Keep up with the latest developments and legal issues in the telecommunications and emerging technology sectors, with exclusive access to a comprehensive collection of telecommunications law news,...
May 25 — A former municipal authority employee can pursue a claim that his employer accessed his Yahoo! Inc. e-mail account without authorization, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia held May 24 ( Hoofnagle v. Smyth-Wythe Airport Comm'n, W.D. Va., No. 1:15-cv-00008-JPJ-PMS, 5/24/16 ).
Using an e-mail account for work and personal reasons on a work computer didn't make the authority an entity providing an electronic communications service, Judge James P. Jones said. Work-related e-mails also didn't make the authority a user of the account, the court said.
The decision highlights the importance of respecting process when attempting to retrieve business communications from former employees, even when the employer is legally entitled to retrieve them. The court sustained the claims at the summary judgment stage even without evidence of any damages, as the commission didn't have any electronic resources policies.
The Stored Communication Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. § 2701, provides a private cause of action for unauthorized access to stored e-mails, but exempts electronic communications service providers and end users.
Plaintiff Charles Hoofnagle was an operations manager at an airport operated by defendant Smith-Wythe Airport Commission, a municipal entity. Hoofnagle established a Yahoo e-mail account with the username “charliemkj,” which referred to his name and the airport's Federal Aviation Administration code. He used it on Commission computers for personal and airport business.
Hoofnagle, a National Rifle Association member, sent U.S. Senator Tim Kaine an aggressive advocacy e-mail from the account. In response, the Commission terminated his employment for signing the e-mail using his job title and the airport's name.
Following his termination, the Commission's chairman logged in to Hoofnagle's e-mail account to search for and recoup airport documents. The chairman logged in using a password provided by the airport secretary.
Hoofnagle brought claims against the Commission under the SCA, as well as First and Fourth Amendment claims, arguing the Commission accessed his account without or in excess of authorization. The Commission moved for summary judgment on all claims.
The court said it couldn't dismiss Hoofnagle's claims because the Commission's authorization to access the e-mails couldn't be determined without a trial. Hoofnagle and the Commission disputed whether Hoofnagle provided the secretary with his password or stayed logged in to the account on the airport's computer.
The Commission argued it fell within SCA exceptions for electronic communications providers or for users, but the court disagreed. Yahoo, not the Commission, provided the e-mail account, and there wasn't any evidence that the e-mails were downloaded and stored on the Commission's computers, the court said. The Commission wasn't the user of the Yahoo account because Hoofnagle established the account in his own name, not on behalf of the Commission.
The Commission also argued Hoofnagle couldn't maintain an SCA claim because he didn't suffer damages. But the court said Hoofnagle could be entitled to punitive damages and his attorneys' fees if he could prove a willful violation, even in the absence of any actual damages.
The court dismissed the Fourth Amendment claim because the Commission conducted a reasonably limited search for a legitimate work purpose. It dismissed the First Amendment claim because by signing the e-mail with his job title, he was speaking for his employer and not himself. The court also said he was fired for signing the e-mail in that manner rather than for the content of his speech.
Guynn & Waddell PC represented the commission. The Hawkins Law Firm PC represented Hoofnagle.
To contact the reporter on this story: Joseph Wright in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Alexis Kramer at email@example.com
All Bloomberg BNA treatises are available on standing order, which ensures you will always receive the most current edition of the book or supplement of the title you have ordered from Bloomberg BNA’s book division. As soon as a new supplement or edition is published (usually annually) for a title you’ve previously purchased and requested to be placed on standing order, we’ll ship it to you to review for 30 days without any obligation. During this period, you can either (a) honor the invoice and receive a 5% discount (in addition to any other discounts you may qualify for) off the then-current price of the update, plus shipping and handling or (b) return the book(s), in which case, your invoice will be cancelled upon receipt of the book(s). Call us for a prepaid UPS label for your return. It’s as simple and easy as that. Most importantly, standing orders mean you will never have to worry about the timeliness of the information you’re relying on. And, you may discontinue standing orders at any time by contacting us at 1.800.960.1220 or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Put me on standing order at a 5% discount off list price of all future updates, in addition to any other discounts I may quality for. (Returnable within 30 days.)
Notify me when updates are available (No standing order will be created).
This Bloomberg BNA report is available on standing order, which ensures you will all receive the latest edition. This report is updated annually and we will send you the latest edition once it has been published. By signing up for standing order you will never have to worry about the timeliness of the information you need. And, you may discontinue standing orders at any time by contacting us at 1.800.372.1033, option 5, or by sending us an email to email@example.com.
Put me on standing order
Notify me when new releases are available (no standing order will be created)