Vega-Rodriguez v. Puerto Rico Telephone Co., VEGA-RODRIGUEZ

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
Writing for the CourtBefore SELYA, Circuit Judge, COFFIN, Senior Circuit Judge, and STAHL; SELYA
Citation110 F.3d 174
Parties, 12 IER Cases 1253 Hector, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. PUERTO RICO TELEPHONE COMPANY, et al., Defendants, Appellees. . Heard
Docket NumberVEGA-RODRIGUEZ,No. 96-2061,96-2061
Decision Date06 March 1997

Page 174

110 F.3d 174
65 USLW 2676, 12 IER Cases 1253
Hector VEGA-RODRIGUEZ, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants,
PUERTO RICO TELEPHONE COMPANY, et al., Defendants, Appellees.
No. 96-2061.
United States Court of Appeals,First Circuit.
Heard March 6, 1997.
Decided April 8, 1997.

Page 175

Rick Nemcik-Cruz, Rio Grande, PR, with whom Charles S. Hey-Maestre was on brief, Rio Piedras, PR, for appellants.

Page 176

Vannessa Ramirez, Assistant Solicitor General, Puerto Rico Dep't of Justice, with whom Carlos Lugo-Fiol, Solicitor General, Garcia & Fernandez, and John M. Garcia were on brief, for appellees.

Before SELYA, Circuit Judge, COFFIN, Senior Circuit Judge, and STAHL, Circuit Judge.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

As employers gain access to increasingly sophisticated technology, new legal issues seem destined to suffuse the workplace. This appeal raises such an issue. In it, plaintiffs-appellants Hector Vega-Rodriguez (Vega) and Amiut Reyes-Rosado (Reyes) revile the district court's determination that their employer, the Puerto Rico Telephone Company (PRTC), may monitor their work area by means of continuous video surveillance without offending the Constitution. 1 Because the red flag of constitutional breach does not fly from these ramparts, we affirm.


In conformity with accepted summary judgment protocol, we recount the undisputed facts in the light most congenial to the appellants and adopt their version of any contested facts which are material to our consideration of the issues. See, e.g., Garside v. Osco Drug, Inc., 895 F.2d 46, 48 (1st Cir.1990).

The Executive Communications Center (the Center) is located in the penthouse of the PRTC's office complex in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. It maintains communication between the company's various operating units and the senior executive on duty, but it does not have primary corporate responsibility for security and it does not house communication switching centers, cables, transmission lines, or kindred equipment. For security reasons, access to the Center is restricted; both the elevator foyer on the penthouse floor and the doors to the Center itself are inaccessible without a control card.

PRTC employs Vega, Reyes, and others as attendants (known colloquially as "security operators") in the Center. They monitor computer banks to detect signals emanating from alarm systems at PRTC facilities throughout Puerto Rico, and they alert the appropriate authorities if an alarm sounds. Although individual employees work eight-hour shifts, the Center is staffed around the clock.

The work space inside the Center consists of a large L-shaped area that contains the computers, the monitors, and assorted furniture (e.g., desks, chairs, consoles). The work space is completely open and no individual employee has an assigned office, cubicle, work station, or desk.

PRTC installed a video surveillance system at the Center in 1990 but abandoned the project when employees groused. In June of 1994, the company reinstated video surveillance. Three cameras survey the work space, and a fourth tracks all traffic passing through the main entrance to the Center. None of them cover the rest area. The surveillance is exclusively visual; the cameras have no microphones or other immediate eavesdropping capability. Video surveillance operates all day, every day; the cameras implacably record every act undertaken in the work area. A video monitor, a switcher unit, and a video recorder are located in the office of the Center's general manager, Daniel Rodriguez-Diaz, and the videotapes are stored there. PRTC has no written policy regulating any aspect of the video surveillance, but it is undisputed that no one can view either the monitor or the completed tapes without Rodriguez-Diaz's express permission.

Soon after PRTC installed the surveillance system (claiming that it was desirable for security reasons), the appellants and several fellow employees protested. They asserted, among other things, that the system had no purpose other than to pry into employees'

Page 177

behavior. When management turned a deaf ear, the appellants filed suit in Puerto Rico's federal district court. They contended that the ongoing surveillance constitutes an unreasonable search prohibited by the Fourth Amendment, violates a constitutionally-conferred entitlement to privacy, and abridges rights secured by the First Amendment. After the parties had taken considerable discovery, PRTC moved for dismissal and/or summary judgment, and the individual defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court found merit in these submissions and entered judgment accordingly. The appellants then prosecuted this appeal.

