If a manager comes to IT to ask for copies of an employee’s e-mails, the messages can usually be handed over without a problem. But what if the e-mails in question were part of a sensitive conversation between an employee and her attorney?
That question came up in a recent court case.
An employee felt she was the victim of discrimination because of a dispute she had with her boss over her use of pregnancy leave.
While gathering evidence to defend itself against the charges, the company found e-mails between the employee and her attorney, which the company’s lawyers thought would help their case.
But when the employee found out those messages were being copied and used by the company, she added another charge to her lawsuit: violation of her attorney-client privilege.
She claimed the messages were private and should be protected.
But the company pointed out that she sent them at work, on a company computer, using a corporate e-mail account, so she shouldn’t have expected them to remain private.
The court agreed with the company that the employee had forfeited her attorney-client privilege by using a communication method she knew couldn’t grant her full privacy.
One key factor in the court’s decision: The company had a policy clearly stating that employees should have no expectation of privacy when sending and reading e-mails at work. The policy also said employees shouldn’t use company equipment to send personal e-mails.
A similar case was recently decided in the employee’s favor, because she was using a personal account and the company did not have a policy saying it could read personal e-mails.
The lesson: Have a policy, and remind users there’s no such thing as a private e-mail.
Cite: Holmes v. Petrovich Development Co.