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District Court Rules In Favor of Work Email Privacy

By Minara El-Rahman on December 16, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The DC Federal District Court has ruled in favor of work email privacy even if those messages are personal ones.

The Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press reports that the court ruled that a U.S. attorney's personal emails are private even if they are from a work issued email address. The ruling was surprising because most employees expect that they have no rights to privacy when it comes to work issued email addresses. According to The National Law Journal, the ruling hinged on the essential fact that federal prosecutors are allowed to use their work issued email addresses for personal use.

According to the ruling: "The DOJ maintains a policy that does not ban personal use of the company email. Although the DOJ does have access to personal emails sent through this account, Mr. Tukel was unaware that they would be regularly accessing and saving emails sent from his account. Because his expectations were reasonable, Mr. Tukel's private emails will remain protected by the attorney-client privilege."

This falls in line with a blog post we wrote in Free Enterprise: "The Wall Street Journal reports that courts are increasingly ruling that if companies have not explicitly told employees that they are monitoring employee emails, then they don't have the legal right to do it. And the scary part? That has happened even when the email in question was sent from a workplace email account, not a personal email address."

This also accompanies the Supreme Court's recent decision to hear a case over employees' right to privacy when it comes to text messages on work issued devices.

What is the lesson for employers and employees right now? Employers should be explicit if they plan to monitor their employees' work emails and messages. Employees should check the details of their employers' work email policies to make decisions about what level of privacy they can reasonably expect. 

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