By: Haley Holmberg
J.D. Candidate, 2017
Valparaiso University School of Law
A peeping Tom or just a supervisor doing his job? The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed Gustafson v. Adkins to establish whether the defendants had a valid reason behind their actions and were protected by qualified immunity or whether they should be held accountable.
Renee Gustafson worked at Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs (“VA”) Medical Center in Chicago as a police lieutenant supervisor. During this time, the VA didn’t have a designated area for female officers to change so they often changed in an active supervisors’ office. In May 2007, Thomas instructed Adkins to install a hidden camera in the office to identify supervisors who slept on duty. Adkins informed Thomas about the illegality, but was instructed to install the camera anyway. The images were sent to Thomas’s office for viewing. The camera was discovered two years later and had caught images of Gustafson and other females changing. Gustafson filed suit against Thomas and Adkins alleging her privacy had been invaded and she had been the victim of an unconstitutional search under the 4th Amendment.
Adkins argues Gustafson’s claim of 4th Amendment violation is precluded by the Civil Service Reform Act (“CSRA”) and the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (“FECA”). The CSRA establishes a framework for evaluating adverse personnel actions against federal employees and may preempt federal claims that fall within its scope. However, Adkins’s conduct does not fall within the scope and cannot be considered to have been done for “disciplinary or corrective action” as there is little evidence that the camera was being used for this purpose. Further, case law on the matter suggests Adkins’s conduct is “closer to a warrantless search outside the scope of the CSRA.” “The FECA provides the exclusive remedy against the United States or an instrumentality thereof to compensate a federal employee for a work-related injury defined as injury by accident and disease proximately caused by the employment.” The FECA does not bar a federal employee’s suit against individual co-employees. Given the silence on co-employee suits and the difficulty of defining Adkins actions as accidental, therefore matters of the suit are not determinative based on the FECA.
Adkins also claims his motion on summary judgment should have been granted based on qualified immunity. “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages when their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” In order to determine if Adkins can invoke qualified immunity the court must inquire whether the constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. According to case law, the essential principle is that an employer’s workplace search must be reasonable. “Reasonableness depends upon the circumstances presented in a given situation and upon balancing the public, governmental, and private interests at stake in that situation.” At the time the camera was installed, the right of employees to be free from unreasonable employer searches was already established. Therefore, Adkins did not meet the requirements of qualified immunity.
For the foregoing reasons, the court affirmed the judgment of the district court. This case is a prime example of why we must never just do as we are told, even in employment. To further demonstrate this, refer to Yale University psychology professor Stanley Milgram’s 1961 study on authoritarian obedience. When others are allowed to make decisions for us, it may not always lead to an outcome in our best interest.