The Spanish Constitutional Court has dismissed a case brought by an employee whose online communications were inspected by his employer. The opinion in the case of Ruiz Medina v. Global Sales Solutions Line (published 22 January 2013) was a noted change in the Constitutional Court’s line of judgments, which usually supports employee rights.

In 2004, Global Sales Solutions discovered the communications of employees using an instant messaging system that they had installed on a work computer in breach of company policy. The discussions included insulting comments about colleagues, managers and customers. After the responsible employees were identified, the company called a meeting during which some of the comments were read out and the authors were reprimanded, which was in turn met by a legal action brought by one of the reprimanded employees.

Spanish privacy law prohibits illegal access to individuals’ personal data, while the right to secrecy of communications prevents interception or obtaining knowledge of secret communications. These rights are enforceable by employees in the workplace and were relied upon by the employee against Global Sales Solutions. The case was dismissed by the Seville court, stating that there was no violation of privacy, because of the prohibited use of company property during work. After this decision was upheld by a senior court, the claimant filed with the Constitutional Court relying on Article 18.3 of the Spanish Constitution, which protects secrecy in communications.

The Constitutional Court held that the right to privacy was waived because the computer was configured for common use and communications were set out as ‘open’. The court also pointed out that the unauthorised installation of communication programmes was banned at the company, and therefore there could have been no expectation of confidentiality. There was one dissenting opinion, which focused on the fact that the employer did not need to access the communications to confirm the breach of company policy.

Although the conclusion of this case may be somewhat surprising seeing as the Constitutional Court historically favours employee rights, Spanish employers will welcome this opinion which has helped set reasonable limits to the right of privacy in the workplace.