By: Christopher Dolan and Vanessa Deniston
This week’s question comes from Edgar M…
Q: “I work for a large corporation with offices nationwide. I was recently switched to a new department, and already, I have been having problems with my new direct supervisor. He regularly makes racially charged comments around me, which I find offensive. I have told him to stop, but that has only made things worse. I have tried complaining to my HR representative about this behavior, but she is good friends with my direct supervisor and doesn’t believe my reports. I feel the only way I will be taken seriously is if I am somehow able to record my supervisor’s racist comments as proof. Can I do this if no one will take me seriously?”
A: Thank you for your question, Edgar. Certainly, the impulse to capture an injustice on tape is a hard impulse to ignore, especially when those around you are turning a blind eye to or claiming it isn’t happening. Secretly recording someone without their knowledge and consent, however, is a criminal offense under state and federal law with serious consequences.
The federal Wiretap Act of 1968 (18 U.S.C. § 2511) provides it is illegal to secretly record any oral, telephonic, or electronic communication that the communicator would reasonably expect to be private. The California Penal Code § 632(a), enacted under the California Invasion of Privacy Act of 1967, makes it illegal for any person to intentionally and without the consent of all parties to a communication use a recording device to record a confidential communication, whether or not the conversation occurs in person or through some other medium, such as over the phone. Such an offense may be punished by a fine of up to $2,500 per violation and/or by a term of imprisonment of up to one year. California is one of a handful of states with a “two-party [or “all-party”] consent” law, meaning the consent of every single party to the conversation is required before a person can legally record a confidential conversation. In other words, if nine out of ten board members agree you can record a private board meeting, that is one too few.
These criminal consequences will outweigh any potential benefit you may derive from capturing such evidence on tape, especially because in nearly all cases, secret recordings are not admissible evidence in court. Penal Code § 632(d) provides that unless you are trying to prove a violation of section 632 itself, any evidence obtained as a result of recording a confidential communication is not admissible in any judicial, administrative, legislative, or other proceeding. In short, if you have a secret recording of your supervisor spouting racist inappropriate comments that you feel is a smoking gun for your case, it will likely be excluded long before a jury can ever hear about it.
The grey area lies in whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in the space where the recording is made. The answer to this question depends on the recording’s location and context. For instance, there is a big difference between recording a conversation in a busy airport terminal and recording a private disciplinary meeting between you, your supervisor, and a Human Resources representative in an office behind a closed door. This is because it is reasonable to expect that a conversation in public airport terminal to be overheard by people passing by. The same is not true for the private HR meeting.
Context may be nuanced, however. There may be reasonable expectation of privacy in that same airport terminal at 4:00am on arrival of a red-eye flight if the conversation occurs in an empty corner of the terminal where there are no staff or people in sight. Likewise, a conversation at top volume in the doorway of your supervisor’s office adjacent to an open floor plan in earshot of the entire office. There is quite a different expectation of privacy in this context, as opposed to the private HR meeting.
Even if you believe, however, that you are in an environment where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, there are many variables to be considered and it’s likely not worth the risk. If you believe your supervisor is doing or saying something inappropriate, rather than record them, make a written complaint to your Human Resources department, quoting the specific language you heard or describing the conduct you observed and indicating it made you feel uncomfortable. By creating a written record with your employer, you protect yourself far more than you do by making a recording that could potentially expose you to criminal liability. Always contact an employment attorney to assist you in taking legal, effective steps towards addressing a difficult workplace issue.