Investigating Employee Misconduct based on Electronic Evidence may be limited by the Weakness of an Employer’s Policies

The prevalence of e-mail and texting communications can aid an employer in its investigation of workplace misconduct; provided, the employer’s policy adequately preserves its right to access the data. However, overstepping rights to access e-mail and other electronic communication media can result in criminal prosecution under state and federal law.

Recent high profile firings of Philadelphia TV anchors highlight the role of electronic evidence in an employer’s investigations and the pitfalls of illegal access to private computer data, in this case by an employee. Fired TV newscaster Larry Mendte was charged July 21, 2008 with hacking into the e-mail of his younger co-anchor. Mendte was previously fired based on an independent investigation by CBS as he allegedly hacked into Lane’s e-mail account from work and home and then revealed information to news outlets about Lane’s legal troubles. Lane was fired in January by CBS after she was accused of assaulting a New York City Police Officer and other public gaffes which gained media attention. Lane since sued KYW-TV, claiming that the station exploited her, tore her down and defamed her on her way out the door. She also claims that KYW management failed to investigate leaks of personal information about her and also engaged in a pattern of "deep-seated gender-discriminatory animus" toward her and other female employees. Undoubtedly, CBS’s investigation into the circumstances of both firings will be the critical issues in subsequent lawsuits.

Federal and State laws protect employers and employees from unauthorized access to computers, servers and electronic data. There may be additional limitations on an employer’s access to employee e-mails and text messages sent from employer accounts when the messages are stored on third party provider’s servers and are not stored on employer’s internal network. In Quon v. Arch Wireless Operating Co. Inc., a federal appeals court in California held that a public employer cannot access the content of text messages and e-mails sent at work because the data was stored on a third party service provider’s server and the employees had a reasonable expectation of privacy in these accounts. An employer’s e-mail policy may eliminate the expectation of privacy as to e-mails stored on its servers. However, the text messages held by “remote computing service” are protected under the Stored Communications Act and cannot be obtained by an employer without the employee’s consent.

Employers must carefully draft policies related to employee use and access to all electronic media so as to preserve its property interest in the data, ensure rights to unfettered access and prevent misuse of the media and information.