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E-mail violation damages overturned

A woman whose boss accessed her personal e-mail account from points all over the globe cannot collect her damage and attorney’s fee awards totaling more than $410,000, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said yesterday.

Bonnie Van Alstyne sued her boss and his company, a small data-conversion firm in Leesburg, for sexual harassment. The company fought back with business tort claims against her. During discovery, Van Alstyne learned that the boss who allegedly had propositioned her also had accessed her private e-mail account “at all hours of the day, from home and internet cafes, and from locales as diverse as London, Paris and Hong Kong,” according to the published opinion in Van Alstyne v. Electronic Scriptorium.

Van Alstyne won her claims for violation of the Stored Communications Act in Alexandria federal district court: $150,000 compensatory and $75,000 punitive damages against the boss; $25,000 compensatory and $25,000 punitive damages against the company, and $135,724 in attorney’s fees and costs.

The 4th Circuit panel overturned the awards on Van Alstyen’s SCA claim, saying she had to show actual damages as a prerequisite to statutory damages.

The panel vacated the awards of $150,000 against the boss and $25,000 against the company, which is in bankruptcy. There was nothing wrong, in principle, with awarding punitive damages without a showing of actual damages, the court said. But it remanded for re-evaluation of the entire award.
By Deborah Elkins

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