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Employer can’t ‘mirror image’ worker’s home computers

A hospital defending an employment case cannot obtain a “mirror image” of a fired employee’s home computer hard drives, a Harrisonburg federal court said on June 2. Granting such access would be “exhaustive and intrusive,” said U.S. Magistrate Judge James G. Welsh, as he denied the hospital’s motion to compel.

Plaintiff Christy Downs had worked for the Winchester Medical Center for nearly 17 years when she was fired from her position as executive secretary in 2011. The hospital claimed it fired her because she accessed her supervisor’s email account without authorization and forwarded information from that account to her personal email accounts and her home computers without permission.

Downs said she had a longstanding authorization to access her supervisor’s email account, as a routine part of her job and to facilitate her ability to work at home. She sued for discriminatory discharge under the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Not satisfied with Downs’ discovery responses, the hospital moved to compel production of the two home computers for mirror-imaging of their hard drives by computer forensics experts.

Downs protested, saying her husband and two children used these same computers and she used them to communicate with her attorneys. She claimed the defendant could get what it needed from its own in-house IT experts, computer logs and email records.

Welsh said the hospital had shown a connection between the two home computers and the issues in the case, but the request failed the proportionality test of Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2).

There was no suggestion Downs had willfully defaulted on her discovery obligations, and “mirror-imaging” of the plaintiff’s family computers three years after her termination raised “significant issues of confidentiality and privacy,” the court said.

The hospital failed to justify the “frankly drastic” forensic computer examination of the home computers, Welsh said in Downs v. Virginia Health System.

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