The Internet and the Afterlife

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by Colin Korzec and Mary H. Schmidt

Case Focus

On October 16, 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc., 478 Mass 169 (2017), which holds that federal law, specifically the Stored Communications Act, does not prohibit an email service provider from disclosing email content to a decedent’s personal representative. This ruling is significant to the fiduciary community in Massachusetts because it helps define post mortem ownership of digital assets.

Background

The issue in Ajemian v. Yahoo arose after John Ajemian died from a cycling accident. His brother and sister were appointed personal representatives of his estate. The personal representatives knew that their brother had a personal Yahoo email account, which they wanted to access as part of the estate settlement process. Yahoo refused their request for access and refused to disclose the account’s contents, citing what Yahoo considered to be a prohibition on disclosure imposed by the federal law known as the Stored Communications Act (18 U.S.C. §2701 et seq.)(the “Act”).

The Act was enacted in 1986 to create Fourth Amendment-like privacy protection for email and other digital communications stored on the internet. It limits the ability of the government to compel information from internet service providers. In addition, it restricts internet service providers’ ability to reveal information to nongovernment entities. Both civil and criminal penalties are provided for violations of the Act. The Act protects the privacy of users of electronic communications by making unauthorized access to electronic communications a criminal offense.

Yahoo claimed that the Act prohibited it from disclosing private emails to the personal representatives unless a specific statutory exception applied. According to Yahoo, no such exception applied in this instance. In addition, Yahoo maintained that the terms of service agreement that the decedent had agreed to when he created the email account gave Yahoo the discretion to refuse the personal representatives’ request. As a result, Yahoo was concerned with potential liability if it turned over the contents of the decedent’s email account to personal representatives absent specific authority in the the Act.

Yahoo prevailed in the probate court, which held that the requested disclosure was prohibited by the Act. The court also concluded that although the estate had a common-law property right in the account’s contents, disputed issues of material fact concerning the application of the terms of service agreement precluded summary judgment.

The SJC Decision

The SJC held that the Act did not prohibit Yahoo from voluntarily disclosing the contents of the account’s email communications to the personal representatives because the Act contains an exception that allows disclosure based on lawful consent (citing Section 2702 of the Act). The personal representatives argued that they could consent to release of the account’s contents because the account was property of the estate and therefore receiving the account’s contents would effectively allow them to take possession of estate property in their normal capacity as personal representatives. In contrast, Yahoo argued that under the Act lawful consent could come only from the account’s actual, original user.

The SJC disagreed with Yahoo and held that Yahoo’s interpretation of lawful consent would preempt state probate and common law, specifically state law allowing a personal representative to provide consent on behalf of the decedent, without any clear congressional intent to do so. The SJC, however, held that while Yahoo may divulge the content of the decedent’s communications, Yahoo is not required to do so if its terms of service agreement provided otherwise.

On the issue of whether Yahoo could the use the terms of service agreement with the decedent to limit access to the account by the decedent’s personal representative, the SJC divided. Yahoo argued that the terms of service agreement granted Yahoo the right to deny access to, and even delete the contents of, the account at its sole discretion, thereby permitting it to refuse the personal representatives’ request. Over Chief Justice Gants’ objection, the Court remanded that issue to the probate court for further proceedings on whether the terms of service agreement is an enforceable contract.

Justice Gants assumed for purposes of the opinion that the terms of service agreement is enforceable against the estate. Justice Gants further noted that the terms of service agreement grants Yahoo the right to terminate the agreement and the user’s access and to remove and discard any content within the service’s possession. Yahoo, however, could not contend that the termination provision gave Yahoo an ownership interest in the user’s content. Therefore, even if the terms of service agreement limits the estate’s property rights, Yahoo cannot claim ownership over the content still retained by Yahoo. Nor could the termination provision be reasonably interpreted to allow Yahoo to destroy emails after the personal representatives initiated a court action to obtain the messages. Justice Gants noted it was unfair to put the estate through the expense of another court proceeding and dissented from the majority’s decision to remand the case for further proceedings regarding the terms of service agreement.

Key Takeaways and Possible Future Developments

Given that this case has been remanded, it is far from concluded. However, even though the decision does not order Yahoo to disclose the emails to the personal representatives, the decision negates the email industry’s position that the Act prohibits disclosure. In and of itself, that is significant for personal representatives who seek access to internet communications of the deceased individual’s estate that they are administering.

Presumably, the Massachusetts probate court, on remand, will simply issue an order mandating disclosure, now that the SJC has confirmed that the personal representative may provide lawful consent under the Act. But what if the probate court, on remand, does not order the disclosure, and instead agrees with Yahoo that its terms of service agreement allows the company to destroy or withhold the emails? Chief Justice Gants indicates that if the trial court were to hold that Yahoo’s terms of service agreement were binding on the parties and permitted Yahoo to destroy the decedent’s email messages, the SJC “would surely reverse that ruling.”

Practitioners have begun to include specific authorizing language in their estate planning documents that addresses a fiduciary’s rights relative to an individual’s digital assets. These explicit directions should squarely address the lawful consent exception raised by the Act.

The SJC also suggested, in a footnote, that nothing precludes the Legislature from regulating the inheritability of digital assets. A majority of states have addressed the issues presented by Ajemian by enacting the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (“RUFADAA”).  RUFADAA was drafted through a collaborative effort between fiduciary professionals and internet service providers. RUFADAA extends the traditional power of a fiduciary to manage tangible property to include management of a person’s digital assets. As a compromise between the drafting parties’ interests, RUFADAA allows fiduciaries to manage digital property, but restricts a fiduciary’s access to electronic communications such as email, text messages, and social media accounts unless the original user consented to this access in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other record. There are currently several bills pending before the Massachusetts Legislature relating to varying forms of access by fiduciaries to digital assets. A Massachusetts Study Committee has recommended the adoption of RUFADAA in Massachusetts, but as of yet, RUFADAA has not been formally filed as a bill in the Commonwealth.

Mary H. Schmidt, Esq. is a partner at Schmidt & Federico and is a member of the Massachusetts Ad Hoc RUFADAA Study Committee.  Colin Korzec is a National Estate Settlement Executive at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management and Chair of the Massachusetts Ad Hoc RUFADAA Study Committee.

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