By Robert L. Kirby, Jr. and Thomas E. Kenney
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) recently issued a landmark ruling in a case of first impression, overturning a probate court judgment against Pierce & Mandell’s clients. Robert L. Kirby, Jr. argued the case before the six-justice panel, and Thomas E. Kenney assisted in preparing the appellate briefs.
The case concerned the efforts by Pierce & Mandell’s clients, personal representatives of their deceased brother’s estate, to secure access to the content of their brother’s email account with Yahoo! Yahoo! refused to provide the email content to the personal representatives asserting, among other defenses, that the federal Stored Communications Act (“SCA”) prohibited it from disclosing the email communications. The Norfolk County Probate Court entered summary judgment in Yahoo!’s favor, ruling that the SCA did prohibit such disclosure.
After Pierce & Mandell filed an appeal on its clients’ behalf, the SJC on its own initiative granted direct appellate review. Following oral argument, the SJC reversed the decision of the Norfolk Probate Court and vacated the judgment entered against Pierce & Mandell’s clients, unanimously holding that the SCA did not prohibit Yahoo! from disclosing the email communications to the personal representatives.
The issue before the SJC was whether any of the statutory exceptions to the SCA’s prohibition of disclosure of the email communications applied. Acknowledging that the issue was one of first impression – no appellate court had previously decided whether the SCA barred disclosure of the decedent’s email communications to estate representatives – the SJC held that the SCA’s exception for disclosure “with the lawful consent of the originator or an addressee or intended recipient” of the electronic communications applied to permit Yahoo! to disclose the contents of the email communications to the personal representatives.
In so holding, the SJC rejected Yahoo!’s argument that “lawful consent” under the SCA must be the actual consent of the user of the email account. The Court reasoned that “interpreting lawful consent in such a manner would preclude personal representatives from accessing a decedent’s stored communications and thereby result in the preemption of State probate and common law.” Because nothing in the statutory language or legislative history of the SCA indicates Congress’ intent to preempt state probate law, and because there is a presumption against preemption in areas of traditional state regulation such as family law, the SJC ruled that the only reasonable interpretation of the “lawful consent” exception is that it permits personal representatives to consent to disclosure on behalf of the decedent in connection with their duties to the probate estate.
The SJC further stated that requiring the actual consent to disclosure of the account user “would significantly curtail the ability of personal representatives to perform their duties under State probate and common law.” Additionally, and “[m]ost significantly, this interpretation would result in the creation of a class of digital assets – stored communications –that could not be marshalled.” Thus, “since e-mail accounts often contain billing and other financial information, which was once readily available in paper form, an inability to access e-mail accounts could interfere with the management of a decedent’s estate.”
As a result of its decision, the SJC remanded the case to the Norfolk County Probate Court for a determination as to whether Yahoo!’s terms of service are binding on the personal representatives and, if so, whether those terms of service would permit Yahoo! to delete the contents of the email account rather than turn it over to the personal representatives.
Pierce & Mandell attorneys Robert L. Kirby, Jr., and Thomas E. Kenney regularly litigate in state and federal courts throughout Massachusetts. They handle a variety of cases including probate court litigation, business disputes and intellectual property matters.
A full copy of the opinion can be found here.