Letter of the Law

STILL UNDECIDED ABOUT BUYING AND USING a paper shredder in your office? You may find it easier to make a decision after you read what Catherine Danai learned about what she could expect to keep private.

Danai rented office space from Canal Square Associates (CSA) in Washington under a five-year renewable lease. When she failed to move out at the end of the term, CSA filed suit for possession of the space.

At trial, CSA presented evidence that she didn't give the company timely notice of her intent to renew the lease. Danai testified about her understanding of the renewal provision.

On cross-examination, CSA was able to discredit her testimony by confronting her with a letter that the property manager had retrieved from the building's trash room.

The letter, which she had addressed to CSA but later tore up and discarded, indicated she was aware that she had missed the deadline for renewing the lease. CSA won a judgment evicting her from the premises.

Danai's office was similar to other commercial suites. After hours, crews entered and emptied the contents of her wastepaper basket into bags, which were then taken to a common trash room.

Subsequently, Danai sued CSA alleging an invasion of privacy. She claimed that CSA's search of her trash amounted to “an intentional intrusion into [her] private affairs … [and was] … highly offensive to a reasonable [person].” It was undisputed that trash collected from the commercial suites goes to the building's trash room, which only the property manager has access to.

CSA moved for summary judgment, contending that it did not intrude on any space in which Danai had any recognizable privacy interest and that she “relinquished any legitimate expectation of privacy” in the trash she discarded.

Danai opposed the motion with an affidavit stating, in part: “I never conceived that the property managers would invade my privacy and pick through my trash looking for evidence to use against me.”

The D.C. Superior Court ruled in favor of CSA, stating “[Danai] cannot establish that she had a … protectable property interest in the … inviolability of commercial refuse stored … for … collection and disposal.” In addition, what the property manager did “could not be regarded as ‘highly offensive to an ordinary, reasonable person,’” the court found. Affirming the trial court's decision, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that the undisputed facts fell short of making a case for invasion of privacy.

For starters, Danai had to prove that CSA or its agent intentionally intruded “into a place where [she] secluded [herself] or into [her] private and secret concerns,” the appeals court said. Although CSA's agent rummaged through her trash and took her discarded letter, “it took place in the community trash room, which was a place of seclusion neither for Ms. Danai nor her trash,” and where she could not legitimately expect any privacy, the court continued.

“A locked community trash room [controlled by] the property managers is not akin to … Ms. Danai's office space … [and is] not ‘the area to which extends the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a [person's] … privacies of life,’” the opinion concluded.

[Danai v. Canal Square Associates, No. 02-CV-126, D.C. Court of Appeals, Dec. 2, 2004]

The legal editor welcomes comments from readers. Contact Barry Shanoff via e-mail: [email protected]

The columnist is a Rockville, Md., attorney and serves as general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.