E-Mail Legalese. SMTP POP3 WTF BBQ
August 30, 2007 11:45 AM   Subscribe

E-Mail Legalese Signatures: This email is only intended for the recipient, if you are not the recipient, please douse your computer in moonshine and howl at the moon. We have all seen these crop up, but has anyone seen proof that they are worth anything?

Every day the amount of (legit) emails that comes into my mailbox seems to grow with signatures like "This email is confidential" all the way to "IF YOU ARE NOT THE INTENDED RECIPIENT, YOU MUST DESTROY ALL RECORD OF THIS EMAIL FROM YOUR SYSTEM".

At first I thought it was some office intern somewhere trying to impress the boss, but as I see more and more of these I wonder... is there any point?

In the Federal and State case law I have searched, I can't find any indemnification achieved by putting it in an email. Likewise I haven't found any libel or slander suits that have been dismissed by this email line. Is there any point to these disclaimers, besides making the sender feel important, that I'm missing?
posted by cavalier to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
(Never underestimate the ability for office workers or lawyers to be pompous and officious. I think it's a knee-jerk overreaction to the perceived informality of email.)
posted by cmiller at 11:49 AM on August 30, 2007

Good question, I'm interested to know the answer as well. It seems like it's very similar to the signs posted in parking lots informing you that the store is not responsible for damage etc; I remember reading somewhere that the signs are not necessarily valid as the consumer does not actually agree to them, but I can't seem to find where I read that.
posted by Meagan at 11:52 AM on August 30, 2007

I think these started as a way to protect the attorney-client privilege in the case of inadvertant disclosures of privilged communications.
posted by probablysteve at 11:57 AM on August 30, 2007

Best answer: Previously

The Slate article mentioned therein can now be found here.
posted by O9scar at 11:57 AM on August 30, 2007

Response by poster: Son of a bitch, thanks O9scar, I swear I did a Yahoo and a Google search.. :(
posted by cavalier at 11:58 AM on August 30, 2007

E-mail disclaimers only have legal force if they are in Comic Sans.

Signs in parking lots might be different because you are getting something of value (a parking place) for agreeing to their rules, and you can choose not to park in the parking lot if you disagree.
posted by grouse at 12:06 PM on August 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Neat question. This document has some citations to different state legal ethics laws requiring or reccomending that lawyers in those states encrypt emails and/or include confidentiality warnings. It also asserts that the Graham-Leach-Bliley Act requires attorneys to take various safeguards of confidentiality in all areas, including email - although I did not read the Act fully to determine whether it actually requires email disclaimers.

This ABA Opinion 99-413 has some interesting comments, comparing the propriety of email transmission of sensitive information to the facsimile transmission of sensitive information, and noting that accidental misdirection or incorrect delivery really is a concern, and that appropriate/reasonable measures need to be taken to limit those risk.

I was quite interested to note that the Google hits I got on this subject came from companies asserting that it was desperately important that you include legal disclaimers or you could get the pants sued off of you, but with only very vague citations to support that point, if any.
posted by bunnycup at 12:07 PM on August 30, 2007

I'm in charge of email for theh company I work at. We have these disclaimers on all our outbound mail. We're forced by our legal department to do it. Everyone in the IT department knows it's a pointless waste of electrons, but we're forced to do it.
It's common enough that every mail system I've seen has the capability built in. That wasn't true even a few years ago.
posted by Eddie Mars at 12:13 PM on August 30, 2007

The IRS apparently requires a disclaimer related to tax advice. I get emails from tax attorneys all the time with this one:

"Tax Advice Disclosure: To ensure compliance with requirements imposed by the IRS under Circular 230, you are hereby informed that any U.S. federal tax advice contained in the Information, unless otherwise specifically stated, was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (1) avoiding penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (2) promoting, marketing, or recommending to another party any matters addressed in the Information."
posted by Carbolic at 12:22 PM on August 30, 2007

I am a newspaper reporters, and sometimes I conduct e-mail interviews with people who have these disclaimers at the bottom of their messages. As long as there is clear and full understanding from the beginning that I intend to print what I am told, I ignore the disclaimer.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:50 PM on August 30, 2007

grr, a "newspaper reporter"
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:51 PM on August 30, 2007

I think it's more likely that lawyers are looking to protect themselves from ethics complaints / violations (see bunnycup's ABA cite), not from state or federal laws.
posted by falconred at 6:03 PM on August 30, 2007

The first Google hit for email disclaimer is a site that says they're a Good Thing.

I prefer the second hit.
posted by flabdablet at 10:29 PM on August 30, 2007

I've always assumed that the legalese was there in order to prevent someone else from claiming that they didn't "know" that the email shouldn't have been forwarded; in essence, to make it clear that if the email was forwarded, then it must have been forwarded in bad faith. So interesting to read the links here.
posted by davejay at 11:55 PM on August 30, 2007

The only people legally obligated to include pointless email disclaimers are lawyers. If you're not a lawyer you don't need to worry about it. If you have a legal obligation regarding the confidentiality of your communications, the disclaimer can show some diligence on your part if you were sued for accidentally sending it somewhere it shouldn't have gone. But to my knowledge, no one in human history has every been sued due to an omitted email disclaimer nor has it's inclusion or omission ever effected the results of a case, so this is all pure speculation. It certainly got out of hand.

Lawyers on the other hand do have obligations on their communications and advertising. The BAR regulations vary and so far generally do not specifically single out email communications, so it's hard to know how to apply them to email and all law firms do it a bit differently.

My favorite disclaimer, lawyers are required to inform people that just because they gave advice to someone before and it turned out good, that doesn't mean it's going to happen for you. The lawyers twiddled that down into "Prior outcomes do not guarantee future results." Some of the best legalese there is. So zen. And it works on so many levels. Deep man.
posted by d723 at 8:14 PM on December 27, 2007

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