SW Legal Educational Publishing

Employee E-Mail
Description Employees may send personal e-mails at work just as they have personal phone conversations, but there is no right to privacy in the emails. California courts have held that employers have the right to monitor employee e-mail. A federal court held that an employee who was fired for the contents of an e-mail he sent on a company computer had no grounds for suit for wrongful termination.
Topic Cyberlaw
Key Words Employee E-Mail, Privacy
Summary Employees may send and receive personal e-mails at work just as they have personal phone conversations. But e-mails are easier for other employees or the employer to monitor than are phone calls. While the law is not yet settled, California courts have held that employers have the right to monitor employee e-mail. A class suit by Epson employees against the company for routinely printing and reading all employee e-mail was dismissed by the court because there was no privacy right. A federal district court held that an employee who was fired for the contents of an e-mail he sent on a company computer had no grounds for suit for wrongful termination; Smith v. Pillsbury Co., 914 F.Supp. 97 (E.D. Pa., 1996). The employee had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his e-mails sent from the office and, in any event, an offensive e-mail that injures workplace relationships or damages the company in other way is clearly grounds for termination, even if the employee had been told that e-mail was confidential.

An employer may be liable for e-mail sent by an employee that results in litigation. However, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has a Good Samaritan provision that may relieve the employer of liability if it took action to regulate use of its computer network. Employers should make clear they will not tolerate e-mail that is harassing, or otherwise objectionable.

Not showing a clear intent to at least attempt to prevent abuse of e-mail system by having clear rules about proper use can be expensive. Chevron paid $2.2 million in 1995 to satisfy sexual harassment claims of women employees based on dirty jokes transmitted around the office e-mail system.

See Ballon, Intellectual Property Protection and Related Third Party Liability, 482 PLI/Pat 559.

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