High Court Asked To Decide: Who Owns A Dead Man's Emails?

Yahoo has brought a delicate question to the U.S. Supreme Court: who should have access to a departed person’s emails?

The company has asked the court to overthrow a Massachusetts court decision stating 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.  

That ruling “effectively eliminates personal privacy in email content after death by giving estate administrators complete control over those private communications,” argues Marc Zwillinger, an attorney for Yahoo, in a petition to the High Court, according to the Boston Herald. 

John G. Ajemian,  age 42, 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.

In 2009, the Ajemian siblings sued in the Probate and Family Court, seeking full access to their brother’s Yahoo account. But that court granted a summary judgment to Yahoo. The family appealed.

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Last October, Associate Judge Barbara A. Lenk, writing for the majority in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, stated that the SCA does not stand in the way of Yahoo releasing the emails with the family’s permission, thus throwing out the Probate and Family Court’s judgment 

The court did not order Yahoo to release the contents of the account — it simply overthrew the judgment in favor of Yahoo.

Lenk determined that “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 decedent's estate,” she wrote.

Still at issue was whether Yahoo’s terms of service constitute a reason for refusing access. Lenk noted that there are “issues of fact pertinent to the enforceability of the contract,” and sent that matter back to the Probate and Family Court for review.

That remand 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.

 

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