Email Inbox Not Private, Says South Carolina Court

By | October 15, 2012

The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled a man’s privacy was not violated when his wife’s daughter-in-law managed to get into his email and find out the name of his lover because the messages remained in his inbox.

In their unanimous ruling, the justices decided the woman did not violate a 1986 federal law about email storage and ruled a lawsuit from the husband could not go forward.

But the justices also pointed out that just because they ruled the woman didn’t violate the husband’s privacy, it didn’t mean they liked what she did.

“This should in no way be read as condoning her behavior,” Associate Justice Kaye Hearn wrote in her opinion.

The case started when M. Lee Jennings’ wife found a card for flowers for another woman in his car. He admitted he was in love with the other woman, but would not give her name.

Jennings’ wife turned to Holly Broome, who was married to her son from a previous marriage. Broome once worked for Jennings and was able to guess the answer to his security question and access his email. She printed out the emails between Jennings and the other woman, giving copies to his wife’s divorce attorney and a private investigator.

Broome’s lawyer said it wasn’t a good idea to go snooping in the email, but he is glad the Supreme Court interpreted the law the way it was written.

“All she was trying to do was help her mother-in-law and it blew up in her face,” attorney Gary Popwell Jr. said. “She’s now had to spend all this time worrying.”

Jennings’ lawyer did not return a message seeking comment.

The justices wrote three separate opinions, but all pointed out how a 26-year-old law written when email was in its infancy is a hard guide to use for today.

The Stored Communication Act makes a hazy distinction between obtaining emails that have not been read or messages that have been read and stored elsewhere versus emails that have been read and remain in an inbox.

Nearly all 14 pages of the Supreme Court’s ruling deals with trying to sort out those distinctions with a law that reads in part: “Electronic mail is a form of communication by which private correspondence is transmitted over public and private telephone lines … if the addressee is not a subscriber to the service, the electronic mail company can put the message onto paper and then deposit it in the normal postal system.”

The act “is ill-fitted to address many modern day issues, but it is this Court’s duty to interpret, not to legislate,” Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote in her own opinion.

Topics South Carolina

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