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Can You Subpoena Metadata from Emails Protected under the Stored Communications Act?

Posted on August 27th, 2014

Metadata has quickly become a fundamental aspect of both the discovery process and expert computer forensics. However, often times we see that technological advances can outpace changes in the rule of law, whether coming through legislative enactment or judicial decree. In Systems Products and Solutions, Inc. v. Joseph Scramlin, Case No. 13-CV-14947 (E.D. Mich. August 8, 2014), the court had to determine whether or not the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”), 18 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq., prohibited the disclosure of email metadata by a subpoenaed third-party.

Plaintiff Systems Products and Solutions, Inc. (“SPS”) alleged that Defendant Joseph Scramlin, a former employee, breached his employment agreement and fiduciary duties by appropriating, stealing, and marketing proprietary information that related to a bid for a federal government contract.

Plaintiff sought to subpoena Defendant’s phone records and emails that were related to the bid for the federal contract from Defendant’s cell phone company, AT&T, and internet service provider, Comcast.

Defendant objected and sought to quash the subpoenas, specifically noting:

1. The SCA prohibits the disclosure of emails; and

2. The subpoenas sought irrelevant information.

However, Defendant conceded that his phone records’ metadata were not covered by the SCA

Plaintiff then responded by noting that despite the SCA, the court had the power to require Defendant to provide consent for the disclosure and production of the emails. Further, Plaintiff sought to have the court require Defendant to consent to the production of the metadata for the emails.

The court agreed that the metadata for the emails, which would include the sender’s name, recipients’ email address, date and subject line, would reveal which emails might be relevant.

In deciding this, the court iterated:

1. The SCA prohibits service providers from knowingly disclosing the contents of a user’s electronic communications, such as the content of email;

2. While civil subpoenas to a non-party are not among section 2702(b)’s unambiguous exceptions, metadata associated with electronic communications are not considered to be content protected by the SCA; and

3. The SCA expressly permits the disclosure of data such as the subscriber’s name, address, records of session times and durations, telephone or instrument number, or other subscriber number or identity.

Accordingly, the court modified the subpoena to set forth only a request for metadata, in respect to Comcast.

ILS – Plaintiff eDiscovery Experts

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