Most employers have established a policy regarding surveillance in the workplace. Typically, this type of policy states that the employees have no expectation of privacy and that telephones, internet use and emails may be monitored. In Georgia, an employer is permitted to monitor phones, email and internet use. However, case law is beginning to emerge that interpets when an employer may cross a line in interfering with an employee's privacy, such as where an employee uses a private email address for communications while using a company-owned computer, posting on social networking sites such as Facebook, etc.
A New Jersey case is illustrative of the challenges and evoluation of legal issues in this electronic age. In Stengart v. Loving Care Agency, the New Jersey Supreme court held that an employer was not permitted to read e-mails between an employee and her lawyer, even though she sent them using her work computer. The case is interesting because ordinarly, since the computer belonged to the employer, it had a right to monitor activity on such computer and therefore there was no invasion of privacy.
In addition, most company policies addressing surveillance do not specifically mention whether the use of a personal email address would be prohibited or would be subject to monitoring. And, the email communication was between the employee and her attorney, which raises other issues, such as the attorney-client privilege.
Steingart was using a personal, password-protected web-based e-mail account. She also thought that the e-mails, sent to her attorney (and related to a potential employment discrimination suit against her employer) were private. When Steingart later filed a discrimination suit against her employer, the employer retrieved the emails and attempted to used them as evidence, but the court refuse to allow them into evidence.
“[The employee] plainly took steps to protect the privacy of those e-mails and shield them from her employer. She used a personal, password-protected e-mail account instead of her company e-mail address and did not save the account’s password on her computer. … In addition, the e-mails bear a standard hallmark of attorney-client messages. They warn the reader directly that the e-mails are personal, confidential, and may be attorney-client communications,” the court said.
The court also found that the employee “had a subjective expectation of privacy in messages to and from her lawyer discussing the subject of a future lawsuit. In light of the language of the policy and the attorney-client nature of the communications, her expectation of privacy was also objectively reasonable.”
So, it is important that employers clearly set forth when employees do not have an expectation of privacy and that all modes of communication made from company telephones, BlackBerrys, PDAs, email accounts or from a company-owned computer may be subject to search and that no expectation of privacy exists in using such modes of communication.