In Melissa Ignat v. Yum! Brands, Inc. (2013) 214 Cal.App.4th 808 ("Ignat"), the California Court of Appeal, 4th Appellate District, ruled that a former employee may sue her employer and immediate supervisor for public disclosure of private facts based upon an oral disclosure not in writing.
In Ignat, Plaintiff Melissa Ignat alleged that she was an employee of Yum! Brands ("Yum"), which is the corporate parent of several fast food franchises, such as Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC (formerly known at Kentucky Fried Chicken). Yum employed Ignat between 2005 and 2008 in the Yum Real Estate Title Department, located in Irvine, California. Ignat assisted paralegals in the Title Department with securing title to the real estate in which Yum's franchised stores conducted business.
Ignat suffered from bipolar disorder, for which she was being treated with medications, some of which were effective, some of which were not. The side effects of the medication for bipolar disorder occasionally caused Ignat to miss work. Ignat alleged that, after returning from an absence resulting from her bipolar medication, her supervisor, Mary Shipma, informed her that Shipma had told everyone in the Title Department that Ignat was bipolar. Ignat alleged that her coworkers subsequently avoided her and shunned her; with one of them even asking Shipma if Ignat was likely to "go postal" at work.
Ignat alleged she was terminated in early September 2008 and, thereafter, filed suit against Yum and Shipma on November 12, 2008 alleging a cause of action for invasion of privacy by public disclosure of private facts. The defendants later moved for summary judgment arguing that no claim for invasion of privacy by public disclosure of private facts could be stated since no such disclosure was in writing. In that regard, the defendants cited the celebrated decision in Melvin v. Reid (1931) 112 Cal.App. 285 ("Melvin"), a leading case on public disclosure of private facts involving a reformed prostitute who had married and led a respectable life for a number of years before
becoming the subject of the 1925 silent movie, "The Red Kimono." In that regard, the Court in Melvin had concluded, after reviewing numerous American cases, that a claim for invasion of privacy by public disclosure of private facts could only be based on "printings, writings, pictures, or other permanent publications or reproductions, and not by word of mouth.” [Melvin, supra, 112 Cal.App. at 290]
Ignat appealed arguing that the disclosure of private facts could be oral only and also attempted to argue a violation of her constitutional rights of privacy.
The Court of Appeal reversed the grant of summary judgment. In its holding, the Court of Appeal acknowledged that the Court in Melvin had concluded that a claim of public disclosure of private facts could not be based solely on oral disclosure and that two other California cases had followed Melvin on this point: Gautier v. General Telephone Co. (1965) 234 Cal.App.2d 302, 309 and Grimes v. Carter (1966) 241 Cal.App.2d 694, 698–699. Notwithstanding that body of case law, the Court of Appeal reasoned that the Court in Melvin had misconstrued American case law on point and concluded that limiting liability for public disclosure of private facts to those recorded in writing would be contrary to the tort's purpose, which, has been since its inception, to allow a person to control the kind of information about him or herself made available to the public--in essence, to define his or her "persona." It is noted that the Court of Appeal declined to rule on a separate claim by Ignat as to a violation of her constitutional rights to privacy (the Court concluded that Ignat had not properly alleged a violation of constitutional right of privacy).
The Ignat decision is certainly an interesting tort decision and may provide the basis for holding an employer liable for the public disclosure of privately known facts, even if the disclosure is only oral.
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