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January 25, 2012

The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently held that a principal and a teacher who exchanged intimate messages through their personal email accounts could proceed with their invasion of privacy claims against school employees who allegedly improperly accessed and distributed the emails.  (Coughlin v. Arlington, D. Mass., No. 10-10203-MLW, December 19, 2011).  The court, however, barred the principal and teacher from arguing that they had a privacy interest in explicit school email account messages.


The principal and teacher were employed at a middle school in the Arlington School District.  Shortly after the superintendent of the District was hired, tensions began to mount between the principal and the superintendent.  The superintendent and a school network technician began monitoring the principal's school email account after receiving an anonymous note alleging that the principal and a teacher were engaged in an improper relationship.  In some of the emails they accessed on the principal's school email account they found the credentials for the principal's personal, non-school email account.  They then accessed the principal's personal email account and found messages between the principal and the teacher that were more explicit.  The email messages from both accounts were used as a basis for terminating the teacher and the principal.


In 2007, the principal and teacher filed suit in Superior Court seeking, among other things, to prevent the release of the emails to the press.  The Superior Court held that their school account emails were public records in which the plaintiffs had no privacy interests.  The Superior Court stated, "all email created or received by an employee of a government unit is a public record...and all email messages are subject to public access and disclosure through the Public Records Law."  (Coughlin v. John Doe, No. 07-3100 (Mass. Super. Ct. Dec. 11, 2007)).  The Court also noted that the School District had instructed its employees that they should not expect their school email messages to be private.  The District Court, therefore, dismissed the plaintiffs' invasion of privacy claims to the extent they were premised on having a privacy interest in the school email messages, as that issue had already been decided by the Superior Court.


The District Court, however, refused to dismiss the plaintiffs' invasion of privacy claims to the extent they were based on the School District having accessed a personal email account and having disseminated its contents.  The Court found such an intrusion on the plaintiffs' privacy to be "unreasonable" under the Massachusetts privacy statute, M.G.L. c. 214, 1B, in part because the details of the plaintiffs' relationship were already available in their school emails.


Public employers are cautioned by the Superior Court's decision in Coughlin that any monitoring of employees' personal email accounts without permission or notice could amount to an invasion of privacy, depending on the nature of the emails and whether the intrusion is unreasonable, substantial or serious.


Employers contemplating monitoring of their employees' email accounts are well advised to confer with legal counsel prior to doing so.

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Mirick O'Connell

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This client alert is intended to inform you of developments in the law and to provide information of general interest.  It is not intended to constitute legal advice regarding a client's specific legal issues and should not be relied upon as such.  This client alert may be considered advertising under the rules of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.