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PHILADELPHIA — 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 Mutual Insurance Co., the Third Circuit U.S. 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 ECPA 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 whistle-blower 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 grounds for a public policy exception.

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