Designer Skin LLC v. S & L Vitamins, Inc., et al.
Nancy K. Garrity, et al. v. John Hancock Mutual Life Ins. Co.
Civ. Act. No. 00-12143-RWZ, 2002 U.S.Dist. Lexis 8343 (D. Mass., May 7, 2002)
Court dismisses claims of invasion of privacy and violation of the Massachusetts Wiretap Act MGL c 272 §99 arising out of employer's review of e-mail sent and received by company employees. The e-mail in question was located by the company in both the personal password protected folders the employees maintained on the company's computers, as well as in the personal folders of other company employees who received e-mail from plaintiffs. The court held that plaintiffs' invasion of privacy claim failed because they had no reasonable expectation of privacy in their personal folders, given the company's existing e-mail usage policy. In that policy, the company reserved the right to examine all e-mail files. The court rejected plaintiffs' Massachusetts Wiretap Act claim because the e-mail at issue was not intercepted during transmission, as it was reviewed by the company only after it had been received by the intended recipient. The court accordingly granted defendant's motion for summary judgment and dismissed plaintiffs' lawsuit.
Plaintiffs were employees of defendant John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company ("John Hancock"). According to John Hancock, plaintiffs regularly received on their office computers sexually explicit e-mails from internet joke sites and others, which they then forwarded to co-workers via the company e-mail system. After an employee who received one of these e-mails complained, John Hancock commenced an investigation of e-mail contained in password protected personal folders maintained on the company's computers by both plaintiffs and other company employees. During this investigation, John Hancock discovered e-mail that violated John Hancock's prohibition against the sending or receipt of sexually oriented e-mail. As a result, plaintiffs' employment was terminated.
John Hancock's e-mail policy prohibited the sending of "sexually oriented" messages. It further provided that a violation of the company's e-mail policy could result in an employee's termination. In its policy, John Hancock reserved the right to "access all e-mail files". The policy further provided, however, that "it is not company policy to intentionally inspect e-mail usage. However, there may be business or legal situations that necessitate company review of e-mail messages and other documents." Company employees were periodically informed of employees who were disciplined for violation of this policy.
As a result of their termination, plaintiffs commenced this lawsuit, charging that defendant's inspection of the e-mails constituted both an invasion of plaintiffs' right of privacy, as well as a violation of the Massachusetts Wiretap Act. Rejecting both of these claims, the court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment, and dismissed the lawsuit.
To establish a claim for violation of one's right of privacy, a plaintiff must demonstrate a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location or item searched. The court held that such expectation was lacking here given the companies' stated e-mail policy. The Court further held that such an expectation was lacking because some of the e-mail had been sent by plaintiffs to other company employees, with the expectation that they would be forwarded to third parties. Indeed, plaintiff assumed that the recipients of their e-mails might forward them to others. Finally, plaintiffs had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the e-mails because, before they reached plaintiffs, they passed through portions of the company's system where others could view them.
In reaching this conclusion, the court rejected plaintiffs' argument that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the e-mails "because the company had instructed them on how to create passwords and personal e-mail folders."
In dicta, the court held that even if plaintiffs had a reasonable expectation of privacy, their invasion of privacy claim "would likely" be "trump[ed]" by defendant's legitimate business interest in protecting employees from harassment in the workplace. In so holding, the court noted that both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and MGL c 151B require employers to take both affirmative steps to investigate, and prompt remedial action, when potentially harassing conduct is discovered. The court record is silent, however, as to the existence of any such harassment in the case at bar.
The court rejected plaintiffs' Massachusetts Wiretap Act claim because the e-mails were not intercepted during their transmission, a perquisite to such a claim. Relying on Eagle v. Tamm, 146 F.Supp. 2d 105 (D. Mass. 2000) the court held that "the act of interception cannot proceed after the e-mail is received." As that was the case here, the court dismissed plaintiffs' Massachusetts Wiretap Act claim.
The full text of the court's decision can be found on a web site maintained by the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.