CIVIL RIGHTS ACT-IMMUNITY-QUALIFIED IMMUNITY-SEARCH OF EMPLOYEE’S EMAILS

October 11th, 2018 by Rieders Travis in Civil Rights

Walker v. Coffey, 3d 2018 LEXIS 26684 (September 20, 2018) Roth, J.  Appellant Carol Lee Walker commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She alleges that Appellees—a prosecutor and a special agent employed by the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General (OAG)—violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable search when they used an invalid subpoena to induce Walker’s employer, Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), to produce her work emails. The District Court granted Appellees’ motion to dismiss, concluding that they were entitled to qualified immunity because Walker did not have a clearly established right to privacy in the content of her work emails. For the reasons stated below, we will affirm the dismissal of Walker’s § 1983 claim. We will vacate the District Court’s denial of Walker’s subsequent motion for leave to file a second amended complaint asserting claims under the Stored Communications Act (SCA), and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. As such, we would be hard put to find that Walker enjoyed a clearly established right to privacy in the content of her work emails. But because this case involves Walker’s work emails, which were produced to law enforcement by her employer, Penn State, our inquiry does not end there. As explained below, those facts remove any doubt that Walker has failed to allege a violation of a clearly established constitutional right. We emphasize that nothing in this opinion should be taken as condoning the actions of Appellees in this case. On the contrary, we are dismayed by their reliance on an invalid subpoena to procure the documents that they sought. And we add a note of caution that, under slightly difference [sic] circumstances, similar actions might well lead us to a conclusion opposite from the one we reach today. But improper conduct alone does not result in a forfeiture of qualified immunity. Rather, the relevant question is whether, under the particular circumstances of this case, Appellees’ conduct violated Walker’s clearly established constitutional rights. Because we conclude that it did not. Appellees are entitled to qualified immunity. We will therefore affirm the District Court’s dismissal of Walker’s § 1983 claim. For the reasons stated at length above, we agree that Appellees are entitled to qualified immunity as to Walker’s § 1983 claim, and the District Court therefore did not err in denying reconsideration. At present, however, we have insufficient information to determine whether Walker could plead a valid claim under the SCA. We therefore conclude that, as to Walker’s attempt to assert a new claim under the SCA, the District Court abused its discretion by denying out of hand Walker’s motion for leave to file a second amended complaint. We will therefore vacate in part the District Court’s order of May 17, 2017, and remand this matter to the District Court to address the SCA issue in the first instance. 

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