Is it legal for an employer to access a personal e-mail account of an employee on work grounds without consent?

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Is it legal for an employer to access a personal e-mail account of an employee on work grounds without consent?

I had left my job without giving notice, and my employer went into my saved account through Google Chrome (GMail account) without my permission. They contacted my current employer and bad-mouthed me as an employee. Although my account was saved for easy access on my work computer (it was my fault for not changing my password), is it legal for my ex-employer to access my account without my permission, and continue to rifle through my emails to find out where I was? They proceeded to also e-mail my current HR rep and my boss. I have proof of their access, e-mails and phone calls.

Asked on April 9, 2012 under Employment Labor Law, California

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 9 years ago | Contributor

1) No, an employer may not access your web-based personal email account, even if you have accessed it before from work. This potentially is a violation of several laws protecting internet privacy and preventing others from masquerading as you (using your log-in and password) online. It is dangerous to use your personal email from work, since employers may, if they have put in place a monitoring policy, monitor internet usage (including internet email) as it goes across their systems--but to log in as you after you leave appears to be a violation of the law.

2) If the former employer has made any untrue factual assertions about you to your new employer (i.e. they have said things about you which are demonstrably untrue, as opposed to being merely negative opinions, to which they, like anyone, are entitled), that may be defamation.

You may therefore have one or more legal claims against your former employer, and should consult with a personal injury or employment law attorney (either should be able to help you, from different perspectives) about your situation in more detail.


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