Tempted to snoop on someone’s emails; perhaps to gain advantage in a dispute? DON’T DO IT. The Stored Communications Act (“SCA”) prohibits unauthorized access to web-based email accounts.
In Cheng v. Romo, (Civil Action No. 1:11-cv-10007-DJC), a Federal District Court Judge in Massachusetts addressed the issue of unauthorized access to an email account. Specifically, Cheng and Romo were co-workers. Cheng directed Romo to review work documents that flowed through his dual personal and business email account. To this end, Cheng provided his e-mail password to Romo, but never expressly limited Romo’s access to only work-related documents. At some point, Cheng and Romo became embroiled in a dispute. Four years after Romo last accessed Cheng’s email account, Romo logged on to Cheng’s account again. Romo printed at least 10 emails she thought might assist her in the dispute with Cheng.
Cheng sued Romo for invasion of privacy and violating the SCA. Romo attempted to defend herself by arguing Cheng gave her his password, never limited her access, and could not prove any damages. Unconvinced by these arguments, the jury returned a verdict of $50,000 in compensatory damages against Romo for violating the SCA. Unfortunately for Romo, the SCA also provides Judges with discretion to add attorneys’ fees and costs. In March, 2014, the Federal District Court Judge exercised her discretion and added $241,073.03 in attorneys’ fees to the verdict.
In short, as tempting as it may be to access someone’s web-based email account, the SCA prohibits it and severely punishes those that violate its provision.