In Stengart v. Loving Care, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that an employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy in e-mails she sent to her attorney via a personal, password protected e-mail account on a company computer. As part of her employment, Loving Care issued Ms. Stengart a laptop computer. Loving Care’s electronic communications policy stated that the company had a right to review and access all material kept on its electronic media systems at any time, with or without warning. The policy also allowed employees to use its servers and computers for occasional personal email or other use.
Ms. Stengart used her company-issued laptop computer to access her personal Yahoo! E-mail account and to correspond with an attorney regarding her allegations of harassment and discrimination by Loving Care. She eventually resigned her position and sued Loving Care. The company hired a computer specialist to retrieve files from Ms. Stengart’s laptop. The specialist found her correspondence with her attorney, which the laptop had automatically saved in a “cache” folder of temporary Internet files. Loving Care argued that Ms. Stengart’s e-mails were not privileged or confidential because she had no expectation of privacy in communications on its media systems.
The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed, holding that Loving Care’s communications policy was too broad to encompass private, password protected e-mail communications, especially where the content was attorney-client communication. Loving Care’s failure to include personal, password protected e-mail in its electronic communications policy specifically, as well as its allowance of occasional personal use created a reasonable expectation of privacy. Although recognizing a company’s ability to enact policies that protect its assets, reputation, and productivity, and to ensure compliance with company policy, the court held that Loving Care had no legitimate purpose in reviewing the content of attorney-client communication.
Employer Tip: Although this is a “narrow” decision that applies only in New Jersey to communication with counsel, it sends a clear warning to all employers about diving too deeply into employee e-mails, etc. Employers should also heed a warning that they “specifically include personal, password protected e-mail in its electronic communications policy,” and beware of any “allowance of occasional personal use creating a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Article courtesy of Pettit Kohn Ingrassia & Lutz.