In Stengart v. Loving Care Agency, 2009 N.J. Super. LEXIS 143 (App. Div. June 26, 2009), a New Jersey appellate court refused to enforce a provision in an employer’s electronic communications policy that purported to give the employer ownership of all employee personal communications on the employer’s system. The particular messages at issue were sent by an executive to her attorney on her personal, password-protected Web mail account. The opinion contains some valuable reminders for employers that promulgate such policies, and a caution for attorneys who may be called upon to review such communications.

The technical details involved in communicating via a Web mail service such as Google’s G-Mail or Yahoo! Mail are not something that most users think about often, or perhaps ever. It may appear to a user that all of the computing operations involving the use a Web mail service take place remotely, on the servers of the Web mail service, but that may not be the case. Unbeknownst to most users, some Web mail services save “cache” or temporary files on the user’s local computer, files that may contain copies of the user’s e-mails.

If that local computer belongs to an employer, the employee may have unknowingly exposed the contents of personal e-mail to scrutiny by the employer. A New Jersey court recently held that an employee who accessed her personal Web mail account using her employer’s laptop not only waived her privacy rights in the contents of those e-mails, she waived her attorney-client privilege in the contents as well.