Recording Conversations with Your Cellphone: with Great Power Comes Potential Legal Liability

In the cellphone age, nearly everyone walks around with a multi-tasking recording device in their pocket or purse, and it comes in handy for many of our modern problems: Your dog suddenly started doing something adorable? Open your video app and start rolling. Need to share that epic burger you just ordered with your foodie friends? There’s an app for that. Want to remember the great plot twist you just thought of for that novel you’ve been working on? Record a voice memo.

Sometimes, though, the need arises to record more serious matters. Many people involved in lawsuits choose to record conversations with their phones, all in the name of preserving evidence that might be relevant in court. People involved in contentious divorce or child custody cases, for example, might try to record a hostile confrontation that occurred during a pickup for visitation. Conversely, others might be worried that an ex-spouse has secretly recorded a conversation and plans to use it against them out of context.

But while everyone has the power to record just about anything with few swipes on their phone, do they have the legal right to do so? If not, what are the possible consequences? Can you even use recorded conversations in court? Consider these important questions before your press record.

Criminal Liability: Can you go to jail just for recording someone’s conversation?

The short answer: Yes. Under Michigan’s Eavesdropping law,[1] it is a felony punishable by up to two years and $2,000 to willfully use any device to eavesdrop on (meaning to overhear, record, amplify, or transmit) a conversation without the consent of all participants in that conversation.[2]It is also a felony for a person to “use or divulge” any information that they know was obtained through illegal eavesdropping.[3]

But there is one important distinction that Michigan courts have recognized: if you are a participant in the conversation, then you do not need permission of other participants to record the conversation (at least not when it comes to the eavesdropping law; there may be other laws that apply, as discussed below).[4] This makes sense given the purposes of the law. The theory is that if you are a participant in the conversation, then other participants at least have a chance to judge your character and determine if you are the kind of person who might relay the conversation to others (either verbally or by making a recording).

The bottom line is that if you use a device, like your cellphone, to record, overhear, amplify, or transmit a conversation that you are not a part of without the permission of all participants, you could face criminal consequences.

Civil Liability: If someone records your private conversation, can you file a lawsuit against them?

The short answer: Yes. The eavesdropping statute allows eavesdropping victims to bring a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator.[5] But the same distinction applies; you cannot sue someone for recording a conversation that they participated in.

Before filing a civil eavesdropping claim, though, consider what if anything there is to gain. The eavesdropping statute permits a judge to issue an injunction prohibiting the perpetrator from further eavesdropping. This may be a valuable remedy if there is a risk that the eavesdropper would otherwise continue eavesdropping on your conversations. The statue also allows a plaintiff to recover actual damages and punitive damages from the wrongdoer. In many cases, actual damages will likely be minimal, and punitive damages are subject to the whims of the judge or jury deciding the case. A result, the cost of litigation may exceed any monetary recovery unless actual damages are significant or the eavesdropper’s conduct was egregious enough to elicit a large punitive award from a jury.

Evidence and Admissibility: Can I use a recorded conversation in court?

Many people are familiar with the exclusionary rule that arises from the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which provides that if police officers obtain evidence as a result of an illegal search or seizure, then the prosecution is prohibited from using that evidence to support their case. This raises the question:

If a regular civilian obtains evidence by recording a conversation in violation of the eavesdropping statute, is that evidence automatically excluded from court proceedings?

The short answer: No. The exclusionary rule is specifically designed to curb the potentially oppressive power of the government in order to guarantee the protections of the Fourth Amendment, at the expense of excluding potentially valuable evidence from court proceedings. Since the Fourth Amendment only restricts government conduct, the exclusionary rule only applies to evidence obtained as a result of unconstitutional government action. As a result, even if a private citizen breaks the law and records your conversation, that recording is not automatically excluded from court.[6]

So does this mean you can use any recorded conversation in court whenever you want?

The short answer: No. Anything presented in court still needs to comply with the Rules of Evidence, and in many cases recorded conversations will not make the cut. A big reason is the hearsay rule, which says that out of court statements cannot be used to prove the truth of the matter asserted.[7] In other words, you can’t use a recording of your neighbor saying “I use my neighbor’s Wi-Fi” as evidence to prove that he was, in fact, using your Wi-Fi.

But there are many exceptions to the hearsay rule which might allow a recorded conversation into court. Salient among these exceptions is the rule that admissions of a party-opponent are not hearsay.[8] Consequently, if a man records his ex-wife’s conversation with her current husband, the hearsay rule will not prevent the man from using the recording of his ex-wife against her in a child custody case; the ex-wife is a “party-opponent” and her out-of-court statements are not considered hearsay.

