Absent Employer Policy Employees May Have Privacy Interest in Emails Over Employer’s Email System

Employees may have a right to privacy at work.

Absent Employer Policy Of Either Monitoring Individual Email Accounts Or Prohibiting Use Of The Company’s Email Account For Personal Communications, Employees May Have Privacy Interest In Emails Over Employer’s Email System

Militello v. VFARM 1509, 89 Cal. App. 5th 602 (2023)

Shauneen Militello, Ann Lawrence Athey (Lawrence), and Rajesh Manek were the co-owners of Cannaco Research Corporation (CRC), a licensed manufacturer and distributor of cannabis products. All three individuals served as officers of CRC until Lawrence and Manek voted to remove Militello from her position. Militello sued Lawrence, Manek, and others, including Joel Athey, Lawrence’s husband, in a multicount complaint alleging causes of action for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and other torts.

Lawrence moved to disqualify Militello’s counsel, Spencer Hosie and Hosie Rice LLP, on the ground Militello had impermissibly downloaded from Lawrence’s CRC email account private communications between Lawrence and Athey, protected by the spousal communication privilege (Evid. Code, § 980), and provided them to her attorneys, who then used them in an attempt to obtain a receivership for CRC in a parallel proceeding. Militello opposed the motion, arguing in part Lawrence had no reasonable expectation her electronic communications with her husband were confidential because she knew Militello, as a director of CRC, had the right to review all communications on CRC’s corporate network. Militello also argued disqualification is not appropriate when a lawyer has received the adverse party’s privileged communications from his or her own client. The trial court granted the motion, finding that Militello had not carried her burden of establishing Lawrence had no reasonable expectation her communications with her husband would be private, and ordered the disqualification of Hosie and Hosie Rice.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the finding that Lawrence reasonably expected her communications were, and would remain, confidential. And while the Court of Appeal acknowledged that disqualification may not be an appropriate remedy when a client simply discusses with his or her lawyer improperly acquired privileged information, counsel’s knowing use of the opposing side’s privileged documents, however, obtained, is a ground for disqualification.