Federal Courts' Disagreement Over E-Mail Privacy Highlights Employers' Need to Revisit E-Mail Policies

As the Supreme Court prepares to address the question whether public employees can expect privacy in text messages sent by government-issued phones through a service provider under contract with the government, federal district courts continue to reach conflicting results when addressing whether private employees waive the attorney-client privilege by communicating with a personal attorney using their employer’s electronic resources. With yet another federal court recently finding no waiver, employers should revisit and revise their electronic resources policies to increase their chances of winning the waiver battle.

In Convertino v. United States DOJ, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115050 (D.C. Dec. 10, 2009), a case decided last week, a former federal prosecutor suing the Justice Department for an allegedly improper leak concerning an investigation into charges that he engaged in prosecutorial misconduct, sought to compel production of e-mails exchanged through the Justice Department’s e-mail system between Jonathan Tukel, a federal prosecutor involved in the investigation, and Tukel’s personal attorney. The federal District Court for the District of Columbia held that Tukel had not waived the privilege. The court determined that Tukel reasonably could expect privacy in the communications with his attorney because the Justice Department’s e-mail policy permitted personal use of its e-mail system, and Tukel stated in an affidavit that he was unaware that the Department regularly monitored his e-mail.

In contrast to this result, a federal district court in Idaho, in Alamar Ranch, LLC v. County of Boise, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101866 (D. Idaho Nov. 2, 2009), held just six weeks earlier that an employee had waived the attorney-client privilege by exchanging e-mail with her attorney using her employer’s e-mail system. The court relied on the employer’s e-mail usage policy, which notified the employee that: (1) all e-mail was the employer’s property; (2) the employer reserved the right to monitor e-mail; and (3) employees should not assume that e-mail would be confidential. The court gave no weight to the employee’s testimony, almost identical to Tukel’s in the D.C. case, that she was unaware of the monitoring. The court found her subjective belief “unreasonable . . . in this technological age.”

Although not mentioned in the D.C. court’s opinion, the Justice Department’s e-mail usage policy most likely contains the same language that the Idaho court relied upon to find a waiver. Thus, the principal difference between the two cases appears to be the Justice Department’s express permission of some non-business use of its e-mail system. That said, employers would be short-sighted to think that prohibiting all non-business use in an e-mail policy would ensure a finding of waiver. Courts are likely to look to the employer’s de facto policy regarding non-business use, which, for virtually all employers, will be tacit permission of non-business e-mail despite an express ban on non-business use in the employer’s e-mail policy.

Given the above, employers can strengthen their position in the waiver battler by expressly stating the following in an e-mail policy with respect to non-business use of the employer’s e-mail system:

  • Non-business e-mails are not private and are subject to the employer’s electronic resources policy in its entirety, including the employer’s policy on monitoring;
  • Employees are prohibited from using the employer’s electronic resources to communicate with a personal attorney;
  • Employees who use the employer’s electronic resources to engage in non-business e-mail communications through a personal web-based e-mail account should be aware that duplicates of such e-mail may be stored on the employer’s electronic resources and will be subject to review by the employer in accordance with its electronic resources policy.

This entry was written by Philip L. Gordon.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.