Employers can read any e-mails sent using company-owned computers or other devices, as long as they inform employees they should have no expectation the communication is confidential. That’s true even of e-mails an employee sends to an attorney to discuss a potential lawsuit against the employer.
Recent case: When Gina Holmes was hired as an administrative assistant at Petrovich Development, she didn’t reveal she was pregnant. She didn’t share the news until after she received test results indicating her pregnancy was normal.
Her new supervisor was upset, especially since Holmes said she might be out onfor up to four months during the company’s busiest time of year. The two exchanged a series of e-mails about the issue—and Holmes then forwarded the e-mail chain to a lawyer, requesting a referral to a labor attorney.
When Holmes was hired, she received a copy of the company handbook. The document clearly stated that employees have no right to use company computers for personal business, and that the company could read anything sent through the system. It specifically warned employees that they had no right to privacy if they used the system for personal communications.
Company executives read e-mails Holmes sent to the attorney, printed them out and used them as evidence against her when she sued. Holmes argued the e-mails were privileged.
The court said they weren’t because she should have known her employer would read them. It tossed out her case. (Holmes v. Petrovich Development, No. C059133, Court of Appeal of California, 2011)