The decision to hire an employee doesn't usually involve a consideration of whether the employer-employee relationship might deteriorate in the future. Much like an engagement to be married, people tend to focus on the expected benefits, not the potential pitfalls. But relationships of all kinds can falter and erode - and employment relationships are no different. The law has always captured this conundrum in its employment laws and regulations. It has also deliberately kept up with the ways employees and employers communicate and do business now, much of which is online and with computers.
New Jersey Computer Related Offenses Act (CROA)
The New Jersey Computer Related Offenses Act (CROA) allows an employer to sue for two types of claims for monetary awards - compensatory and punitive - if there is:
damage to a computer, internally or externally; a computer system or computer network,
unauthorized access or attempted unauthorized access,
unauthorized tampering, access, interception, damage or destruction of a financial instrument, or
unauthorized access, reckless alteration, damage, destruction or wrongful obtainment of any data, data base, computer, computer program, computer software, computer equipment, computer system or computer network.
The law is broad in trying to define a "computer related offense," likely to reflect the ever-changing nature of the way computers can be used or abused.
Employee Case Study
A New Jersey Appeals Court recently looked at a case involving a computer company filing suit against its previous employee under CROA. After an upsetting meeting, the employer noticed some strange activity. It kept getting kicked out of its computer system, which meant that another user was logged into the same account at the same time. There was also evidence that the employee had been logging into the network without access. Additionally, a back-up hard drive was missing from the employer's office and security footage monitoring the room where it was held had been deleted. The employer fired the employee when he returned to the office. Shortly after that, the employee started his own company.
As evidence, the employer presented screenshots of the employee's remote activity on the system and presented the legal warning of authorization that the computer system always prompted whenever access to the system was being granted. It also submitted its employee handbook and non-disclosure agreement that each employee was required to sign. The employee claimed that all of this evidence together was insufficient for a judge to decide that he had wrongfully accessed the system or committed any other harms under CROA. The court disagreed and found that there was enough evidence that the employee had violated the law. The judge awarded the company attorneys' fees and other damages.
The key takeaway from this case study is that there are laws that address improper use, access or damage to computers, computer equipment, data systems, and the like. The type of evidence a court may look to can include images that prove some inappropriate action was taken on the computer such as screenshots of access granted or an access log that tracks who on the system and at what time. If you are ever in such a position, this type of tangible product can help a court decide in your favor.
Angela Yu is a New Jersey and New York attorney with a multifaceted practice area focusing in corporate, real estate and general contract law. She uses her interest in real life application of the law to author articles and other scholarship on a broad range of cutting-edge legal and business topics. Ms. Yu is a published legal author and holds a J.D. and M.B.A. from Rutgers School of Law and Rutgers Business School. Neither she nor Mike Farhi provides legal advice on this website. This blog post and any blog posts do not constitute legal advice.