Yahoo’s legal team, so beset with challenges over data security, has been handed a setback in another type of case.
On Monday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court ruled that the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) does not prevent Yahoo from releasing a deceased man’s email account to his relatives, as Yahoo had claimed.
The court did not order Yahoo to release the contents of the account. Instead, it overthrew a judgment issued by the Probate and Family Court in favor of Yahoo, based on the SCA.
The case revisits the old question of who owns the content in emails, and who has the right to access it. And it will probably go on to higher courts from here.
Associate Judge Barbara A. Lenk, writing for the majority, stated that the SCA does not stand in the way of Yahoo granting access, thus throwing out the Probate and Family Court’s judgment.
Still at issue is whether Yahoo’s terms of service constitute a reason for refusing access. Lenk, noting that there are “issues of fact pertinent to the enforceability of the contract,” sent that matter back to the Probate and Family Court for review.
However, this action drew a rebuke from Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants. While acknowledging that issues remained, Gants argued that the court should have simply dismissed Yahoo’s appeal instead of remanding that issue back to the Probate and Family Court.
“The additional cost of further litigation is a financial pinprick to a Web services provider such as Yahoo, but it is a heavy financial burden on the assets of an estate, even a substantial estate,” Gants wrote in an opinion that seemed to be both an assent and a dissent.
The case has its origins in a tragedy.
John G. Ajemian, age 43, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2006. He died intestate, with no provisions made for the Yahoo email account he had set up four years earlier with his brother Robert.
The brothers shared the account, but Robert Ajemian had forgotten the password. Appointed as personal representatives of their brother’s estate, Robert and Marianne Ajemian attempted to access the account.
Yahoo provided descriptive information, but declined to give full access to the siblings, claiming that this was prohibited by the SCA.
In 2009, the Ajemians sued in the Probate and Family Court. That court eventually granted a summary judgment to Yahoo. The Ajemian siblings appealed.
Lenk stated that the SCA does not supersede state probate laws.
“Nothing in the statutory language or the legislative history of the SCA evinces a clear congressional intent to intrude upon State prerogatives with respect to personal representatives of a descedent's estate,” she wrote.
The case contains several absurdities. For one, the court had to determine whether the Aljemians had the authority to consent to release of their brother’s emails, and then to access them.
This led to the “novel question” of how to define lawful consent, as used in the SCA, and whether this means implicit consent. The court found that, with the deceased unable to give consent, his representatives could.
Then there is the Yahoo service agreement. The Probate and Family Court judge stated that “the record before him was insufficient to establish that the terms of service agreement...was itself enforceable,” Lenks wrote.
Perhaps Yahoo’s lawyers should give it another look.