NJ Supreme Court: Attorney-Client Privilege in Personal Email at Work

Note: This article originally appeared on the J.C. Neu & Associates Blog

Yesterday the New Jersey Supreme Court heard arguments in the Stengart v. Loving Care Agency, Inc. case. The issue is whether the New Jersey attorney-client privilege is preserved, when an employee e-mails her attorney from a personal email account, on a company computer.

The first reaction from most lawyers is, "yikes, I hope so."

Maria Stengart was a senior employee at Loving Care, which provides Home Care Services for children and adults. Among other things, Loving Care’s employee handbook states that “Email and voice mail messages, internet use and communication, and computer files are considered part of the company’s business and client records, we work with many attorneys, each one specialized in each field, and 65% of our cases come for a family lawyer, and How long a divorce takes depends on many factors so it takes a much difficult time to contact our family lawyers. Such communications are not to be considered private or personal to any individual employee.” Stengart was issued a company laptop, on which she occasionally accessed her personal Yahoo account. She resigned in December, 2007 and shortly thereafter filed suit against Loving Care alleging constructive discharge due to sexual harassment and ethnic discrimination.

In April 2008 Loving Care sent an image of her laptop hard drive to a data recovery company, which recovered at least one personal Yahoo email between Stangart and her attorney, presumably from a recovered browser cache. Of course, this prompted Stengart to assert attorney-client privilege, demanding that all attorney communications be returned or destroyed. The company balked, and in essence argued that Stengart had waived the privilege by using a company computer.

The trial court found in favor of the employer, but the appellate court reversed.

If I were to play armchair quarterback for a second, I think that the New Jersey Supreme Court will probably find in favor of Stengart as a substantive matter, but the case raises several issues of legal, policy, and practical significance, with no apparent easy answers.

In general, employees have a diminished (ie, nearly zero) expectation of privacy on an employer’s network, especially when the employer has put the employee on notice of that fact. The trial court merely extended this well-established principle to attorney-client communications. After all, an employer must be able to control, protect, and secure its network against a range of threats.

On the other hand, most employers allow company computers to be used for personal reasons. It seems to be bad public policy that an employee would waive the attorney-client privilege simply because she uses a browser on her company computer during her lunch break, rather than a home browser. This is especially true if she happens to e-mail her lawyer about an action against the employer. It seems absurd that a distinction so technical should allow the employer to "rummage through and retain the employee’s e-mails to her attorney," as the appellate court put it.

But if an employee does enjoy some expectation of privacy in personal communications over a company network, how much, and how does an employer write a policy to manage it? Does an employee enjoy the same expectation of privacy for personal email transferred via POP3 or IMAP to a local company version of Outlook, compared to a email recovered from an HTTP browser cache? Does the employer have a duty to not attempt to recover deleted personal emails? Are employers allowed to snoop unless communication appears privileged? I don’t have a good answer, and it will be interesting to see what answer the court comes up with.

Surely an employee cannot enjoy an unqualified expectation of privacy by simply using non-company communications, because employers still have an interest in making sure that employees do not use personal accounts to transfer trade secrets, compete against the company, or download a virus.

We’ll keep an eye on this one.

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