Background. A growing number of churches have installed computer systems that permit employees to communicate with one another by means of electronic mail. What happens when a church official or supervisor accesses an employee’s e-mail without permission? Can the church be sued?
A recent ruling. A federal court in Pennsylvania addressed this question in a recent decision. A secular employer maintained an electronic mail communication system in order to promote internal communications between its employees. The employer repeatedly assured its employees that all e-mail communications would remain confidential and privileged. It further assured its employees that e-mail communications could not be intercepted and used against any employee as grounds for termination or reprimand.
Contrary to its own assurances of confidentiality, the employer intercepted private e-mail messages made by one of its employees to another employee. The employer later informed the employee that his employment was being terminated for transmitting what it deemed to be “inappropriate and unprofessional” comments over the e-mail system. The e-mail messages made disparaging comments about a supervisor and referred to a planned holiday party as the “Jim Jones Koolaid affair.”
The court ruled that the employee’s rights had not been violated. It based its ruling on the following factors:
• Pennsylvania recognizes the “employment at will” doctrine meaning that an employer may discharge an “at will employee” (one not hired for a specific term) “with or without cause, at pleasure, unless restrained by some contract” or public policy. Many other states follow this rule.
• Employers may not dismiss an “at will employee” if doing so would violate “a clear mandate of public policy.” But the court rejected the dismissed employee’s claim that the employer’s actions amounted to an invasion of his privacy and as such violated public policy. The court observed:
[W]e do not find a reasonable expectation of privacy in e-mail communications voluntarily made by an employee to [another employee] over the company e-mail system notwithstanding any assurances that such communications would not be intercepted by management …. [B]y intercepting such communications, the company is not … requiring the employee to disclose any personal information about himself or invading the employee’s person or personal effects. Moreover, the company’s interest in preventing inappropriate and unprofessional comments or even illegal activity over its e-mail system outweighs any privacy interest the employee may have in those comments.
Conclusions. This case suggests that employers may not be liable for monitoring employees’ e-mail messages, or for dismissing or disciplining employees on the basis of what they read—even if they assure employees that their e-mail messages are confidential. However, other courts may not agree with this ruling. Church leaders should not monitor employees’ e-mail, or dismiss employees, on the basis of e-mail messages without the advice of an attorney. Smith v. Pillsbury, 914 F. Supp. (E.D. Pa. 1996).
This article originally appeared in Church Treasurer Alert, May 1996.