An Email Inbox Isn’t a “Place” for Purposes of Florida Privacy Law–Hall v. Sargeant

One of the most venerable cyberlaw questions: is cyberspace a physical place, and does it matter legally? For purposes of Florida’s privacy invasion law, a federal district court answers: no and yes.

This case involves long-running litigation and drama between people who have more money than you or I have. Harry owned part of a family business and had an email account on the family business’ servers. The email account commingled business and personal emails. Harry got ousted from the business and blocked from the email account. He was told that all account information and data had been “cut off from the root,” which he thought meant that it had been deleted. Instead, after Harry’s ousting, Harry’s brother Daniel allegedly raided the account and bargained to swap information from Harry’s account with Hall for mutual benefit.

The legal question is whether Hall committed an invasion of Harry’s privacy. In Florida, an invasion of privacy can only occur by intruding into one’s private quarters, which must “be a place over which there is an expectation of privacy.” This tees up the ancient question: is an email account a physical or virtual place sufficient to create an expectation of privacy?

For purposes of this claim, the court says no:

The Court holds that neither the HS3 Email Account nor the individual digital files containing the emails and attachments is the kind of “private quarter” or “place” that can be the basis for invasion of privacy by intrusion under Florida law. Other federal courts considering this issue have concluded that Florida’s tort does not extend to non-physical places.

This case turns on Florida’s idiosyncratic definition of privacy invasion, which narrowly applies only to physical places. Other states undoubtedly recognize an intrusion into a virtual place equally with intrusions into physical places. Also, other legal doctrines might protect the email inbox as well; the ECPA and CFAA are two that come immediately to mind. If Harry Sargeant can’t win on any of those claims, then this case reaches the counterintuitive conclusion that an employer can access and do whatever it wants with a departed employee’s emails post-departure, including freely share the former employee’s personal emails with third parties. I don’t think that’s the law!

Case citation: Hall v. Sargeant, 2019 WL 1359485 (S.D. Fla. March 26, 2019)

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Scribd Must Comply With The Americans With Disabilities Act
Another Ruling that the Americans with Disabilities Act Doesn’t Apply to Websites–Ouellette v. Viacom
Facebook User Loses Lawsuit Over Account Termination–Young v. Facebook