Mom violated wiretap law by bugging daughter’s teddy bear to eavesdrop on dad

Lewton v. Divingnzzo, 2011 WL 692292 (D.Neb. Feb. 18, 2011)

Defendant thought her ex-husband was abusing their daughter during visitations. To prove these allegations in the custody case, defendant sewed an electronic recording device into the little girl’s favorite teddy bear. After the daughter returned from visiting with her father, the mom would unstitch the teddy bear and download the recorded conversations onto her computer.

She tried using the transcribed recordings as evidence in the state court custody proceeding. But the judge would not let them into evidence because they violated Nebraska law. The father and others whose conversations were recorded via the teddy bear sued the mom under the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Both sides moved for summary judgment. The court ruled in favor of the father, finding that the surreptitious recording did not fit into any exception of the ECPA.

The ECPA provides a private right of action to any person whose wire, oral or electronic communication is intercepted, disclosed or intentionally used in violation of the ECPA. Looking to Eighth Circuit authority, the court observed that the ECPA prohibits all wiretapping that is not specifically exempted by the statute.

No doubt this was a tough case – a parent fearing for the safety of his or her child might have strong reasons to resort to eavesdropping to protect the child. But the court was hamstrung – “[w]hile the notion that a parent or guardian should be able to listen to a child’s conversations to protect the child from harm may have merit as a matter of policy, it is for Congress, not the courts, to alter the provisions of the statute.”

The court ordered the defendant and her father (who had transcribed the recordings) to pay $10,000 to each of the offended plaintiffs. The defendant’s lawyer who had distributed the recordings to the guardian ad litem and others was found to have violated the ECPA but was not ordered to pay any money damages.

Divorce attorney did not conspire to violate the Electronic Communications Privacy Act

Court declines to recognize secondary liability for civil ECPA violation, holding that defendant’s divorce lawyer could not be a conspirator in a civil action alleging email interception.

Garback v. Lossing, 2010 WL 3733971 (E.D.Mich. September 20, 2010)

Plaintiff sued his ex-wife’s attorney for violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. He claimed that his ex-wife, her attorney and some other defendants (including a computer forensics firm) acted together to violate the ECPA by “hacking” into plaintiff’s email account. The ex-wife allegedly used information gathered in this process to negotiate a more favorable divorce settlement.

The defendant attorney moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court granted the motion.

The court found that in plaintiff’s “inartful” pleading, he had failed to allege that the defendant attorney had actually intercepted or knowingly used information obtained in violation of the ECPA. Plaintiff argued that this failure was not fatal, however, in that he had alleged that the defendant attorney conspired to intercept emails.

Rejecting this argument, the court observed that “normally federal courts refrain from creating secondary liability that is not specified by statute.” Finding no textual support in the ECPA for such secondary liability, the court declined to read ECPA’s scope so expansively. The court found the statute as being clear on who may be liable: those who intercept communications and those who get ahold of those communications knowing they were illegally obtained. So the ECPA claim failed and plaintiff was given leave to replead.

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.

Lack of knowledge of interception causes ECPA claims against website owners to fail

Zinna v. Cook, No. 06-1733, 2010 WL 3604386 (D. Colo. September 7, 2010)

Plaintiff sued for violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) claiming that defendants intercepted his email messages and posted them to a website called ColoradoWackoExposed.com. Defendants moved for summary judgment. The court granted the motion.

It found that although similarities between messages and website content suggested that emails had been intercepted, there was no evidence showing the interception was “contemporaneous” with the messages’ transmission. (Several federal circuits require such contemporaneity. But see the Seventh Circuit’s recent opinion in U.S. v. Szymuszkiewicz for a different take.)

The court also held there was insufficient evidence to show that defendants knew the information posted on the website came about via any unlawful interception. The plaintiff’s assertions that defendants had worked with a non-party wiretapper failed to convince the court of this knowledge.

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