California Court Rules Employee\'s Emails to Attorney Not Privileged When Sent Via Employer\'s E-mail System

February 16, 2011

By: Jessica C. Moller

An appellate court in California recently held that an employee’s email exchanges with an attorney via the employee’s work email account were not protected by the attorney-client privilege, Holmes v. Petrovich Development Co. According to the Court’s opinion, when Gina Holmes began working for Petrovich Development Co., she read and signed the company’s employee handbook, which contained a policy regarding use of the company’s technology resources. The policy advised employees that: (1) the company’s technology resources, such as computers and email accounts, were for business purposes only; (2) employees had no expectation of privacy in the information or messages “created or maintained” on the company’s technology resources, including any emails sent or received on a company email account; and (3) the company could “inspect all files or messages … at any time for any reason at its discretion” and would periodically monitor files and messages. When Holmes got into an argument with the CEO about becoming pregnant a month after being hired, she exchanged two emails with an attorney via her company email account in which she explained her situation and asked about her rights. The next day, and after meeting with the attorney, Holmes quit her job claiming a hostile work environment and constructive discharge.

Holmes subsequently brought suit against the company. The trial court granted summary judgment dismissing some of her claims, and a jury found for Petrovich on the remaining claims, including invasion of privacy.  On appeal, Holmes argued, among other things, that the trial court erred in permitting the e-mails to her attorney to be entered in evidence, contending they were protected by the attorney-client privilege. Such communications between an attorney and client can be privileged. For example, in Stengart v. Loving Care Agency, Inc., emails sent by an employee at work via her personal email account were held to be privileged where the employer’s policy permitted employees to use company computers for “occasional personal use.” In Holmes, however, the Court held that because Holmes had been advised of the company’s technology resources policy before the emails were exchanged, but nonetheless chose to engage in an email exchange via her company email account, Holmes’ emails with the attorney were not privileged. As the Court held: “… the e-mails sent via company computer under the circumstances of this case were akin to consulting her lawyer in her employer’s conference room, in a loud voice, with the door open, so that any reasonable person would expect that their discussion of her complaints about her employer would be overheard by [her employer]. By using the company’s computer to communicate with her lawyer, knowing the communications violated company computer policy and could be discovered by her employer due to company monitoring of e-mail usage,” the emails lost any protection they otherwise would have had.

While the question of whether attorney-client communications over an employer’s computer network are protected is not a settled issue, and turns on the facts of the case, the lesson to employers from the Holmes case is clear. Employers should institute and disseminate to employees an appropriate technology resources policy that makes clear employees have no right to privacy in the emails they send or receive via an employer email account and that such emails can be monitored by the employer at any time.