Secretary fired for accessing boss’s private e-mail gets unemployment benefits

Plaintiff Picou worked as a secretary for Trussco, Inc. for two years in a trailer where she and her supervisor, a Mr. Hebert, shared a computer located in Hebert’s office. One day, Picou logged into Hebert’s e-mail account and browsed through the sent messages folder. She found some messages Hebert had written to Trussco’s President and CFO in which Hebert complained about Picou’s poor attendance at work. Picou printed out two of the messages, annotated them with her comments, and faxed them to Trussco’s Safety and Risk Manager. Trussco terminated Picou after it found out how she had obtained the messages.

The day after she was fired, Picou filed for unemployment benefits with the Louisiana Department of Labor. Trussco objected, arguing that Picou was terminated for misconduct, and that such misconduct disqualified her from receiving unemployment benefits. The department denied her claim for benefits several times.

Undaunted, Picou appealed to a Louisiana state court, which reversed the Labor Department’s denial of benefits. When Trussco sought review, the Louisiana Court of Appeal upheld the award, holding that the unauthorized access of Hebert’s e-mail account did not rise to the level of “misconduct” defined by Louisiana statute.

Louisiana law provides that an employee may be denied benefits if he or she is terminated because of, among other things, “dishonesty, wrongdoing, . . . or violation of a policy or rule adopted to insure [sic.] orderly work. . . .” La.R.S. 23:1601(2)(a). According to the court, an employer must also show “willful and wanton” conduct on the part of the employee to justify a denial of benefits.

In this case, the court emphasized that Picou “was expected to use and communicate with other employees by the e-mail system.” Further, Picou and Hebert shared the computer and the e-mail system. For the Louisiana Court of Appeals, these facts were enough to justify Picou’s conduct, concluding that the browsing of her employer’s sent e-mail was not an “intentional and substantial disregard for the employer’s interest.”

Sounds like the judge may still have been a bit distracted from Mardi Gras when he wrote this opinion.

Picou v. Trussco, Inc., — So.2d —, 2006 WL 473842 (La.App., March 1, 2006).