Court Holds Company Immune Over Employee’s Email Threats

Rhett Pardon
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In a California ruling of significant importance to businesses, an appellate court has ruled that employees given Internet access through internal computer systems are a “provider…of an interactive computer service” and entitled to immunity under the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Affirming a summary judgment in a Santa Clara civil suit, the court rejected a lawsuit against Agilent Technologies Inc. over threats a former employee allegedly sent out through a company computer.

Agilent was sued in 2003 by Michelangelo Delfino and Mary E. Day, who claimed the company, along with employee Cameron Moore, was responsible for inflicting emotional distress against them through threats that Moore made.

The employee allegedly sent anonymous threats to Delfino and Day through emails and postings on a Yahoo! message board using the screen name “crack smoking jesus.” Moore later admitted to the pseudonym.

Moore’s alleged threats included an email to Delfino promising to break his fingers and teeth, destroy his car, and possibly set fire to his residence. The threats stemmed from an unrelated lawsuit against Delfino and Day.

The Santa Clara trial judge earlier held Agilent was immune from suit under 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(1), which states in part that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

An “interactive computer service,” the statute says, is “any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions.”

California’s 6th District Court of Appeal ruled for Agilent in the ruling Thursday.

“[A]gilent’s proxy servers are the primary means by which thousands of its employees in the U.S. access the Internet,” Justice Wendy Clark Duffy wrote for the court. “In light of the term’s broad definition under the CDA, we conclude that Agilent was a provider of interactive computer services.”

Duffy, noting the court’s decision was the first ruling on the issue, said Agilent could not be the subject of a lawsuit treating it as the publisher or speaker of threats made by an employee.

“Using Agilent’s computer system to log on to a private Internet account to send messages — threatening or otherwise — was never part of Moore’s job duties,” Duffy continued. “Indeed, plaintiffs did not dispute this point. Furthermore, the fact that Moore may have been present at the workplace and may have been performing regular employment functions before or after transmitting one or more of the threatening messages do not transform his personal conduct into actions for which Agilent may be held vicariously liable.”

The case is Delfino vs. Agilent Technologies, Inc., H028993.