No Expectation of Privacy in Work Email Accounts in Massachusetts

A Massachusetts Superior Court recently ruled that an employer did not violate an employee’s privacy by accessing his company email account.

In Falmouth Firefighters Union v. Town of Falmouth, the Town of Falmouth utilized Google Gmail for its email system. Each employee was assigned an email address and responsible for managing the account, though the Town retained administrator access to all of the accounts. Although the Town published an email policy stating that it had access to any messages transmitted or received on the system and that employees should not assume that messages were confidential or that the Town would not access messages, many employees used their Town email accounts for personal communication.

Emails of a Falmouth firefighter were accessed and reviewed during a sexual harassment investigation; the emails were of a personal and embarrassing nature. The firefighter, through the union, sued the Town, claiming that it had violated his privacy pursuant to the Massachusetts Privacy Act. Instead, the Superior Court ruled that the firefighter did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the email account absent any assurances from the Town that the account was private or confidential. The court declined to reach the issue of whether the Town’s email policy was an effective notice that Town employees should not expect any privacy or confidentiality in their work email accounts.

Although email policies that clearly state the employer’s right to access company email accounts and explicitly warn employees not to expect any privacy or confidentiality in such accounts should be adopted by all companies who have email services for their employees, the fact that a company hasn’t yet adopted such a policy should not restrict the employer’s ability to access company email accounts.