The parties in this case were formerly married for several years, and after their divorce in 2019, the former husband accessed his ex-wife’s Yahoo! email account using a smartphone that had been given to the parties’ minor child. He read a number of emails exchanged between his ex-wife and her attorney but did not publish them anywhere or disclose them to a third party, including his children. The former wife sued her ex-husband in federal court for reading her emails. She alleged two violations of federal law, including the Stored Communications Act (SCA), and three violations of Arkansas law. She sought hundreds of thousands of dollars in punitive and compensatory damages against her ex-husband.
Asa Hutchinson III, representing the ex-husband, obtained a summary judgment for his client whereby the Court dismissed the first federal law claim and one of the Arkansas claims. The client testified he had only read emails that had already been opened by his ex-wife, and that he had never read any emails that were unopened by her. The plaintiff did not dispute these assertions.
Asa Hutchinson III argued to the Court that because the ex-wife’s emails delivered to her webmail inbox were opened by her and then retained in her inbox, those opened emails were not in “electronic storage” for purposes of the SCA (18 U.S.C. § 2701(a)(1)), and therefore, the ex-husband’s reading of those emails could not have violated the SCA. Neither the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, nor any federal court within the Eighth Circuit, had previously taken this view or even ruled on this particular issue. Thus, this was a case of first impression. The District Court for the Western District agreed with Mr. Hutchinson, and ruled in his client’s favor, dismissing the ex-wife’s SCA claim and remaining Arkansas claims.
For decades, many parties, especially divorced couples and employees who sent personal emails at work, have often sued under the SCA to recover money, including statutory damages of $1,000 per violation and punitive damages and attorney’s fees, from someone who has read their private emails without permission. This decision says they can no longer do this in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals jurisdiction if the subject emails were first opened by the intended recipient prior to being read by the defendant. There may be other legal claims that aggrieved parties can file against those who read their emails without permission, but those parties can’t sue under the SCA, according to this Court’s ruling.
For the first time in the Eighth Circuit, a federal court has ruled on the question of whether an email opened by its intended recipient and not deleted is considered to be held in electronic storage within the meaning of the federal SCA. The Court here ruled that the answer is no, and accordingly, such emails are not subject to the protections of the Act.