NJ Appellate Court Reverses Course: Attorney-Client Privilege Revived

NJ Appellate Court Reverses Course: Attorney-Client Privilege Revived

Earlier we reported that a New Jersey state trial court found that a former employee waived the attorney-client privilege when she decided to use company time, equipment, and resources to communicate with her lawyer (see Stengart v. Loving Care). Recently, an appellate court reversed that ruling and framed the issue “whether workplace regulations converted an employee’s emails with her attorney” sent through the employee’s personal, password-protected, web-based email account, but via her employer’s computer “into the employer’s property.”

Plaintiff had argued that the company failed to demonstrate that it had ever adopted or distributed the policy in question, that she was unaware that the policy applied to her, and even if the policy did exist, the company had not previously enforced it. The company argued that it had disseminated the policy, and that the policy did apply to the plaintiff. The appellate court determined that issues of material fact existed as to whether the policy at issue was in place and disseminated at the time of plaintiff’s employment and as to whether the policy applied to plaintiff; and that these issues could not be resolved by the trial judge without a hearing on the matter.

The appellate court held that employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy in personal communications on a company owned computer. In sum, it held that a policy purporting to transform all private communications into company property “merely because the company owned the computer used to make private communications“ furthers no legitimate business purpose.

The appellate court concluded by addressing the issue of attorney discipline for the company’s law firm who uncovered the emails. The appellate court determined that the law firm violated New Jersey Rule of Professional Conduct 4.4(b) because the lawyers failed to cease reading and examining the emails upon discovery, and failed to notify plaintiff’s attorney promptly of their discovery. The appellate court ultimately determined that whether defendant’s counsel should be disqualified is a matter for resolution upon remand to the trial court.

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