The former general counsel for clothing retail giant Zara USA, Inc. can’t claim privilege in his discrimination-wrongful discharge suit for e-mails he created on a company-issued computer, said New York’s First Department court of appeals in an opinion last month — but the same material might be protected by the work-product doctrine, the court held.

The discovery dispute and ruling arose from a now-common scenario: an employee who uses a company computer for personal communications about litigation against the company — and apparently, even corporate GC’s do it.

GC suit alleges discrimination, harassment

The backstory starts in June 2015, when the former GC sued his employer for bias and harassment. In his complaint, the GC alleged that, for instance, after learning that he is gay and Jewish, company personnel sent sexually-charged e-mails to him, used Yiddish expressions in speaking to him and sent his long-time partner an e-mail with an image of a tattooed penis. The GC alleges that after he complained about his treatment, company leaders told him that his job was in jeopardy, and eventually terminated him.

During discovery, Zara sought documents from the former GC’s personal laptop, claiming that it and its contents were company property under a policy that the GC had helped draft. The policy was in the company employment handbook, and like many such policies, it:

  • restricted use of company-owned devices to “business purposes”;
  • specified that content created/stored company resources belonged to Zara “exclusively”;
  • emphasized that employees lacked any expectation of privacy in information transmitted or stored on company computers; and
  • said that Zara could access such information without prior notice.

No privilege for documents on employer-issued computer

In the trial court, the GC won a motion for protective order. The judge wrote that Zara seemed to be “merely trying to gain litigation advantage by accessing documents that may be privileged,” referring to 101 documents on his computer that the GC created after the litigation began.

But the First Department found no privilege, reasoning that given the employee handbook provisions (which he had at least constructive knowledge of), the GC had no reasonable expectation of privacy, and thus lacked “the reasonable assurance of confidentiality that is foundational to attorney client privilege.”

This ruling is consistent with the case law in most jurisdictions, holding that attorney-client privilege does not apply to communications between an employee and the employee’s personal lawyer if made using the employer’s computer network and if the employer has informed employees that they have no expectation of privacy with respect to communications using the employer’s e-mail system.

Will work-product work?

However, the appeals court also said that even though Zara reserved the right to access company-issued computers, it never did so, and so there was never any actual disclosure to any third party of the material that the former GC sought to shield.

As a result, even though attorney-client privilege was unavailable, the work-product doctrine might be applicable if no one other than the former GC and his counsel had actually reviewed the materials. Accordingly, said the court, the GC’s use of Zara’s computer “for personal purposes does not, standing alone, constitute a waiver of attorney work product protections.”

Now, on remand, it will be up to the trial court to review the documents in camera and determine the work-product question.

At the crossroads

This case is at the intersection of employment law and privilege law, with facts that have become more common recently. In fact, the First Department cited its own privilege decision earlier this year in a similar dispute over access to e-mails that Marvel Entertainment’s CEO exchanged with his wife using the company e-mail system. There too, the court found no privilege (spousal, this time), but possible work-product protection.

The twist in this latest case is that it was Zara’s former chief legal officer who used his company-issued computer to communicate with his private counsel — making this decision one that GC’s should take note of.