An intrusion on seclusion claim is a special form of invasion of privacy. It applies when someone intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another. In most states, to make out an intrusion on seclusion claim, a plaintiff must generally establish 4 elements:
- First, that the defendant, without authorization, must have intentionally invaded the private affairs of the plaintiff;
- Second, the invasion must be offensive to a reasonable person;
- Third, the matter that the defendant intruded upon must involve a private matter; and
- Finally, the intrusion must have caused mental anguish or suffering to the plaintiff. See Restatement (Second) of Torts - Intrusion Upon Seclusion.
With respect to the first element of an intrusion claim -- intentional invasion into the private affairs of another -- courts generally require that the intrusion take the form of a "physical trespass." This can be met literally, by physically entering onto private property, or by an electronic or optical intrusion, such as using zoom lenses or highly sensitive microphones to photograph or record a person who has a reasonable expectation of privacy. A court would consider this a "physical trespass" if your use of ultra-powerful or highly sensitive equipment was the only way you were able to obtain your information or recording.
The second element requires that the actions giving rise to a claim must be offensive to a reasonable person. This requires more than mere discomfort or embarrassment. For example, barging in on someone in the bathroom and photographing them using the facilities would be offensive to a reasonable person while taking a picture of them standing at the mirror combing their hair likely would not be offensive.
The third element requires that the intrusion involve a private matter. Generally speaking, if you've intruded into someone's seclusion in a place they expect privacy (e.g., a bathroom or their bedroom) or while they are engaged in an activity that most reasonable people would expect to be private (e.g., intimate contact with another) this element will be met.
The fourth element requires that the intrusion must have resulted in mental anguish or suffering for the person whose privacy was invaded. This suffering can come from surprise, fright, or even anger at having been disturbed. In the case of surreptitious invasions, it can also come from the plaintiff finding out, after the fact, that his or her privacy has been invaded. The degree of anguish or suffering the plaintiff experiences will determine the amount of damages he or she is entitled to if the other elements of an intrusion claim are established.
Keep in mind that consent is typically one of your strongest defenses to an intrusion claim. Consent can often be gained expressly, by someone specifically telling you that you can photograph or collect private information about them (which you should get in writing), but can also be implied. If a person fails to object to your presence after you identify yourself as a member of the media (or publisher of a blog, etc.), courts will generally consider this to be implied consent to your use of recording and photography equipment. If consent is required, however, you must obtain it from someone who is legally able to give it. Permission from a child or mentally handicapped person is unlikely to be valid; in those situations, you should seek consent from the appropriate parent or guardian.
Each state has its own definition of what constitutes intrusion upon seclusion. You should consult the state sections listed below to determine whether your specific state recognizes intrusion on seclusion and, if so, how it defines what is necessary for a claim. (Note that the guide does not include every state at this time.)