Case Summary: Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc.

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Author:  Bradford N. VezinaMcLane Middleton

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in the case of Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc., held that the Stored Communications Act (SCA), a 1986 federal law that regulates the disclosure of electronic communications, does not prohibit Yahoo!, Inc., from voluntarily disclosing the contents of a decedent’s email account to the administrators of a decedent’s estate.

The decision represents the continuation of an eight year legal dispute, initially commenced in 2009, that arose after the administrators of John Ajemian’s estate filed a complaint with the probate court requesting “unfettered” access to John’s Yahoo email account.  Yahoo refused to provide access to this account.

The Supreme Judicial Court agreed to hear the case on its own motion after the estate appealed the probate court’s award for summary judgment in favor of Yahoo.  The probate court awarded summary judgment to Yahoo on the basis that the SCA prohibited Yahoo from disclosing the contents of the account to the estate administrators.  The Supreme Judicial Court ultimately disagreed and vacated the probate court’s judgment.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision turned on whether the estate’s request for access to the email account fell within the “lawful consent exception” of the SCA thereby permitting Yahoo to voluntarily disclose the contents of the emails.  Rejecting the industry consensus that this lawful consent exception requires actual or express consent of a decedent, the Court held that the administrators could consent to such a disclosure on behalf of the decedent.  To interpret the SCA otherwise, the Court reasoned, would prevent personal representatives from accessing a decedent’s digital assets and thereby preempt state probate and common law.

This decision, however, has its limits.  First, the Court did not mandate Yahoo to divulge the contents of the email account; it merely permitted Yahoo to do so.  As the Court explained, the SCA “does not stand in the way” of such a disclosure.  Second, it remains to be seen whether this case will be challenged in federal court, as it is a state court’s interpretation of federal law.  Third, the case raises the question of whether online providers such as Yahoo can rely on their terms of service agreements as a basis in refusing access to (and perhaps deleting altogether) a decedent’s digital assets.  The Supreme Judicial Court did not take up this issue instead electing to remand the case to the probate court for further hearing on this issue.  Stay tuned.