Doctor’s wiretapping case under ECPA heads to trial

McCann v. Iroquois Memorial Hospital, No. 08-3420 (7th Cir. September 13, 2010)

Mystery of how doctor’s dictation machine got turned on to record conversation between doctor and hospital employee is a question for the jury and should not have been decided on summary judgment.

Two hospital employees — Dr. Lindberg and the director of physician services, Ms. McCann — had a conversation behind the doctor’s closed office door that the two of them thought was private. In their conversation, the two of them criticized hospital administration. But they did not know that the doctor’s dictation machine was recording what they said.

Dictaphone was cylinder dictation machine from...
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How that machine got turned on is a mystery. Dr. Lindberg had been dictating radiology reports a few minutes before Ms. McCann arrived, so he may have accidentally left the machine running. But the recording of the conversation started in mid-sentence, which discredits that theory.

A member of the hospital’s transcription staff, Ms. Freed, is alleged to have come into the room during this conversation to pick up some papers, and Dr. Lindberg and Ms. McCann believe she surreptitiously turned on the machine. That would seem a plausible explanation, given that Ms. Freed supposedly had an axe to grind with Dr. Lindberg.

The recorded conversation made its way to the transcription staff, and after it was typed out, Ms. Freed forwarded it to the hospital’s CEO. Dr. Lindberg and Ms. McCann filed suit against Ms. Freed and others under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. They claimed that by secretly turning on the dictation machine and forwarding the transcript, Ms. Freed violated the statute.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs sought review with the Seventh Circuit. On appeal, the court reversed in part, finding there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Ms. Freed was in the room and secretly turned on the dictation machine.

The court of appeals held that whether Ms. Freed was in the office on the date the recording was made was merely the subject of a “swearing contest,” and that summary judgment is not appropriate to resolve such a contest. The lower court had based its grant of summary judgment largely on the contents of the recording. At the end of the conversation, one can hear the office door close as Ms. McCann leaves. But one cannot hear the door shut with Ms. Freed would have left, during the conversation and after she allegedly turned on the dictation machine.

Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the court found that the absence of such a sound did not prove that Ms. Freed was not there: “[N]othing in the record tells us whether the door could have been closed silently; . . . [Ms.] Freed who was conscious that she was intruding (and, perhaps, that she was being taped) may have closed the door softly to be inconspicuous.”

So the court found that whether Ms. Freed was responsible for making the recording — and by extension whether Ms. Freed intentionally intercepted the conversation between Dr. Lindberg and Ms. McCann in violation of the ECPA — was an issue for the jury, and not one for summary judgment.

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One thought on “Doctor’s wiretapping case under ECPA heads to trial

  1. Joe

    That's pretty dicey. But I can't see that the doctor or the administrator would have turned on the dictation machine to record the conversation, then sent it off for transcription later.

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