eDiscovery Daily Blog

eDiscovery Case Law: When is Attorney-Client Communication NOT Privileged?

One answer: When it’s from your work email account, and your employer has a written policy that company email is not private and subject to audit.  Oh, and you’re suing your employer.

In Holmes v. Petrovich Dev. Co., LLC, 2011 WL 117230 (Cal. Ct. App. Jan. 13, 2011), a California court of appeals upheld a trial court ruling that emails from a plaintiff to her attorney via her company’s computer “did not constitute ‘confidential communication between client and lawyer’ within the meaning of Evidence Code section 952” and thus were not privileged.

The plaintiff, Gina Holmes worked as an executive assistant at Petrovich Development of Sacramento, California.  When hired, she read and signed the company’s policies regarding use of computers, which informed employees that they had no right of privacy to any personal information created or maintained on company computers, and that such information was subject to monitoring.

Holmes claimed Petrovich Development became hostile when it found out she was pregnant shortly after being hired in 2004 and used her company’s computer to communicate with an attorney, eventually quitting her job and suing her employer.  During the case, emails between her and her attorney were introduced at trial “to show Holmes did not suffer severe emotional distress, was only frustrated and annoyed, and filed the action at the urging of her attorney”.  Despite plaintiff’s protests that the emails were privileged, they were not excluded from evidence at trial.  Rather, the trial court ruled that the emails “were not protected … because they were not private.”  Because the plaintiff did not prevail on any of her claims, she appealed, claiming the court erred in failing to exclude the emails.

In a 3-0 decision by the Sacramento Third Appellate District, they affirmed the findings of the trial court, stating that the plaintiff’s use of the company computer after being expressly advised that her messages were not private was “akin to consulting her attorney in one of defendants’ conference rooms, in a loud voice, with the door open, yet unreasonably expecting that the conversation overheard … would be privileged.”.  The court also noted that “communication under these circumstances is not a “‘confidential communication between client and lawyer’ “ within the meaning of section 952 because it is not transmitted “by a means which, so far as the client is aware, discloses the information to no third persons other than those who are present to further the interest of the client in the consultation….”.

So, what do you think?  Was justice served?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.