Court Allows Employer's Search of Worker's E-mails

December 12, 2003 ( - The US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that an employer can look through an employee's e-mail if stored on the employer's system without violating any provisions of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

In Fraser v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., the federal appeals court ruled that the law prohibits any “interception” of e-mail only if it occurs at the time of transmission and, therefore, the law protects the owner of an e-mail system from any claim alleging an illegal “seizure” of stored e-mails.

Richard Fraser, a former Nationwide employee, stored his e-mails on Nationwide’s system, therefore allowing any search by the company, based on an exemption in the federal ECPA for e-mail service providers.

In the decision, Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro found that the lower court was correct in deciding that Title I of the ECPA only pertains to “intercepts” occurring at transmission.   He also found that although Title II of the ECPA prohibits “seizures” of stored e-mails, there is an exception for those seizures authorized “by the person or entity providing a wire or electronic communications service.”

The three appeals court judges also upheld the lower court’s decision and ruled against Fraser’s allegations that he was wrongfully discharged in September 1998 because he complained about Nationwide’s illegal conduct to state authorities –  complaints that resulted in Nationwide paying fines – and because he tried to pass legislation protecting independent insurance agents from being fired for anything less than just cause.  

However, the court did restore Fraser’s complaint seeking over $200,000 in deferred compensation he claims was denied once he was employed at another insurer.
Fraser’s suit was originally heard in March 2001, before US District Judge Anita Brody who dismissed it after she concluded that none of his claims over the e-mail search were valid and she decided that his wrongful-discharge claim failed because he didn’t qualify for any exception to the at-will employment doctrine.   Most of her rulings were upheld by the 3rd Circuit.