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Defamation, invasion of privacy claims dismissed

Patrick Morrissey's supervisor criticized him for conducting private business by cell phone during the work day.  The supervisor then reviewed copies of Morrissey's phone records, all sent to him for approval, before terminating Morrissey's employment.  Morrissey filed suit, claiming an invasion of privacy and defamation.  His claims were dismissed by a unanimous Court of Appeals panel that announced several holdings of interest .

 First, the Court held that the Supervisor was within his rights to investigate the records of both of Morrissey's cell phones, even though Morrissey had never authorized the movement of his personal phone to the employer's [Steelcase] account.  It also held that Morrissey had no legitimate expectation of privacy with regard to the phone numbers dialed on that phone, since he disclosed those numbers to the phone company. It concluded that an employer's review of phone billings it was receiving and paying would not "shock the sensibilities" of, nor offend ordinary persons.

Next, the court dismissed Morrissey's "false light" claim, which he had based on the argument that the employer had published information to a large number of people that placed Morrissey in a light that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.   The court held that Plaintiff had not met his burden of showing a publication by the employer to "the general public or a large number of persons", even though he alleged the communication was made to members of his church, his professional organizations, and his neighborhood.   It relied on a Lansing case to the effect that this tort will not stand where the communication of the embarrassing fact is to a single person or a small group of people, and Morrissey had documenting nothing more than that.  He had not established that the private information was "substantially certain to become [a matter of] public knowledge".

The court briefly addressed a claim that Steelcase had "coverted" his cell phone, noting that for 12 months, Morrissey did not demand the return of his phone records (and apparently was comfortable with Steelcase paying his private bill).  When he made the demand for return of the bill, Steelcase investigated for one month, "in good faith" and then promptly turned the records over to Morrissey.

Finally, the Court dismissed Morrissey's defamation claims for failing to meet the "where, when or to whom" standard elucidated previously in Michigan law.  While Morrissey had claimed that Steelcase falsely accused him of transfering his personal account to Steelcase for payment or conducted inappropriate personal business on company time, he had failed to document the specifics of his claim.

It kind of looks like the Morrissey case was summarily dismissed in part because of poor attention to detail by Morrissey or his lawyers, and in part by the Court's dislike for his underlying claim.  While the latter circumstance does not provide a legal basis for dismissing a claim, it certainly provides motivation, and poor presentation offers the opportunity.  Someone much wiser than us once said, very presciently:  "bad cases make for bad law." 

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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