BGer 4A_518/2020: Art. 328b OR not a pro­hi­bi­ti­on rule, but a pro­ces­sing principle

The federal court found in the Judgment 4A_518/2020 of 25 August 2021that a Data pro­ces­sing that vio­la­tes Art. 328b CO is unlaw­ful, but may be based on a justi­fi­ca­ti­on pur­suant to Art. 13 DPA.

The par­ties had agreed in the employ­ment con­tract on the use of a com­pa­ny cell pho­ne for exclu­si­ve­ly pro­fes­sio­nal pur­po­ses. The employee retur­ned the reset com­pa­ny cell pho­ne to the employ­er on the occa­si­on of the ter­mi­na­ti­on. In order to secu­re evi­dence in view of the pen­ding pro­ce­e­dings, the employ­er obtai­ned access to the employee’s pri­va­te Whats­App histo­ries. The courts awar­ded the employee com­pen­sa­ti­on of CHF 5,000 for the emo­tio­nal distress suf­fe­red as a result.

The Federal Supre­me Court con­si­de­red that data pro­ces­sing for the pur­po­se of gathe­ring evi­dence can stand up to Art. 328b OR, but in doing so the Pro­por­tio­na­li­ty princip­le had to be obser­ved. Becau­se the employ­er would have had mil­der mea­su­res at its dis­po­sal that would have achie­ved the same goal, this data pro­ces­sing vio­la­ted this princip­le. Alt­hough the employ­ment con­tract sti­pu­la­ted that the com­pa­ny cell pho­ne could only be used for busi­ness pur­po­ses, the employ­er had also known that the employee was using the com­pa­ny cell pho­ne for pri­va­te pur­po­ses. It had given him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dele­te pri­va­te data befo­re retur­ning it. It was the­re­fo­re con­tra­ry to good faith to access the employee’s pri­va­te data five mon­ths after the com­pa­ny cell pho­ne had been returned.

Howe­ver, the Federal Supre­me Court’s com­ments on Art. 328bOR are par­ti­cu­lar­ly note­wor­thy. First of all, it sta­tes that in the doc­tri­ne of Dis­sent regar­ding the scope and natu­re of Art. 328b CO exists. Part of the doc­tri­ne is of the opi­ni­on that any data pro­ces­sing without refe­rence to the work­place accord­ing to Art. 328b CO is per se inad­mis­si­ble. Art. 328b OR is a pro­hi­bi­ti­on norm. In con­trast, it is argued that Art. 328b CO sub­stan­tia­tes the princip­le of pro­por­tio­na­li­ty and the requi­re­ment of pur­po­se limi­ta­ti­on. Thus, the grounds for justi­fi­ca­ti­on of the DPA would also app­ly in the scope of app­li­ca­ti­on of Art. 328b CO. In this respect, Art 328b CO is a pro­ces­sing principle.

The Federal Supre­me Court did not deal with the doc­tri­ne in more detail. It merely noted, but nevertheless, that the pre­vai­ling doc­tri­ne is of the opi­ni­on that Art. 328b OR is a Con­cretiz­a­ti­on of the princip­le of pro­por­tio­na­li­ty and the princip­le of pur­po­se limi­ta­ti­on hand­le:

Pour la majo­ri­té tou­te­fois, cet­te nor­me con­cré­ti­se les princi­pes de pro­por­ti­onnali­té et de fina­li­té ancrés à l’art. 4 al. 2 et 3 LPD (E. 4.2.4).

Accord­in­gly, a data pro­ces­sing that vio­la­tes Art. 328b CO, if app­li­ca­ble, on a justi­fi­ca­ti­on ground wit­hin the mea­ning of Art. 13 DPA support

Lorsque le trai­te­ment de don­nées n’ent­re pas dans le cad­re de l’art. 328b CO, il est pré­su­mé illi­ci­te et doit pou­voir se fon­der sur un aut­re motif justi­fi­ca­tif au sens de l’art. 13 LPD (E. 4.2.4).

Thus, on the one hand, the Federal Supre­me Court con­firms the opi­ni­on of the lower court regar­ding the scope of Art. 328b CO [Cour de jus­ti­ce du can­ton de Genè­ve (C/6596/2017 – 5, CAPH/163/2020).]. The lower court also sta­ted – also without dis­cus­sion – that data pro­ces­sing out­side of Art. 328b OR could be justi­fied accord­ing to Art. 13 DSG.

Tout trai­te­ment de don­nées rela­tif à un employé con­sti­tue une att­ein­te illi­ci­te à sa per­son­nali­té, au sens des arti­cles 328 et 328b CO, à moins qu’il ne repo­se sur un motif justi­fi­ca­tif. Un tel motif peut résul­ter de la loi, en par­ti­cu­lier de l’art. 328b CO, d’un inté­rêt pré­pon­dé­rant pri­vé ou public, ou du con­sen­te­ment de la vic­ti­me. (E. 2.2)

At the same time con­tra­dicts the federal court ruling the prac­ti­ce of the Zurich Supre­me Court [OGer ZH, LA180031‑O/U, dated March 20, 2019Accord­ing to this, Art. 328b OR is lex spe­cia­lis to the DPA. In view of the man­da­to­ry cha­rac­ter, a justi­fi­ca­ti­on in the sen­se of Art. 13 DPA can­not eli­mi­na­te the unlawfulness:

Art. 328b OR is lex spe­cia­lis to the data pro­tec­tion pro­vi­si­ons in the Federal Data Pro­tec­tion Act. Data pro­ces­sing in the employ­ment rela­ti­ons­hip is gene­ral­ly inad­mis­si­ble unless it is justi­fied by refe­rence to the sui­ta­bi­li­ty of the employee or the per­for­mance of the employ­ment con­tract. Any pro­ces­sing of data that does not have a suf­fi­ci­ent con­nec­tion to the work­place is the­re­fo­re inad­mis­si­ble.. It is the­re­fo­re not allo­wed even if it would be allo­wed under the Data Pro­tec­tion Act. Unli­ke in the area of data pro­tec­tion law, the exi­stence of a justi­fi­ca­ti­on is the­re­fo­re not in princip­le able to eli­mi­na­te the unlaw­ful­ness (E. 2.c.aa).

In view of the man­da­to­ry natu­re of Art. 328b CO the justi­fi­ca­ti­on of con­sent (Art. 13 para. 1 FADP) can­not eli­mi­na­te the unlaw­ful­ness of data pro­ces­sing under Art. 328b CO. (E. 2.c.cc)

Alt­hough the Federal Supre­me Court did not dis­cuss the scope and natu­re of Art. 328b CO in detail, this ruling is nevertheless the first supre­me court pre­ce­dent on this issue and thus sets the cour­se for a uni­form inter­pre­ta­ti­on of Art. 328b CO throughout Switzerland.