Metro

Yahoo can’t use federal law to withhold dead man’s e-mails, SJC rules

The justices said the online company can’t use a federal law to withhold a dead man’s e-mails from his family, but whether Yahoo’s terms of service allow that has yet to be settled.
Michael Probst/AP/File
The justices said the online company can’t use a federal law to withhold a dead man’s e-mails from his family, but whether Yahoo’s terms of service allow that has yet to be settled.

Yahoo cannot use a federal law to withhold a dead man’s e-mails from his family, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Monday.

The family of John G. Ajemian, 43, who died in a bike crash in Medfield in 2006, has been engaged in an eight-year legal battle with the company over the e-mails.

Ajemian had no will. His siblings, John and Marianne, were named “personal representatives” of their brother’s estate under state probate law, giving them control of assets or property he left behind. The siblings argued his estate included contents of the Yahoo e-mail account he had used for four years.

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Yahoo declined to release the e-mails, citing a 1986 federal law, the Stored Communications Act.

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Writing for the court, Justice Barbara A. Lenk disagreed.

“We conclude that the SCA does not prohibit such disclosure’’ to people like Ajemian’s siblings, who have legal standing as their brother’s personal representatives, Lenk wrote.

The ruling did not mean, however, that Yahoo has to release the e-mails because another legal issue still needs to be resolved: whether the company’s service agreement gives it the right to withhold, or even destroy, the e-mails.

That issue must be resolved by a Probate and Family Court judge, a majority of the SJC ruled. “Material issues of fact pertinent to the enforceability of the contract remain in dispute,’’ Lenk wrote. “The matter [is] remanded to the Probate and Family Court for further proceedings.”

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Writing separately, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants agreed the SCA does not apply to people whose control over a person’s estate has been approved by the probate courts. But he sharply disagreed with keeping the lawsuit going, and said the Ajemians should have won on both issues.

“The additional cost of further litigation is a financial pinprick to a Web services provider such as Yahoo, but it is a heavy financial burden on the assets of an estate, even a substantial estate,’’ Gants wrote. “The [Ajemians] should not have to spend a penny more to obtain estate property in the possession of Yahoo that they need to administer the estate.”

Martin W. Healy, chief counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, called the court’s support of the siblings a “huge step forward’’ for Massachusetts residents seeking access to electronic property maintained by multinational companies like Yahoo.

“But they punted on the more important question of whether Yahoo’s 11-page terms of services contract will withstand a challenge,’’ Healy said, adding that proposals are pending at the State House to strengthen protections for Massachusetts consumers.

“People’s lives online have become extremely valuable,’’ he noted.

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According to court records, Ajemian sent 522 e-mails and received 774; the single largest recipients were a woman he attended an art history class with and a man who was a longtime friend. The records do not indicate why his siblings have been so determined to gain access to his e-mails.

The attorney for the siblings, Robert L. Kirby Jr., declined to comment.

A lawyer for Oath, the company that now owns Yahoo, also declined to comment.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.