UPDATES & ANALYSIS

12.23

Iowa Supreme Court Adopts Majority View On Invasion of Privacy

by Ryan Koopmans | December 23, 2011

By Ryan Koopmans

The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision in Koeppel v. Speirs (see post below), ruling that if an individual secretly places a recording devise in a private area (here, a bathroom) that he may be liable for an invasion of privacy, even if there is no evidence that he viewed the plaintiff.

The issue arose when the plaintiff discovered that her boss had placed a hidden video camera in the workplace bathroom.  At that time, the camera was not operational (the batteries were dead and the receiver was unplugged) and there was no evidence that the employer had actually recorded the employee or her co-worker (the plaintiff in the companion case of Miller v. Speirs).  But once the police reassembled the receiver and replaced the battery, they could observe a “snowy, grainy, foggy” image of the bathroom.

That, according to the Iowa Supreme Court, is enough evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the employer is liable for an invasion of privacy.  The employees need not prove that the employer actually viewed them–only that he could have.  Writing for the six justices who considered the case (Justice Mansfield took no part), Chief Justice Cady explained the basis for the ruling:

[T]he minority rule, [which requires that the defendant actually see or hear another person’s private activities,] fails to provide full protection to a victim, while giving too much protection to people who secretly place recording devices in private places. Direct evidence that an actual viewing occurred can be difficult to establish, and a person who is inclined to secretly place a camera in a private area can easily incapacitate the camera when it is not in use so as to minimize any responsibility upon discovery. A plaintiff who learns a camera was placed in a private place should not be forced to live with the uncertainty of whether an actual viewing occurred. Such an approach would leave those victims with a reasonable belief that someone could have listened to or seen a private moment without a remedy simply because the device was unable to actually operate to invade privacy at the time it was discovered.

The case will now go back to the district court, where the jury will decide whether the camera was ever operational, such that the employer could have viewed his employees.

[Bonus Coverage: In footnote 1 of the opinion, Chief Justice Cady enlightens us with the origin of the phrase  “Peeping Tom.”  The story, which dates back to 1040, appears after the jump.]

The name “peeping Tom” originated in the year 1040 in England when Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets in an attempt to make a political appeal to her husband, the Earl of Mercia. Lisa F. Wu, Peeping Tom Crimes, 28 Pac. L.J. 705, 705 n.1 (1997). All the townspeople were ordered to stay indoors with the curtains drawn during her ride, but one man who defied the order was struck blind and dubbed the town’s “Peeping Tom.” Id.

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