Continuing this same example, note that the man’s actions would violate the eavesdropping statute (assuming he didn’t have permission to make the recording) because he was not a participant in the hypothetical conversation. But this violation would not keep the recording out of court. Nevertheless, if a prosecutor wanted to press charges, the man could be subject to criminal liability. And if the ex-wife was so inclined, she could file a civil lawsuit against the man and ask for an injunction and monetary damages.

Other Law: Is the eavesdropping statute the only law you need to worry about before recording all of your conversations?

The short answer: No, don’t hit record just yet. Even if you comply with the eavesdropping statute, there are still other potential pitfalls to be aware of. For instance, wiretapping laws govern the recording and interception of telephone calls and electronic communications, and carry criminal penalties. For inter-state phone calls, the laws of other states will come into play as well. And depending on the means you use to obtain a recording and what you do with the recording once you have it, you risk incurring civil liability for a variety of privacy torts, such as intrusion upon seclusion or public disclosure of private facts.

The safest route is to always get permission from everyone involved before recording a conversation or sharing a recorded conversation with anyone. If that’s not an option, consult with a lawyer who has had an opportunity to consider all of the facts involved in your case.

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[1] MCL 750.539 et seq.
[2] MCL 750.539a; MCL 570.539c.
[3] MCL 750.539e.
[4] See Sullivan v. Gray, 117 Mich. App. 476, 324 N.W.2d 58, 59 – 61 (1982).
[5] MCL 750.539h.
[6] See, e.g., Swan v. Bob Maxey Lincoln Mercury, No. 216564, 2001 WL 682371, at *2 n3 (Mich. Ct. App. Apr. 24, 2001)
[7] MRE 802.
[8] MRE 801(d)(2).

This post was written by Jeffrey D. Koelzer of  Varnum LLP © 2017
For more legal analysis go to The National Law Review

Grants Available for Specialty Crops – March 26 Deadline

Varnum LLP

In early February 2015, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development (MDARD)announced the availability of a series of grants for Michigan specialty crop growers. The grants are funded by the Crop Block Grant Program, an initiative of the United States Department of Agriculture Ag Marketing Servicesprogram.

The grants are designed to increase the competitiveness of Michigan’s specialty crops sector. Funding will go toward myriad uses, including – but not limited to – research, education, marketing, nutrition, food safety, environmental concerns, and the general promotion of the specialty crop industry.

The grants will likely range from $10,000 to $100,000. Applications are due to MDARD no later than 3 p.m. on March 26, 2015. Eligible applicants include non-profits; local, state and federal governmental entities; and for-profit organizations.

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Michigan Bill Would Bar Student-Athlete Unionization

Jackson Lewis Law firm

With a National Labor Relations Board decision on whether football players at Northwestern may proceed with their unionization efforts looming, Michigan is considering a bill that would prevent student-athletes from similarly attempting to unionize.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Al Pscholka, would prevent student-athletes at Michigan’s public universities from exercising collective bargaining rights based on their participation in a university sports team. It states, “a student participating in intercollegiate athletics on behalf of a public university in [Michigan]…is not a public employee entitled to representation or collective bargaining rights….”

Michigan has seven public universities competing at the Division I level. The bill would bar student-athletes at these universities from engaging in unionization efforts similar to the ones undertaken by the football players at Northwestern.

While none of the seven universities has faced a union organizing campaign from any of its student-athletes, prompting one opponent of the bill, Rep. Andy Shor, to describe the bill as a solution to a nonexistent problem.

“I don’t understand the tremendous rush on this,” Shor said. “We’re taking an action that addresses something that’s happening in Evanston, Illinois.”

However, if the Board finds in favor of the football players at Northwestern, universities across the country likely will face similar unionization efforts from other student-athletes. Michigan’s may be an attempt to get out in front of such efforts.

According to Ramogi Huma, the president of the organization spearheading the unionization campaign at Northwestern, the College Athletes Players Association, Michigan’s bill is “backhanded confirmation that student-athletes are state employees by including them in a list of workers who can’t bargain effectively.” However, the bill does not categorize student-athletes as employees and, indeed, it states that “individuals whose position does not have sufficient indicia of an employer-employee relationship” are also prevented under the bill from engaging in collective bargaining.

Huma also warned that if the bill passes, it would have a negative impact on the ability of Michigan’s public universities to recruit student-athletes because prospective student-athletes interested in being part of a union could elect instead to go to either private universities in Michigan or universities in states with no restrictions on their unionization efforts.

Thus far, none of the seven Division I public universities in Michigan have commented publicly on the bill. However, the bill likely is being closely followed by them as well as public universities in other states and major athletic conferences, such as the Big Ten, home to Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State.

