Constitutional Law: Search and Seizure, State Hospital Administrators' Search of Doctor's Office-Ortega V. O'Connor

By Alexiadis, Rodi | American Journal of Law & Medicine, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Constitutional Law: Search and Seizure, State Hospital Administrators' Search of Doctor's Office-Ortega V. O'Connor


Alexiadis, Rodi, American Journal of Law & Medicine


Constitutional Law: Search and Seizure, State Hospital Administrators' Search of Doctor's Office-Ortega v. O'Connor1-The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in favor of Dr. Magno Ortega's claim under 42 U.S.C. sec1983. The appellate court held that: (1) the district court judge gave an appropriate jury instruction on both prongs of the defendants' qualified immunity defense and the defendants could not have prevailed on this defense;2 (2) a hospital administrators' search of Ortega's office was unconstitutional because it was not justified at its inception;3 and (3) the district court did not abuse its discretion by excluding all seized evidence of sexual harassment in the liability phase of trial.4

Ortega, a licensed physician and psychiatrist, had been Chief of Professional Education at Napa State Hospital since 1964 and was in charge of its residents. In March 1981, he purchased a new computer with donations from hospital residents. Dr. Dennis M. O'Connor, Napa State Hospital's Executive Director, became concerned about the donation of the computer to the hospital and about a complaint that Ortega improperly placed a resident on involuntary leave for failing to make a donation. During this time, a staff psychiatrist informed O'Connor that former and current residents had complained that Ortega acted improperly toward them. O'Connor placed Ortega on administrative leave and initiated an investigation. Although the hospital did not have a policy of searching the offices of employees on administrative leave, hospital officials conducted a thorough and highly intrusive search of Ortega's office, desk and filing cabinet without his consent or a warrant. Among the items seized were a suggestive photo, a Valentine and a book of love poetry given to Ortega ten years earlier by Joyce Sutton, a former resident. This evidence was used against Ortega in an administrative proceeding, which led to his termination. On appeal, the hospital officials claimed that the district court denied them a qualified immunity defense and argued that the complaints of Ortega's management and the allegations of sexual misconduct justified the office search and seizure of the materials.5

The court of appeals first held that the district court judge gave an appropriate jury instruction on both prongs of the defendants' qualified immunity defense, although the district court did not label the instruction as such.6 As required by the first prong of the defense, the jury instructions set forth the correct substantive Fourth Amendment law.7 The court rejected the defendants' claim that, until the U.S. Supreme Court's 1987 ruling in this case, the law governing workplace searches was not clearly established.8 The court found that in 1981, when the search occurred, the substantive law governing defendants actions clearly established that Ortega had a reasonable expectation to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures in his office, desk and filing cabinet.9 The court also found that it was established in 1981 that the administrators were entitled to search Ortega's office for work-related reasons but that the search must comply with the requirement that it be "reasonable" at its inception and in its scope. 10 Next, in accordance with the second prong of the qualified immunity defense, the jury instructions set forth that if a reasonable state official could have believed his conduct was lawful, he would not be liable. …

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