Airport Effort to Avoid E-Mail Snooping Claim Doesn't Fly

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By Joseph Wright

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.

Airport Employee E-Mail Account

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.

Dispute Over Password, Rights

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 jwright@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Alexis Kramer at akramer@bna.com