UPDATE: The New Jersey Supreme Court has agreed to review this decision. We will continue to monitor the case and provide insight on significant developments.
Before resigning from Loving Care Agency and suing the company for discrimination, Marina Stengart used her company-issued laptop to exchange e-mail with her attorney through her personal Yahoo! e-mail account. Loving Care’s computer forensic expert recovered these e-mails from the laptop. Loving Care’s counsel referenced some of them during discovery; Stengart’s counsel demanded the return of all of the e-mail. In a prior blog entry, we discussed the trial court’s ruling that Stengart had waived the attorney-client privilege in light of certain warnings in Loving Care’s computer use policy.
Last week, a New Jersey appellate court reversed the trial court’s ruling. According to the appellate court, Loving Care failed to show that Stengart ever had received the computer use policy. The court also found that the policy did not adequately warn Stengart that Loving Care might read e-mail sent through her personal e-mail account. Employers can address these shortcoming in the following ways:
- obtain from each employee an executed acknowledgement of receipt of the corporate computer use policy;
- inform employees that the employer will, in its discretion, review any communication or file stored on any company-owed device;
- specifically warn employees that the policy applies to copies of e-mail sent through a personal e-mail account that remain on company computers;
- inform employees that corporate electronic resources cannot be used, without authorization, to consult with an attorney.
Significantly, the New Jersey court suggested that even if Loving Care had taken all of the steps listed above, Stengart still would not have waived attorney-client privilege. The court based that conclusion on the following language:
When an employee, at work, engages in personal communications via a company computer, the company's interest . . . is not in the content of those communications; the company's legitimate interest is in the fact that the employee is engaging in business other than the company's business. Certainly, an employer may monitor whether an employee is distracted from the employer's business and may take disciplinary action if an employee engages in personal matters during work hours; that right to discipline or terminate, however, does not extend to the confiscation of the employee's personal communications.
In other words, according to the court, an employer cannot read an employee’s personal e-mail, even when the employer has a policy stating that the employee has no reasonable expectation of privacy, except when the content of the e-mail needs to be known to determine whether the employee violated company policy or acted unlawfully. This aspect of the court’s opinion, which appears to be non-binding dicta (except when applied to communications between an employee and her attorney) is groundbreaking. If the decision is not reversed on appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, employers should expect to see the Stengart case resurface in future employment litigation contending that employer’s improperly accessed employees’ “personal e-mail.”
For a comprehensive analysis of this development, see Littler's ASAP "Employer's Electronic Communications Policy Did Not Allow Company to Review Employee's E-mail Exchange with Her Attorney" by Philip L. Gordon, Eric A. Savage and Paul H. Mazer.