As It Happens

Georgia man who lost his job over butt-dial conversation sues ex-boss

James Stephens was at home with his wife complaining about his boss, who overheard the whole thing because of an accidental pocket-dial.

Former state employee James Stephens was overheard at home complaining to his wife about his supervisor

James Stephens, right, is pictured with his wife Gina. Stephens is suing his former boss at the Georgia Subsequent Injury Trust Fund for firing him after he was overheard complaining on a pocket-dial. (Submitted by James Stephens)

Update: This story was originally published on April 12, 2018.  In June, a Georgia judge dismissed James Stephens' civil suit. He has appealed and won't get a decision from the court until next year. 

A Georgia man who lost his job over an accidental pocket-dial is suing his former employer.

James Stephens said he was at home in January 2016 when his boss called and kept him on the phone for nearly an hour complaining about one of his colleagues.

"When that call concluded, I put the phone in my pocket and walked into the kitchen where my wife was and apologized to her for the intrusion," Stephens told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Those after-hours calls were a regular occurrence, Stephens said, and his wife was annoyed.

"While we were in the privacy of our kitchen, she made a few less than flattering comments about my job," he said. 

Stephens and his wife complained about his boss for nearly 12 minutes — until he noticed the light emanating from his pocket.

He had pocket-dialed his boss, who was listening to every word. 

Quit or be fired

He swore out loud and hung up the phone, he said. 

"I did dread going to work the next day," Stephens said.

"My wife thought I was being ridiculous, that nobody would terminate somebody for nothing more than what was said during the course of that conversation."

She was wrong. 

The next morning, Stephens said he was called into the office of his supervisor Mike Coan, director of the Georgia Subsequent Injury Trust Fund.

Stephens said Coan gave him two choices: Resign his position as chief financial officer, or be fired.

"So I submitted my resignation and vacated my position," he said.

In this March 4, 2009, photo, then- Rep. Mike Coan appears on the floor of the Georgia House in Atlanta. Coan is now the subject of a lawsuit by a former employee. (Kimberly Smith/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via Associated Press)

Stephens has since found a new job and filed a civil lawsuit against Coan, alleging his ex-boss violated state privacy laws by listening to his conversation.

The allegations have not been proven in court and Coan did not respond to As It Happens' request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, who is representing Coan, said the office does not comment on matters that are pending.

According to the Atlanta Constitution Journal, Coan filed a motion asking a judge to dismiss the case, arguing that he is immune to state privacy laws because he was "acting within the scope of his official duties" as a state employee.

"From what Mr. Coan heard Mr. Stephens say during the second phone call, it was evident to Coan that, given Stephens' opinions and criticisms of Coan and his job performance, Stephens and Coan could no longer have an effective working relationship and Coan could not trust Stephens as a subordinate," reads Coan's response to the lawsuit.

Pocket-dial precedent 

But a 2015 pocket-dial case could work against Stephens.

A Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge ruled that a Cincinnati man whose conversation was overheard and recorded had no reasonable expectation of privacy because he is the one who placed the call. 

Stephens' lawyer David Guldenschuh says Georgia privacy laws are stricter than federal ones.

"Most people truly don't realize that you may be committing a felony when you listen in to a private conversation over a pocket-dialed phone call," he told the Journal. 

a cellphone in a pocket
A stock photo shows a cellphone in someone's pocket. (Shutterstock)

The judge in the 2015 case made an exception for the complainant's wife "because 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."

Stephens said that brings him comfort, because he believes his wife was unfairly victimized.

"She did not initiate the call, and yet her words were listened to," he said.

"It created a large amount of emotional distress. She was concerned that she may have made comments that ultimately led to his decision. It's really been difficult for her. And, of course, I would not trade her for a job — any job on the planet."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with James Stephens produced by Jeanne Armstrong.