Work Email: Who Owns it?

Generally, employers own work email accounts.  Employers typically own the computer used to access the email, servers, and other data.  Accordingly, emails sent and received on work email accounts are the property of the employer and can generally be monitored by the employer.  Employees should not expect email messages to remain private.  Employees should also be aware that if the employer becomes involved in litigation, employee emails may need to be turned over as part of the discovery process.

Courts have varied in their conclusions on whether employees can reasonably believe their work emails are private.  Some courts have concluded an employee has no reasonable expectation of privacy while using their work email account.  Other cases have resulted in courts concluding employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy when accessing a private internet-based email account on their employer’s computer or server.  Additionally, courts have focused on company policy – determining whether an employee has a right to privacy in the email based on employer policy, employer email monitoring, third-party access to email, and notifications about company policy and monitoring.  Essentially, depending on the exact circumstance, most employers can likely monitor and access employee emails.

Because employers own work emails, if litigation arises, the employer may be required to turn over large amounts of employee emails.  The emails can be helpful because they may tend to show some relevant fact.  It can also be embarrassing or even harmful in litigation if those emails indicate employees acting inappropriately.

Employee handbooks and company policy are the first steps to preventing issues from arising in regards to work emails.  With a clear company policy in place, both the employees and employers are aware of email privacy and etiquette.  Without a clear company policy on employer access and employee use, there may be inappropriate use and access by both employers and employees.

If need assistance as either an employer or employee regarding the ownership and access to work email, attorneys Sean Foss and Sarah Aaberg can help you.  Contact O’Keeffe O’Brien Lyson Foss in Fargo, North Dakota to discuss your case or call 701-235-8000 or 877-235-8002.

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