Marital Privilege Over Emails Rejected in Oil Spill Litigation

The massive litigation over the Gulf oil spill has spawned a wide range of significant legal issues.  Here's an interesting little one. The magistrate judge in the MDL has held that a BP drilling engineer cannot assert marital privilege regarding e-mails to his spouse sought by the plaintiffs. In re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL 2179 (E.D. La., 3/28/11).

Mr. Morel was employed by BP as a drilling engineer on the Macondo Well.  Plaintiffs and several defendants wanted to depose him.  The witness asserted the marital privilege as to certain email communications which were produced by BP to the Plaintiff Steering Committee. He contended that 93 documents containing email communications between himself and his wife should be returned to him or destroyed. His wife was a production engineer for BP, with no duties relating to the well. 

All of the email communications at issue were made through their BP email accounts. But the witness urged that: (1) BP permitted the personal use of company email; (2) it did not indiscriminately or randomly monitor its employees’ emails; (3) no third party other than BP had a right to access Mr. Morel’s email account.  The court framed the issue as whether BP’s notification
statements and email policies were sufficient to defeat Mr. Morel’s assertion of the marital privilege over the emails.

BP computer screens included the statement that “[w]ithin the bounds of law, electronic transmissions through internal and external networks may be monitored to ensure compliance with internal policies and legitimate business purposes."  BP’s Code of Conduct Policy provided that: Personal data, information or electronic communications created or stored on company computers or other electronic media such as hand-held devices are not private.

Mr. Morel, however, argued that the determination of privilege should not be made on the basis of the written BP policies but on how those policies were implemented.

There are a number of cases finding that when an employer has a rule prohibiting personal computer use, an employee cannot reasonably expect privacy in their prohibited communications.   Miller v. Blattner, 676 F.Supp.2d 485 (E.D.La. 2009); Thygeson v. U.S. Bankcorp, 2004 WL 2066764 (D. Or.); Kelleher v. City of Reading, 2002 WL 1067442, *8 (E.D. Pa.).

BP had no such prohibition, but BP notified its employees that electronic communications could
be monitored and accessed by BP. There are a few cases indicating that policies short of a prohibition of personal use can defeat an expectation of privacy. Muick v. Glenayre Electronics, 280 F.3d 741 (7th Cir. 2002); United States v. Etkin, 2008 WL 482281 (S.D.N.Y); Sims v. Lakeside School, 2007 WL 2745367, *1 (W.D. Wash.).

Based on these cases, this court found that it was not objectively reasonable for an employee to have an expectation of privacy where the employers’ policies clearly demonstrate that the employee’s electronic communications may be monitored and accessed by the employer; and thus they were subject to production by a subpoena.