.”

Here, “a reasonable jury could find that defendants’ clandestine video surveillance equipment captured images of plaintiffs performing personal grooming or biological activities that exposed their intimate parts.”  Moreover, given defendants’ rationale for the cameras– stuffed toilets– a jury could find that the surveillance included the bathroom stalls themselves, where the most intimate activities in a bathroom occur.

The decision contains a detailed analysis of privacy from many different legal perspectives.  Ultimately, however, the ruling seems self-evident (though it was not so to the Law Division).  As Judge Fuentes stated, all parts of a bathroom are places where people of both genders perform actions that they do not wish others to see.  That is especially true of bathroom stalls.  The Appellate Division rightly vindicated privacy rights in this decision.