One of the scariest, yet all-too-common, mishaps involving e-mail is when you hit “send,” but it zips out to the wrong person. More often than not, you immediately realize what you just did. You feel helpless, embarrassed and angry (that there is not an “un-send” key). Depending on the contents of the e-mail, you may even wonder if there are going to be any legal consequences for your gaffe. Luckily, a recent court decision helps to address the legal aspects, although it may do nothing to assuage your personal remorse.
In Templeton v. Fred W. Albrecht Grocery Co., 2017-Ohio-282, the employer grocery store received an employee’s psychological report in connection with a workers’ compensation proceeding. The report was received by an employee responsible for managing the claim, who decided she would forward it to the employer’s attorney. Unfortunately for all concerned, she e-mailed the psychological report to other employees instead of the attorney. Although the grocery store took immediate action to mitigate this error, the employee, Templeton, sued the store for unauthorized disclosure of his medical information to a third party, negligence and invasion of privacy. The trial court dismissed Templeton’s claims for unauthorized disclosure and negligence. The court then granted the grocery store a summary judgment on the claim of invasion of privacy. Templeton appealed.
The Ninth District Court of Appeals in Summit County first looked at the invasion of privacy issue. In order to prevail on the claim, Templeton would have to prove that: 1) there had been a public disclosure, 2) the disclosure was of fact involving the private life of an individual, 3) what was disclosed would be highly offensive and objectionable to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities, 4) the disclosure was intentional, and 5) the matter publicized is not of legitimate concern to the public.
The court cited numerous other cases in which this standard has been upheld, but noted that the First District Court of Appeals has consistently omitted the intentional disclosure element. However, the Ninth District Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 vote, specifically followed its own precedent and affirmed the requirement of intentional disclosure to prevail on an invasion of privacy claim. In Templeton’s situation, the facts were not in dispute: the disclosure was unintentional. Therefore, the trail court’s decision was affirmed.
Of interest to attorneys is that the court also briefly discussed how the Supreme Court of Ohio has dealt with cases involving the unauthorized disclosure of medical information. The seminal case in this area has been Biddle v. Warren Gen. Hosp., 86 Ohio St.3d 395, 715 N.E. 2d 518 (1999). The court noted that Biddle has been narrowly framed over the years since and only once has the scope been extended. Because the Supreme Court has been reluctant to expand its own decisions in this area of employer liability, the Ninth District Court of Appeals declined to extend Biddle as well.