Private Investigations and Personal Security/Laws regarding personal email accounts privacy


QUESTION: I have proof that my former employer was reading my personal emails after I'd been terminated.  Is this legal for him to do?


When you say your employer was reading your emails, do you mean they were reading your current email accounts? Or were they reading emails that were left on the company's system?

Let me know the answer to that and I can answer your question.



---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------


Thank you for your quick reply.

I was terminated for using my personal [Yahoo] email while I was at work.  My employer sent me proof of these emails (copies of emails time stamped and dated) as evidence to appeal my unemployment benefit.  In the stack of documents he sent me, there are two screen shots of my Yahoo account with emails dated 7/07/09 and 7/08/09.  I was terminated 6/30/09.  That means he was reading and looking into my personal email after I was no longer employed by him.  I live in, and this occurred in the state of GA.  I would like to know if this is legal?

On a side note, the password to my Yahoo account was (stupidly) saved on my work computer by me.  This is how he was able to access my account.  So technically, there was no "hacking" involved.  But still, the fact remains that I was no longer employed by him and the company.  What do you know about the laws governing these types of situations in the state of GA?  Thank you in advance for your help.


Hi Van-

If I have already answered this question, excuse me for the repetition.

Georgia's privacy laws, as in many states, is rather nebulous on the question of email privacy.

One of the questions I have is whether or not you checked the box on Yahoo that allows you to stay logged in for two weeks, before it closes out. Do you remember whether or not that was the case?

A recent (2009) article in the Wall Street Journal , the essence of which is set forth in the following article outlines some of the challenges you may face if you wish to bring a civil lawsuit for invasion of privacy:

By now, many employees are uncomfortably aware that their every keystroke at work, from email on office computers to text messages on company phones, can be monitored legally by their employers.

What employees typically don't expect is for the company to spy on them while on password-protected sites using nonwork computers. But even that privacy could be in jeopardy.

A case brewing in federal court in New Jersey pits bosses against two employees who were complaining about their workplace on an invite-only discussion group on, a social-networking site owned by News Corp., publisher of The Wall Street Journal. The case tests whether a supervisor who managed to log into the forum -- and then fired employees who badmouthed supervisors and customers there -- had the right to do so.

Photo Illustration by The Wall Street Journal

The case has some legal and privacy experts concerned that companies are intruding into areas that their employees had considered off limits.

"The question is whether employees have a right to privacy in their non-work-created communications with each other. And I would think the answer is that they do," said Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment expert and partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP in New York.

The legal landscape is murky. For the most part, employers don't need a reason to fire nonunion workers. But state laws in California, New York and Connecticut protect employees who engage in lawful, off-duty activities from being fired or disciplined, according to a report prepared by attorneys at the firm Proskauer Rose LLP. While private conversations might be covered under those laws, none of the statutes specifically addresses social networking or blogging. Thus, privacy advocates expect to see more of these legal challenges.

In February, three police officers in Harrison, N.Y., were suspended after they allegedly made lewd remarks about the town mayor on a Facebook account. The officers mistakenly thought the remarks were protected with a password, but city officials viewed the page, said Harrison police chief David Hall. The remarks about Mayor Joan Walsh might have violated the officer's code of conduct, he said.

Mr. Hall said the town board was considering firing the officers. The policemen have asked a federal judge in White Plains, N.Y., to limit the town of Harrison's inquiry into the online postings, citing privacy concerns, said Donald Feerick, the officers' attorney. Calls to Ms. Walsh weren't returned.

The case in New Jersey centers on two employees of Houston's restaurant in Hackensack, bartender Brian Pietrylo and waitress Doreen Marino, who in 2006 created and contributed to a forum about their workplace on Mr. Pietrylo emailed invitations to co-workers, who then had to log in using a personal email address and a password.
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"I just thought this would be a nice way to vent...without any eyes outside spying in on us. This group is entirely private," Mr. Pietrylo wrote in his introduction to the forum, according to court filings.

On the forum, Mr. Pietrylo and Ms. Marino, who was his girlfriend, made fun of Houston's decor and patrons, and made sexual jokes. They also made negative comments about their supervisors.

The supervisors were tipped off to the forum by Karen St. Jean, a restaurant hostess, who logged into her account at an after-hours gathering with a Houston's manager to show him the site. They all had a laugh, Ms. St. Jean said in a court deposition, and she didn't think any more about it.

But later, another supervisor called Ms. St. Jean into his office and asked her for her email and password to the forum. The login information was passed up the supervisory chain, where restaurant managers viewed the comments.

The following week, Mr. Pietrylo and Ms. Marino were fired. Houston's managers have said in court filings that the pair's online posts violated policies set out in an employee handbook, which include professionalism and a positive attitude. A lawyer for Hillstone Restaurant Group, which owns Houston's, declined to comment.

In their lawsuit, Ms. Marino and Mr. Pietrylo claim that their managers illegally accessed their online communications in violation of federal wiretapping statutes and that the managers also violated their privacy under New Jersey law.

But the courts might not view online musings as private communication. "You can't post something on the Internet and claim breach of privacy when someone sees it," said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J.

Ms. St. Jean said in a deposition she feared she would be fired if she didn't give up her password, a twist in the case that Mr. Maltby says could sway a jury against the company.

Labor and legal experts say the outcome of many employee privacy cases hinges on workers' expectations of their privacy rights -- particularly whether they have been given notice that they are subject to monitoring. In the Houston's case, the workers had no idea their online activities outside of work could be monitored, says their attorney, Fred J. Pisani. A trial is set for June 9th.

Hope this helps!



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Nichols (Nic) J. Smith


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