From the San Gabriel Valley News…

Judge halts JPL worker checks

Privacy issues must be decided by court

By Elise Kleeman, Staff Writer


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if(requestedWidth > 0){ document.getElementById(‘articleViewerGroup’).style.width = requestedWidth + “px”; document.getElementById(‘articleViewerGroup’).style.margin = “0px 0px 10px 10px”; } LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE – A federal judge Friday barred NASA from requiring background checks for any of its low-security Jet Propulsion Laboratory employees until the courts resolve whether the checks constitute an invasion of privacy.U.S. District Judge Otis Wright’s decision followed hours after a panel of three 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges ordered him to revisit the case filed by 28 JPL employees against the federal government and Caltech.

In October, Wright denied the employees’ request for a preliminary injunction, writing that they had “not shown either a likelihood of success on the merits or irreparable injury.”

Wright’s ruling Friday ensures that the injunction will apply to all of JPL’s nearly 5,000 low-security employees, not just those who filed the lawsuit.

The JPL scientists and engineers had argued that the background checks, which include questions about drug use and treatment and an open-ended waiver releasing personal information to investigators, collected more information than needed for the purported goal of creating a secure identification badge.

Before the court battles began, JPL staff members were told they would be “voluntarily terminated” from their posts if they opted out of the security checks.

In their 25-page decision, the appellate judges found that many of the employees’ claims had merit and that “the balance of hardships tips sharply toward Appellants, who face a stark choice –

either violation of their constitutional rights or loss of their jobs.”The 9th Circuit judges also found that Caltech – which manages JPL – should remain a defendant in the case because of its role in creating a “coercive environment” for the employees.

Wright, who had dismissed the school from the lawsuit just two days before, said he would reconsider his ruling.

But after Friday’s hearing, during which Wright admitted he had not yet had time to read the 9th Circuit’s decision, confusion reigned as lawyers for each side disagreed about whether that meant he had reinstated Caltech for now, or not.

Wright gave each side 10 days to submit their arguments about Caltech’s role in the case, and a month for all parties to prepare a joint plan and timeline for a trial.

During the hearing, Department of Justice lawyer Vesper Mei also suggested the government might request an “en banc” review of the the Court of Appeals’ ruling, in which a panel of 15 Ninth Circuit judges would reconsider the case.

More than once, though, Wright stated his hope that the parties could solve their dispute outside the courthouse.

“I don’t like the idea that these claims are going to be litigated. I want these claims to be negotiated,” he said. Then, after a pause, he added: “I also wanted a bicycle for Christmas …”

elise.kleeman@sgvn.com (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451

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