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Q&A: Who Owns an Employee's Emails and Computer Files?

Question: Our association purchased a laptop and allowed the manager to use it while at work in our homeowner association's office, where it remains today. Upon the manager's termination, she wanted to remove information on the laptop's hard drive claiming that her "work" belonged to her and not the association.

Q&A: Who Owns an Employee's Emails and Computer Files?

The board's position is that everything on the hard drive belongs to the association because we own that piece of equipment. We only allowed her to use it while she was employed here. That manager is now threatening to sue the association to get her files off our computer.

How strong is our legal position? Just because she worked on association files that doesn’t make them hers, does it? Who decides which files are hers and which are ours? Do we have to let her access our laptop and choose which files to take and then delete?

Answer: The question raises two issues. The first is the fact that the employee would claim entitlement to files on a work computer, which suggests that the homeowner association did not have an employee handbook that clearly spelled out company policies, including employee email and computer-usage issues.

Employee handbooks are valuable in articulating company policies and procedures while emphasizing matters such as an employee’s at-will status. The National Federation of Independent Businesses (www.nfib.com) has a model handbook for small businesses, but it is probably best to review this information with your counsel.

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