Yum! Brands is the corporate parent of several fast food franchises, such as Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC (formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken). Yum employed Melissa Ignat between 2005 and 2008 in the Yum Real Estate Title Department, located in Irvine. She assisted paralegals in the department with securing title to the real estate on which Yum’s franchised stores conducted business.
Ignat suffered from bipolar disorder, for which she was being treated with medications. Sometimes these were effective, sometimes not. Side effects of medication adjustments occasionally forced Ignat to miss work. Ignat alleged that after returning from one such absence in mid-2008, her supervisor, Mary Shipma informed her that she had told everyone in the department Ignat was bipolar. Ignat alleged her coworkers subsequently avoided and shunned her, and one of them asked Shipma if Ignat was likely to “go postal” at work.
Ignat was terminated in early September 2008. She filed suit against Yum! Brands and Shipma on November 12, 2008, alleging one cause of action for invasion of privacy by public disclosure of private facts. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer. Summary judgment was ordered on the ground that the right of privacy can be violated only by a writing, not by word of mouth. Because Ignat had not produced any document disclosing private facts, she could not pursue this cause of action. The trial court lamented the “irrationality” of this rule, but felt itself bound by precedent.
Ignat appealed. The Court of Appeal reversed in the published opinion of Ignat v Yum! Brands Inc.
In reviewing the case law the Court of Appeal noted that the “rule” requiring a written publication as an element of a public disclosure of private facts privacy claim in California originated in dictum in Melvin v. Reid (1931) 112 Cal.App. 285 – which lacked support in the case law on which it was based – an opinion that rejected the tort and all its principles, instead basing its holding on another principle entirely. It was followed by two cases from the 1960’s.(Gautier v. General Telephone Co., supra, 234 Cal.App.2d at p. 303; Grimes v. Carter, supra, 241 Cal.App.2d at pp. 698-699.) With these two exceptions, restricting privacy violations to written publications has been either roundly criticized or ignored by the courts dealing with disclosure of private facts in oral statements since the principle was first enunciated, in dictum, in Melvin . The Court of Appeal concluded that “This is not a firm foundation for a ruling dismissing a cause of action”.
The Court concluded “that limiting liability for public disclosure of private facts to those recorded in a writing is contrary to the tort’s purpose, which has been since its inception to allow a person to control the kind of information about himself made available to the public – in essence, to define his public persona. (See Briscoe, supra, 4 Cal.3d at p. 534; The Right to Privacy, supra, 4 Harv. L.Rev. at pp. 198-199.) While this restriction may have made sense in the 1890’s – when no one dreamed of talk radio or confessional television – it certainly makes no sense now. Private facts can be just as widely disclosed – if not more so – through oral media as through written ones. To allow a plaintiff redress for one kind of disclosure but not the other, when both can be equally damaging to privacy, is a rule better suited to an era when the town crier was the principal purveyor of news. It is long past time to discard this outmoded rule.”