Smyth vs Pillsbury and the Scope of an Employees Right of Privacy

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Smyth v. Pillsbury Co., 914 F. Supp. 97 (United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania 1996)

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Smyth V Pillsbury Company was a case decided in 1996 at the United States District Court. This case was used to determine the employers powers to dismiss an at-will employee based on any grounds (Smyth v. Pillsbury Co., 1996).

In this case, the plaintiff was an employee of the defendant company. The defendant had stated to the employees that the secure email communication used between itself and its employees would be private and confidential. Moreover, such communication would be devoid of risk of interception and thereby be used as grounds for disciplining or termination. The plaintiff had access to this email system from his home and office. On one occasion, his supervisor sent him emails via this system. Due to his reliance on his employers promise not to intercept these emails, he made threatening remarks to the employer, following which he was terminated. Smyth brought a wrongful discharge suit against the employer, claiming that his right to privacy was violated (Smyth v. Pillsbury Co., 1996).

This ruling brought to light various questions about exception put forward by Pennsylvania state law for the termination of at-will employees. State law sets out that termination of such an employee is only rightful where there was a violation of public policy in the course of the employees actions (Borse v. Piece Goods Shop, Inc., 1992). Judge Weiner referred to a previous case to explain public policy as an issue striking the heart of citizens social rights, responsibilities and duties. Therefore, the court was interested in determining whether the plaintiffs right to privacy was violated as well as the inferred estoppel brought by the employers promises.

Three exceptions exist for denying wrongful discharge of an employee in Pennsylvania. An employee may not be dismissed for serving jury duty, because of a prior conviction and for reporting federal regulation violation to the regulatory body in question. Therefore, the court found that issues of public policy must be decided on a case to case basis through the analysis of administrative rules, judicial decisions and relevant regulations. Smyth argued his case based on the Borse case stating that his right was significantly interfered with. In the Borse case, the employee refused to take a uri-analysis test. While this was not considered a violation of public policy, it would have been invasion of privacy under Pennsylvanian law. Borse held that privacy would be interfered with where the intrusion was substantial and offensive to the ordinary and reasonable person (Borse v. Piece Goods Shop, Inc., 1992).

In Smyth, the expectation of intercepted communication on the company email was a reasonable expectation. This case was differentiated from Borse in that none of the personal belongings of the plaintiff was subjected to searching, nor was personal information released. As a result, this wouldnt be considered an offensive invasion of privacy. The balancing test found that the interception of email communication was not as serious as ensuring that there was professional and legal conduct within the email communication platform. Moreover, the court found that an employer could not be bound by estoppel when terminating employees, even when employees used this promise to their detriment (Dixon, 1997).

The effect that this ruling had was espousing that employees were not guaranteed on any right to privacy on their company emails. Only one exception to this rule exists that is, where the employee uses the company email communication to communicate to their attorney (Tabak & Smith, 2005). However, in the interests of protecting the company from the effects of unprofessional and illegal activity in email communication, the right to privacy is limited in this respect.


Borse v. Piece Goods Shop, Inc., 963 F.2d 611 (United States Supreme Court 1992).

Dixon, R. (1997). Windows Nine-To-Five: Smyth v. Pillsbury and the Scope of an Employee's Right of Privacy in Employer Communications. Va. JL & Tech., 2, 1.

Smyth v. Pillsbury Co., 914 F. Supp. 97 (United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania 1996).

Tabak, F., & Smith, W. P. (2005). Privacy and electronic monitoring in the workplace: A model of managerial cognition and relational trust development. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 17(3), 173-189.

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