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Does an Employee Deleting Emails Fall Under Computer “Damage?”

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May 13, 2014

By Eric B. Meyer

Here’s a recent question: My employee deleted all of her work emails and quit. Can I sue her for that?

Well, sure, you can.

But winning that case — especially if you’re thinking about a claim under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — may be another story.

Damage under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The CFAA is designed to prevent unauthorized access or malicious interference with a computer system. Often used as an employer-sword, to state a claim for a violation of the CFAA, a company must prove that an employee actually caused damage to its computer system or data. The CFAA defines “damage” as “any impairment to the integrity or availability of data, a program, a system, or information.”

In Instant Technology, LLC v. DeFazio, the former employee deleted all of her work emails from her inbox.

Well, damn, that sure sounds like an impairment to the availability of data.

Yeah, except, in this case, all those “deleted” emails remained in two places:

  • The former employee’s email trash folder; and,
  • On the company’s email server.

Work emails are company property

Therefore, because the company did not show that any data was lost or impaired, it could not demonstrate “damage” and, therefore, lost its Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claim.

But, had the former employee double-deleted her email — like any good scoundrel — and the company’s email server been wiped, there could have been a CFAA violation.

To avoid these problems, as a best practice, be sure to remind your employees that any work emails are company property and should be held/deleted consistent with your company’s computer use/email policy

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

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