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Butt-dialing lawsuit provides cautionary tale

Butt-dialing lawsuit provides cautionary tale

Butt-dialing can cost you your job.

A lawsuit claims an employee was told to resign or be fired after his boss heard the employee complaining to his wife about the boss’s job performance.

James Stephens allegedly finished a conversation with his boss, Georgia Subsequent Injury Trust Fund Director Mike Coan, in January 2016 and put the phone in his pocket — not realizing he accidently pocket dialed his boss back while talking to his wife.

Mr. Coan listened in on the conversation, which Mr. Stephens and his wife allege in their lawsuit filed in January in Gwinnett County Superior Court in Lawrenceville, Georgia, violated his privacy. But Mr. Coan is claiming immunity from Georgia’s eavesdropping law because he was acting as a state employee — the trust fund oversees workers comp claims in the state.

Mr. Coan also argued that Mr. Stephens’ criticisms of his job performance meant they could no longer have an effective working relationship and that Mr. Stephens could not be trusted as subordinate.

But a lawyer for Mr. Stephens insists that is not the issue — that Mr. Coan, rather than hanging up when he realized the phone call was not intended for him, violated state law by listening to a private conversation between Mr. Stephens and his wife.

This is not the first time a court will consider the workplace implications of a butt dial. In 2015, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided a case in which James Huff, chairman of the Kenton County, Kentucky, Airport Board, which oversees the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, was talking with a colleague about replacing the airport’s CEO when he accidentally called the CEO’s assistant. The assistant, Carol Spaw, tried to get his attention but began taking notes and asked a colleague to do the same after she realized the nature of the conversation.

The appeals court in that case affirmed a lower court ruling that the chairman did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy because he placed the call. But the appeals court rejected the lower court’s conclusion that Mr. Huff’s wife, Bertha Huff, whose conversations about family matters were also listened to by the assistant, lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in her face-to-face conversation with her husband in their hotel room. The appeals court said that speaking to a person who may carry a device capable of intercepting one’s statements does not constitute a waiver of the expectation of privacy in those statements.

The bottom line seems to be that anything you say during a butt dial may be used against you in a court of law. Not a problem for this writer, though. I have the best boss in the world — in case he is listening.





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