Tacit Consent to E-mail Snooping

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Thanks to a New Jersey court ruling, if you’re one of the many people who check their personal email at work, you might be concerned. Forgetting to log off a public computer could be even more stressful after a jury found that failing to log off constituted tacit authorization to snoop around. The case, Marcus v. Rogers, included excerpts from the emails in question.

On June 28, a New Jersey Appellate Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling in a digital snooping case in an unpublished opinion. The court found no error in a trial judge’s refusal to grant summary judgment for the plaintiffs based on the evidence presented throughout the trial.

The defendant, a teacher, sat down in the computer lab of the school to check his email before work. When he put down his drink on the desk between two computers, he woke up the inactive computer next to him and revealed another teacher’s private email. After noticing some of the messages in the Yahoo inbox mentioned him, the defendant read and printed the emails. He then confronted the plaintiffs with the emails. The plaintiffs filed a claim under N.J.S.A. 2A:156A-27, which prohibits unauthorized access of computer files or emails.

At several points during the trial, the plaintiffs moved for summary judgment, but the trial judge refused to grant them based on the evidence. A jury eventually heard the questions of whether the defendant had “tacit authorization” to access the account and whether the defendant exceeded such authorization. All seven jurors found that the defendant had been granted tacit authorization to view the email after the plaintiff failed to log out, and six of the seven jurors found that the defendant did not exceed the tacit authorization by accessing and printing the messages.

The court also found that the various motions were properly denied since there was little evidence of any damage to the plaintiffs. All plaintiffs remained employed and were reelected to their teachers’ association positions. The appellate court said that the jury was free to discredit any testimony presented by the plaintiffs that their reputations were harmed.

The Appellate Court found that the evidence throughout the trial did not support a grant of summary judgment for the plaintiffs and refused to address the plaintiffs’ remaining objections in a written opinion. The court ruling will certainly make people check twice before getting up to leave a public computer, and although the ruling might seem like a grant to read through your friends’ email, it’s best to stay on the safe side and keep out.