The Applicability of Privileges to Employees’ Personal E-Mails: The Errors Caused by the Confusion between Privilege Confidentiality and Other Notions of Privacy

30 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2013

See all articles by Edward J. Imwinkelried

Edward J. Imwinkelried

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: December 2, 2013

Abstract

Americans will generate approximately seven trillion e-mails this year. Each year employees send hundreds of billions of e-mails from their work accounts. Some of these e-mails relate to personal matters, including communications with spouses and confidants such as attorneys and therapists. Yet, many employers have formal policies both prohibiting personal use of the work account and reserving the employer's right to monitor e-mails sent through the work account. The question has arisen whether the traditional privileges such as attorney-client and spousal attach to e-mails sent through the employee's work account. Does the employer policy negate the confidentiality ordinarily required for the privilege to attach? That general issue has triggered a number of splits of authority. Two are especially noteworthy. One question is whether the same confidentiality standard applies whether the employee is asserting the privilege against the employer or a third party. Some courts have indicated that the employee may invoke the privilege against a third party even when the employee could not assert the privilege against the employer. A second question is whether the existence of an employer policy automatically precludes privileges from attaching. Some courts have adopted a flexible, multi-factor test including such considerations as whether the employer actually monitors or has made inconsistent representations to the employee. However, other courts -- the majority -- have ruled that the existence of the employer policy is dispositive, precluding any privilege claim by the employee. This article criticizes the view that the confidentiality standard varies as well as the view that the existence of an employer policy is dispositive. Both views distort the basic concept of confidentiality. The first view is flawed because the concept of confidentiality requires the holder's intent to exclude all parties outside the circle of confidence. The employer is not within the circle including the employee and his or her confidant. Thus, if the employee impliedly consents to the employer's monitoring, there is no privilege to assert -- whether the opposing litigant is the employer or a third party. The second view is equally unsound. That view confuses the normative meaning of reasonable expectation in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence with the factual meaning of reasonable expectation in privilege law. Confidentiality is the central concept in modern privilege law. Three quarters of the published opinions addressing privilege issues turn on the confidentiality concept. The courts must resolve the modern disputes over the applicability of privileges to employees' e-mails on work accounts without distorting that basic concept.

Keywords: confidentiality, privacy, privilege, attorney-client, spousal, and employee e-mails.

Suggested Citation

Imwinkelried, Edward J., The Applicability of Privileges to Employees’ Personal E-Mails: The Errors Caused by the Confusion between Privilege Confidentiality and Other Notions of Privacy (December 2, 2013). Michigan State Law Review, Forthcoming; UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 362. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2362488

Edward J. Imwinkelried (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States

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