Using Company Email to Communicate with Your Employment Lawyer

The sanctity of the attorney-client relationship is a fundamental pillar of our legal system, recognized throughout the public and private sector. “[T]he attorney-client privilege is the oldest privilege recognized for confidential communications at common law and is intended ‘to encourage full and frank communications between attorneys and their clients and thereby promote broader public interests in the observance of law and the administration of justice.’” Grimes v. Dept. of Navy, 99 M.S.P.R. 7, 11 (2005) (quoting Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383, 389, 101 S.Ct. 677, 66 L.Ed.2d 584 (1981)). “The attorney-client privilege protects confidential disclosures made by a client to an attorney in order to obtain legal advice,…as well as an attorney’s advice in response to such disclosures.” United States v. Chen, 99 F.3d 1495, 1501 (9th Cir. 1996) (quotation omitted), cert. denied, 520 U.S. 1167, 117 S.Ct. 1429, 137 L.Ed.2d 538 (1997). The attorney-client privilege falls into the class of absolute privileges. Swidler & Berlin v. United States, 524 U.S. 399, 409, 118 S.Ct. 2081, 141 L.Ed.2d 379 (1998). If you are engaged in an attorney-client relationship with counsel at the time of particular communications, then an absolute privilege should apply to those communications.

However, what if you learn that your employer, either intentionally or inadvertently, has come into possession of attorney-client emails sent through a work email account? First, if you learn that attorney-client communications or attorney work product documents are in the employer’s possession, you should immediately seek return of such communications. You should advise the employer that you consider the documents to be attorney-client privileged communications (and possibly attorney work product privileged as well). You should be clear that it is not your intention to waive any attorney-client, work product, or other privileges that apply to these documents.
You can also remind your employer that, under Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(5)(B), after being notified of an inadvertent disclosure of privileged information, “a party must promptly return, sequester, or destroy the specified information and any copies it has; must not use or disclose the information until the claim is resolved; must take reasonable steps to retrieve the information if the party disclosed it before being notified; and may promptly present the information to the court under seal for a determination of the claim.” “Once a party claims the attorney-client privilege, the communication sought to be suppressed is presumed confidential.” La Jolla Cove Motel and Hotel Apartments, Inc., v. Superior Court, 121 Cal.App.4th 773, 791 (2004) (citing Cal.Evid.Code, § 917).
Generally, you can put your employer on notice that the ethical canons of the legal profession preclude the employer from searching intentionally to discover privileged information in an employee’s email account, knowing that such information is subject to an asserted or very likely attorney-client or work-product privilege. Such would include all communications between an employee and his/her employment lawyer. The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, “Formal Opinion 92-368: Inadvertent Disclosure of Confidential Materials (1992),” makes clear that counsel should not seek to review information it has reason to believe was inadvertently disclosed.
If the employer is trying to hold against you something you discussed with your employment attorney on a company email system, you should also remind the employer that privileged communications do not lose their privileged character because they are communicated electronically. See California’s Evidence Code § 917(b). See also, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 2517(4) (wiretap law recognizing that electronic communications may have privileged character); Kintera, Inc. v. Convio, Inc., 219 F.R.D. 503, 514 (S.D. Cal. 2003) (applying attorney-client privilege to email communications). However, attorney-client privilege can be waived, and if the privilege is waived, then those communications may be fair game for employers to use.
The “sacred” attorney-client privilege can be waived “implicitly” only under rare, defined circumstances (see Bittaker v. Woodford, 331 F.3d 715, 718-721 (9th Cir. 2003)), such as (for example) in a legal malpractice action, where the attorney-client communications are directly placed at issue in the litigation. On the other hand, an “express waiver occurs when a party discloses privileged information to a third party who is not bound by the privilege, or otherwise shows disregard for the privilege by making the information public.” Id. at 719. By communicating to the employer seeking return of disclosed information immediately after learning of its disclosure, you convey a strong desire to maintain the privilege. On the other hand, if you forward your attorney’s email to someone else not involved in the attorney-client relationship, you have likely implicitly waived the privilege as to that particular communication.
