Sitton v. Print Direction, 312 Ga.App. 365, 718 S.E.2d 532 (2011).
Factual Background Edit
Plaintiff Sitton was fired from his job with Defendant Print Direction, Inc. (“PDI”), after Defendant Stanton discovered that Sitton was working with one of their direct competitors. Defendant discovered this disloyalty by accessing Plaintiff’s email on the computer Plaintiff used for work. Plaintiff subsequently filed suit against his former employer for invasion of privacy and for computer theft and computer trespass in violation of OCGA § 16-9-93. Defendants brought counterclaims based on Plaintiff’s alleged breach of duties to the Defendants. The trial court awarded damages to the Defendants in the amount of $39,257.71. Plaintiff appealed.
Appellate Court Proceedings Edit
Under Georgia law, “computer theft” is committed by one “who uses a computer or computer network with knowledge that such use is without authority and with the intention of taking, obtaining, or converting property of another.” A person commits “computer trespass” when he “uses a computer or computer network with knowledge that such use is without authority and with the intention of” deleting any computer program or data; obstructing or interfering with use of a computer program or data; or altering, damaging, or causing to malfunction a computer, computer network, or computer program. Finally, a person commits “computer invasion of privacy” when he “uses a computer or computer network with the intention of examining any employment, medical, salary, credit, or any other financial or personal data relating to any other person with knowledge that such examination is without authority.”
When the Plaintiff started working for the Defendant, he was given a copy of Defendant’s Employee Manual, which provided that “[e]mployees may not take an outside job . . . with a customer or competitor of PDI.” The policy also acknowledged the need for Defendants “to be able to respond to proper requests resulting from legal proceedings that call for electronically-stored evidence” and provided that for this reason, its employees should regard “electronic mail left on or transmitted over these systems” as “private or confidential.” Plaintiff was offered a computer for use at PDI, however, he opted to bring his own laptop to connect to Defendant’s servers. Upon suspicion of Plaintiff’s improper activities, Defendant Stanton entered Sitton’s office, moved the computer’s mouse, clicked on the email listing which appeared on the screen, and printed certain emails from Plaintiff relating to a job for a competitor. These emails were not sent using Plaintiff’s work-issued email account.
In addressing the Plaintiff’s claims, the court noted that the evidence failed to show that Defendants’ use of the Plaintiff’s computer was “with the intention of” performing any of the acts prohibited by the applicable statute. Defendants were only concerned with Plaintiff’s work with their competitors and any other potential breaches of loyalty or of their policies, they had no intention of deleting anything, interfering with anything, or otherwise converting Plaintiff’s property. Similarly, Defendant did not access the computer “without authority” as the trial court had determined that the computer use policy found in the Employee Manual covered the access by Defendant.
While Plaintiff contended that the trial court erred in ruling against his claim for invasion of privacy, the appellate court noted that “[t]he ‘unreasonable intrusion’ aspect of the [tort of] invasion of privacy involves a prying or intrusion, which would be offensive or objectionable to a reasonable person, into a person’s private concerns.” Even if the Defendant’s access of Plaintiff’s emails could be seen as surveillance, it does not rise to the level of an unreasonable intrusion upon Plaintiff’s seclusion or solitude, because Defendant’s activity was “reasonable in light of the situation.”
There are some shocks, inconveniences and annoyances which members of society in the nature of things must absorb without the right of redress. Accordingly, the trial court’s ruling against Plaintiff’s claims was affirmed. With regard to Defendants’ counterclaims, the appellate court agreed with the trial court that Plaintiff was an employee and therefore owed a duty of loyalty to the Defendants. The evidence in the case showed that Plaintiff had brokered more than $150,000 in print jobs through one of PDI’s competitors alone — more than enough to substantiate the damages awarded to the Defendants by the lower court.