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EEOC Sues Florida and Michigan Companies for Transgender Discrimination

McBrayer NEW logo 1-10-13

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has just filed suit against two companies for alleged discrimination against transgendered employees. The suits were filed separately in Florida and Michigan, against Lakeland Eye Clinic and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., respectively. In both cases, employees alleged that they were fired after they disclosed they were undergoing gender transitions.

Title VII does not specifically protect against transgendered persons. In 2012, however, in Macy v. Dep’t of Justice, EEOC Appeal No. 0120120821 (April 20, 2012), the EEOC ruled that employment discrimination against employees because they are transgender, because of gender identity, and/or because they have transitioned (or intend to transition) is discrimination based on sex, and thus violates Title VII.

The EEOC identified “coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions” as one of their top enforcement priorities in its 2012 Strategic Enforcement Plan. Thus, these suits should not be surprising. Earlier this year, President Obama also issued an Executive Order prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers.

In light of the recent emphasis on the protection of these individuals, employers should take extra precautions to ensure that no discriminatory practices are in force in the workplace. Further, all adverse employment decisions should be properly documented and managers and supervisors should be properly trained about what to do should a discrimination-related issue arises.

© 2014 by McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC. All rights reserved.
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Back to School for Michigan Employers–Minimum Wage Increase

Barnes Thornburg

As the kiddies get ready to go back to school, employers too should freshen up on a few items that are about to change in Michigan, including the minimum wage. Back on May 28, we reported on this blog that Michigan had passed The Workforce Opportunity Wage Act, by which the minimum wage will increase from $7.40 to $9.25 per hour over the next four years. The first incremental increase takes effect on September 4, when the minimum wage will increase to $8.15 per hour. So, if you haven’t done so already, please mark September 4 on your calendar.

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Michigan Minimum Wage Increases Enacted

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Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has signed the Workforce Opportunity Wage Act, mandating gradual increases in the state’s minimum wage to $9.25 an hour by January 1, 2018. The Act ties increases to the rate of inflation beginning 2019.

The first of four raises mandated by Senate Bill 934 (Public Act 138), to $8.15 an hour, occurs September 1, 2014. Michigan’s minimum wage since 2008 has been $7.40 an hour for workers who do not receive a tip and $2.65 an hour for workers earning tips, such as waiters.

Also beginning September 1, 2014, tipped employees would have a minimum rate that is 38 percent of the minimum for non-tipped workers, or about $3.51 an hour.

The state’s hourly minimum for non-tipped workers will increase as follows:

  • Beginning September 1, 2014, to $8.15.
  • Beginning January 1, 2016, to $8.50.
  • Beginning January 1, 2017, to $8.90.
  • Beginning January 1, 2018, to $9.25.

Starting in 2019, minimum wage increases will be tied to the rate of inflation, but any increase will be capped at 3.5 percent a year. The rate will adjust annually based on a five-year rolling average of inflation for the Midwest. Annual increases would take effect on April 1 of each year. No increase would occur if the state’s unemployment rate for the preceding year was 8.5 percent or higher.

Several other states, including Delaware and Minnesota, also have adopted increases this year, and the minimum wage for workers on new federal contracts has been raised to $10.10 per hour.

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Michigan Commission of Agriculture Approves Revised Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices' (GAAMP) Limiting Scope of Right to Farm Act

Varnum LLP

For over a year, the Michigan Ag Commission has considered expanding the scope of the “site selection” GAAMPs in order to bring even small livestock facilities within its scope. The site selection GAAMPs have traditionally applied to very large livestock production facilities, such as those that have at least 5,000 laying hens, 35 mature dairy cattle or 50 feeder cattle, and required those farms to be sited in agricultural areas. Consequently, because there were no siting requirements for small farms, these farms could be in urban areas – often contrary to zoning, which resulted in some conflict.

The Michigan Ag Commission recently voted to revise the site selection GAAMPs to eliminate the minimum animal threshold. Thus, the site selection GAAMPs now apply to all farms, and to comply with those GAAMPs, farms must be located in areas where local zoning allows for agricultural uses. Thus, the GAAMPs and local zoning are now in harmony rather than conflict.

According to Trevor Meachum, Vice-Chair of the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development, “Local control is about being a good neighbor, and these GAAMPs – if farmers follow them – help people remain good neighbors.  Different communities have different ideas about what they want, and this accommodates those communities.” The changes to the GAAMPs were also endorsed by Michigan Farm Bureau. According to Matt Kapp, Government Relation Specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau, the new GAAMPs do not forbid livestock; they just allow for local decision-making. “While we think that will remove some conflicts, and if this new GAAMP does that, then it creates good neighbors. That’s what right-to-farm is all about, and that’s good public policy.”

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