It is the present policy of Bryan Schwartz Law to communicate as little as possible, or not at all, with clients on their work email, because, at the very least, it creates a headache in subsequent litigation when an employer inadvertently discovers attorney-client communications and tries to use them in the case. However, I believe strongly that privileges between employees and their attorneys – not to mention, prisoners emailing their attorneys, and other attorney-client email relationships – would be of little value if, by disclaimer, “Big Brother” could simply deem all communications via particular media as non-confidential, such that privilege would be waived inherently and broadly. Many employees in the workforce do not have private email apart from their work email accounts, and thus would not be able to email their attorneys at all. Perhaps all work email (not only that of the employer against whom a party is litigating) – by virtue of the fact that a non-attorney administrator can access it – would be unprivileged, including all emails sent by attorneys to clients from the attorneys’ own law firms’ email accounts. By this rule, all of the emails between the employer and the employer’s own attorneys regarding your case would also be unprivileged, because privilege was waived when they utilized the company’s email system. Perhaps all email sent via Gmail, Yahoo, Comcast, SBC, and Hotmail would also be unprivileged, since there are no doubt skilled individuals who can access our emails sent via these services as well.[1]
In sum, while the danger of inadvertent disclosure during discovery makes attorney-client communications by work email not a “best practice,” it does not mean that all attorneys and all clients who communicate via a work email have waived their sacred rights. In practice, many or most employers tolerate usage of work email for some personal uses. If the employer demonstrated a widespread enforcement of a “no personal use” policy, such that you and individuals known to you were being routinely counseled and disciplined for using their email to send greetings to spouses or friends, or, if the employer’s email system generally prevented outside emails all together, then perhaps you would be on clear notice that your emails were being monitored and would have a reasonable belief they were non-confidential. However, just because we are aware in the abstract that someone (like a forensic software examiner or technology specialist) could figure out how to probe our email accounts, is not the same as knowing that each of our emails is being actively monitored. By way of contrast, when one calls a credit card company, the phone system indicates on every call that you are “being monitored and recorded for quality and training purposes” – which might defeat an expectation of privacy/confidentiality. See also Cal. Evid. Code. §917(b). In many cases, there is no indication that employees know that each of their emails are being individually monitored. An employee of an employer with hundreds or thousands of employees worldwide need not assume that every communication he/she has with anyone about anything is being read by individuals who are not the intended recipients of the communication.[2]
Even if you could ever have reasonably expected the employer to learn that you did exchange some emails with your attorney while at work (i.e., the identities of your addressees), you would have no reason to believe that the employer at the direction of legal counsel would overtly violate legal ethical obligations by seeking to review the substance of communications known to be between a client and his/her counsel.
Your communications with counsel via work email arguably maintain their privileged character, and should not be employed by the employer against you.
[1] It is no doubt possible for technologically-gifted individuals to listen to attorney-client communications via telephone, too, and yet courts have found that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their phone conversations. Quon v. Arch Wireless Operating Co., Inc., 529 F.3d 892, 904 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 353, 88 S.Ct. 507, 19 L.Ed.2d 576 (1967) (“One who occupies [a phone booth], shuts the door behind him, and pays the toll that permits him to place a call is surely entitled to assume that the words he utters into the mouthpiece will not be broadcast to the world. To read the Constitution more narrowly is to ignore the vital role that the public telephone has come to play in private communication.”). Before Katz, courts had found that communications by United States mail could also be entitled to confidentiality/an expectation of privacy. Quon, 529 F.3d at 905 (citing United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 114, 104 S.Ct. 1652, 80 L.Ed.2d 85 (1984)). Email (and text message) plays a role today like the phone booth and the U.S. mail have played in the past, and the content of messages transmitted via these media can have a reasonable expectation of privacy and confidentiality. Quon, 529 F.3d at 905-906 (citing United States v. Forrester, 512 F.3d 500, 510 (9th Cir. 2008)).
[2] Without having statistical or expert data on point, my experience suggests that virtually every client, co-worker, and friend whose work email permits sending to and receiving from outside parties does have personal communications from time to time on this email system, which he or she does not expect to be read by non-addressees at the employer.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this posting is intended in any way to form an attorney-client relationship or any other contract. It is designed solely to provide general information about one area of the practice at Bryan Schwartz Law. Be mindful of any deadlines you have approaching that relate to your legal situation, and make sure that you meet them. Bryan Schwartz Law does not assume any responsibility for advice given regarding any aspect of your case until you have a signed legal services agreement engaging the firm’s representation.

Bryan Schwartz: Bryan Schwartz is an Oakland, CA-based attorney specializing in civil rights and employment law.

This article originally appeared on the Bryan Schwartz Law Blog on april 22, 2009. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.