In the pages that follow, we deal first with a problem of how best to characterize the district court's ruling. We then address the appellants' illegal search and invasion of privacy claims. Because the appellants have neither briefed nor argued their First Amendment claim in this venue, we deem it waived and do not pursue it.


In an effort to put the characterization question into perspective, we trace the events leading up to the lower court's dispositive ruling. PRTC moved in the alternative for dismissal, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), or summary judgment, Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. In passing upon the motion, the district court employed the idiom of Rule 12(b)(6) (i.e., it said that it was dismissing the suit for failure to state a claim upon which relief might be granted), but the praxis of Rule 56 (i.e., it considered materials dehors the pleadings). It is imperative that we clarify these mixed signals; although these two rules share a certain family resemblance--both are designed to cut short the litigation of cases that do not reach a threshold of trialworthiness--they operate from different legal templates. We conclude that the district court's order ought to be tested against the summary judgment standard.

We start from the text of Rule 12(b), which stipulates that if "matters outside the pleading are presented to and not excluded by the court," a motion brought under Rule 12(b)(6) "shall be treated as one for summary judgment and disposed of as provided in Rule 56." We have noted before that the proper approach to incipient conversion questions implicating these rules is functional, not mechanical. See Garita Hotel Ltd. Partnership v. Ponce Fed. Bank, F.S.B., 958 F.2d 15, 18-19 (1st Cir.1992) (stating the test as "whether the court actually took cognizance of [supplementary materials], or invoked Rule 56, in arriving at its decision").

Here, language in the district court's ruling indicates that it must have considered materials outside the pleadings. Thus, under the Garita Hotel test, conversion is proper. This circumstance militates strongly in favor of treating the lower court's decree as one granting summary judgment. Perhaps the only factor that tugs in a different direction is the district judge's choice of phrase--but an appellate tribunal is not bound by the label that a district court attaches to its rulings. See, e.g., Estate of Soler v. Rodriguez, 63 F.3d 45, 47 n. 1 (1st Cir.1995); cf. Cloutier v. Town of Epping, 714 F.2d 1184, 1188 (1st Cir.1983) (affirming dismissal under the summary judgment standard although the lower court had dismissed for lack of jurisdiction under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1)--(2)).

We hasten to add that application of the summary judgment standard produces no perceptible unfairness. PRTC's motion invoked Rule 56 as one of two possible avenues for relief, and the dispositive motions filed by the individual defendants asked exclusively for summary judgment. The appellants responded to these motions in kind. By that time, there had been an adequate opportunity for discovery and the record was well-developed. 2 We therefore treat the challenged ruling as an order for summary judgment.

Page 178

Before ending this discussion, we pause to rehearse the summary judgment standard. Given the standard's familiarity, a lengthy exegesis is unnecessary. It suffices to say that we must undertake de novo review, construing all reasonable inferences from the evidence in the nonmoving party's favor. See Garside, 895 F.2d at 48. Since the core purpose of summary judgment is to "pierce the boilerplate of the pleadings" and examine the parties' proof to determine whether a trial actually is necessary, Wynne v. Tufts Univ. Sch. of Med., 976 F.2d 791, 794 (1st Cir.1992), the entry of summary judgment is appropriate if (and only if) no genuine issue exists as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See id.; see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In applying this formulation, a fact is "material" if it potentially affects the outcome of the case, and an issue is "genuine" if the probative evidence on it conflicts. See Garside, 895 F.2d at 48.


PRTC is a quasi-public corporation. See P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 27, §§ 401-424 (1991). It is, therefore, a government actor, see Kauffman v. PRTC, 841 F.2d 1169, 1170 (1st Cir.1988); Torres-Ponce v. Jimenez, 113 P.R. Dec. 58, translated in 13 P.R. Sup.Ct. Off'l Trans. 77, 91-93 (1982), subject to the suasion of the Fourth Amendment, see Buenrostro v. Collazo, 973 F.2d 39, 43 (1st Cir.1992). Building on this foundation, the appellants allege that PRTC's continuous video surveillance contravenes the "right of the people to be secure in their persons ... against unreasonable searches." U.S. Const. amend. IV. We consider that allegation.

A. Privacy Rights and the Fourth Amendment.

Intrusions upon personal privacy do not invariably implicate the Fourth Amendment. Rather, such intrusions cross the constitutional line only if the challenged conduct infringes upon some reasonable expectation of privacy. See Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 740, 99 S.Ct. 2577, 2580, 61 L.Ed.2d 220 (1979). 3 To qualify under this mantra, a privacy expectation must meet both...

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