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An employer’s decision to dig through an employee’s e-mails in computer storage does not violate any provisions of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act since the law bans an “interception” only if it occurs at the time of transmission and exempts the owner of an e-mail system from any claim alleging an illegal “seizure” of stored e-mails, a federal appeals court has ruled. In Fraser v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., the 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that since Richard Fraser’s e-mails were stored on Nationwide’s system, any search by the company was authorized by an express exemption in the federal act for e-mail service providers. The unanimous three-judge panel also rejected Fraser’s claim that he was wrongfully discharged in September 1998 in retaliation for his lodging complaints against Nationwide with state authorities and his efforts to get legislation passed that would have protected agents like himself from being fired for anything less than just cause. The court held that whistleblower laws protect only public employees and that Fraser’s case did not fall into any of the narrow public-policy exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine recognized by the Pennsylvania courts. Significantly, the court held that the First Amendment cannot be cited in a wrongful-discharge claim by private sector workers as the ground for a public-policy exception. But Fraser didn’t suffer a total loss because the court revived one of his claims in which he is seeking more than $200,000 in deferred compensation he said he was denied after he started working for another insurer. In the suit, Fraser claimed that Nationwide terminated him because he filed complaints with the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office regarding Nationwide’s allegedly illegal conduct, including discriminatory refusal to write car insurance for unmarried and new drivers. He claimed he was fired for criticizing Nationwide while acting as an officer of the Nationwide Insurance Independent Contractors Association and for promoting legislation in Pennsylvania to ensure that independent insurance agents could be terminated only for just cause. Nationwide argued that it terminated Fraser because he was disloyal, noting that he drafted a letter to two competitors expressing the association’s dissatisfaction with Nationwide and seeking to determine whether they would be interested in acquiring the policyholders of the dissatisfied agents. Fraser claimed that the letters were drafted only to get Nationwide’s attention and were not sent.

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