Employer Was Wrong to Access Personal E-mails from Employee Laptop

April 14, 2010 (PLANSPONSOR.com) – The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that Marina Stengart was justified in expecting that e-mails she exchanged with her lawyer via a personal e-mail account that was accessed through her former employer’s laptop were private matters.

The state’s high court held that executives at Loving Care, where Stengart served as nursing director until her 2008 resignation, violated that privacy when they retrieved Stengart’s messages from her hard drive and read them.The court further ruled that an employer can’t enforce the type of policy maintained by Loving Care that stated the employer can access and read such e-mails.

Shortly before her resignation, Stengart communicated with her attorney regarding a potential discrimination suit against Loving Care via her work laptop but using a personal, password-protected Web-based account. She didn’t know at the time that the company automatically stored a copy of every Web page she visited including those with copies of her correspondence with the lawyer.

The court found that Loving Care had a written policy on employee computer use that was “not entirely clear” and made no mention of personal e-mail accounts like the one used by Stengart, and stressed that “even a more clearly written company manual” would have not justified the company’s intrusion into Stengart’s communications with her lawyer.The Supreme Court said e-mail exchanges to lawyers are covered by the attorney-client privilege just as much as other forms of communication.

The court noted that Stengart took steps to protect the privacy of her communications with her lawyer, using a personal account and not storing its password on a Loving Care computer.

The court also found that Stengart’s expectation of privacy was objectively reasonable. Noting that the Loving Care policy did not address the use of private Web-based e-mail accounts, but allowed employees to send and receive personal messages on company equipment, the court said “the policy created doubt about whether those e-mails are company or private property.”

The opinion is at http://lawlibrary.rutgers.edu/courts/supreme/a-16-09.opn.html