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Who may be Sued

A state, city council, municipal corporation, religious organization, conspirators and other legal persons as well as natural persons can be sued for an intrusion or invasion to a person’s privacy.

A state can be sued for the following intrusion:

  • for an appropriation of a private citizen’s name or likeness for commercial advertising purposes; and
  • for disclosing information that was obtained on a condition of confidentiality[i].


A city council is liable for the following intrusion:

  • for communicating information regarding a property owner, to a federal authority, a credit agency, and a news media.  Provided such information was obtained for a proper purpose and there had been no inquiry about plaintiff’s property management; and
  • for disclosure of paid informer’s identity.


It is only in some states that suits against a state or local government for intrusion is permitted.  A government will be liable for an illegal intrusion by governmental officials[ii].  An intrusion that forms part of a search conducted by government officials will not make a government liable, if such search had satisfied all ordinary standards of the fourth amendment[iii].  For example, surveillance of a citizen’s home and car on a specified date by police officers will not infringe a citizen’s fourth amendment right, if the police had surveyed the home from a public area and followed the automobile on public streets and where such citizen did not allege that police illegally entered his/her home and thereby intruded on his/her privacy.  For all other forms of intrusion, which are justified by legitimate governmental demands, courts will rely upon the governmental units of liability for fixing the liability[iv].

A state will not be liable for privacy intrusion by communicating information, if no malice from the part of a government is pleaded and proved.  For example, a state will not be liable for an action brought by an unsuccessful applicant for a post, for releasing information regarding his/her criminal conviction to the public, if the applicant:

  • himself/herself had discussed about his/her conviction in a letter to a newspaper;
  • criminal conviction record is public information;
  • was under probation supervision at the time of his/her employment application; and
  • puts forth no evidence about confidential information release to the public.


According to the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a person who deprives the federal right of another person, while acting under color of state law, custom, or usage, can be sued for intrusion.  A person under this act means local governments, municipal corporations, school boards, legal and natural persons.  However, a state is not a person under this statute.

Lawsuits can also be brought against a church or religious organization.  A cause of action against church officials and clergy will lie for the following[v]:

  • if their behavior was unreasonable; and
  • if they had intentionally interfered with marital and family relationships of another.


However, a cause of action for privacy violation against a church or religious organization will not lie for the following:

  • cases involving employment discrimination by a church;
  • cases involving shunning practice; and
  • cases where church members expressly consent to accept church discipline.


A suit can also be brought against conspirators who make a communication that invades or intrudes a plaintiff’s privacy.  A conspirator is equally liable for privacy intrusion with a person who actually communicates the matter upon which an action is based[vi].

[i] Porten v. University of San Francisco, 64 Cal. App. 3d 825 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 1976).

[ii] McBriety v. Baltimore, 219 Md. 223 (Md. 1959).

[iii] Cowing v. City of Torrance, 60 Cal. App. 3d 757 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 1976).

[iv] Milligan v. City of Laguna Beach, 34 Cal. 3d 829 (Cal. 1983).

[v] Snyder v. Evangelical Orthodox Church, 216 Cal. App. 3d 297 (Cal. App. 6th Dist. 1989).

[vi] Ferroggiaro v. Bowline, 153 Cal. App. 2d 759 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 1957).

Inside Who may be Sued