On July 16, 2010, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in Schill v. Wisconsin Rapids School District, 2010 WI 86, that purely personal emails of public employees sent from workplace computers and email accounts are protected from disclosure to a third party under the state Public Records Law. While the justices differed in whether such emails are even public records, a majority of the court determined that a public records custodian “should not release contents of emails that are purely personal and evince no violation of law or policy.”
Whether an email is “purely personal” will be based on a case-by-case determination, as the court makes clear that the contents of apparently personal emails could require disclosure if the email has some connection to a government function e.g. the email was used as evidence in a disciplinary investigation or to investigate the misuse of government resources.
The decision involves only disclosure of personal email to third parties under the Public Records Law. The case does not involve the right of government employers to monitor, review, or have access to the personal emails of public employees using the government email system. Public employees should be careful to comply with employer use policies and be aware that their communications, unless subject to this limited “purely personal” exception, will be subject to disclosure under the Public Records Law.
With the growing use of new technology in the workplace, the law on employee use of email at work is continually evolving.
Contact our labor attorneys for further information on employee email.