Judge Gants Issues Decision on Waiver of Attorney-Client Privilege When Client Uses Password-Protected, Web-Based Email on a Company Computer

by Lee Gesmer on September 18, 2006

Litigation. Lawyers love to argue about attorney-client privilege. What could be juicier than to find out what your adversary in litigation said to his or her attorney, believing it to be covered by this privilege, a privilege that is so sacrosanct that the Supreme Court has ruled that it extends beyond the grave?

Nevertheless, the attorney-client privilege can easily be lost or waived. For example, if the communication is revealed to a non-attorney third party, it risks waiver.

The world of computer technology and email has given rise to new grist for the waiver doctrine. Most companies inform their employees (in employee manuals, for example) that communications utilizing the company’s internal email system are open to review and examination by the employer. According, it is established law that an employee who uses her employer’s email system to communicate with an attorney has waived the privilege. Most lawyers, aware of this, instruct their clients who wish to communicate from work to use an Internet-based email system, such as Google’s Gmail or Yahoo Mail. The theory is that since the employer doesn’t have access to these emails and the emails are protected by a user name and password, they retain their privilege.

This assumption was challenged in a recent case before Judge Gants, sitting in the Massachusetts Business Litigation Session. In this case, NERA v. Evans, the former employer argued that since, unbeknownst to the former employee, the computer used by the employee (who was now suing the company) stored screen shots of the emails, which were then technically accessible to the employer, the privilege had been waived. Judge Gants rejected this argument, but he did posit a “test” that, until something better comes along, should be viewed as highly persuasive precedent, at least in Massachusetts. Judge Gants stated:

The bottom line is that if an employer wishes to read an employee’s attorney-client communications unintentionally stored in a temporary file on a company-owned computer that were made via a private, password-protected e-mail account accessed through the Internet, not the company’s Intranet, the employer must plainly communicate to the employee that:

1. All such emails are stored on the hard disk of the company’s computer in a “screen shot” temporary file; and

2. the company expressly reserves the right to retrieve those temporary files and read them.

Frankly, I don’t expect many companies to adopt such a policy, but at least there is some guidance on this issue from a well-respected Massachusetts Superior Court judge.

Previous post:

Next post: