Failure to Check Spam Folder Leads to Missed Deadline

Court notices delivered via email are a known point of vulnerability for law firms: failure to timely check messages, accidental deletion of court notices, or haphazard review of spam folders.

Now The Researching Paralegal reports on the latest variation of this theme.

A trial court clerk in Florida served an order by email awarding a significant amount of attorney fees to the prevailing party (appellee).  The opponent/appellant claimed it did not receive the order, resulting in its failure to file an appeal.  What happened? The opponent/appellant’s email system automatically deleted the court’s email as spam.

The opponent/appellant asked the court to vacate the original order on the grounds of excusable neglect.  The trial court declined and Florida’s First District Court of Appeal affirmed. The Researching Paralegal cites these factors:

First, the review of the court clerk’s email logs confirmed that the email with the court’s order was served and received by the law firm’s server. Second, the law firm’s email configuration made it impossible to determine whether the firm’s server received the email. Third, the law firm’s former IT specialist’s advice against this configuration flaw was deliberately rejected by the law firm because its alternative cost more money.

The trial court concluded the law firm made a conscious decision to use a defective email configuration merely to save money, which was not “excusable neglect.”

Another nail in the coffin was testimony by the appellee’s attorney. His firm assigned a paralegal to check the court’s website every three weeks to safeguard that his firm would not miss any orders or deadlines.  The court held that the appellant had a duty to check the court’s electronic docket.

Emerald Coast Utilities Authority v. Bear Marcus Pointe, LLCCase No. 1D15-5714, Fla: Dist. Court of Appeals, 1st Dist (2017).

What can we learn from Emerald Coast?

  1. Whitelist important email. Set your spam or junk email filters to allow receipt of messages from approved senders or domains. Include courts, administrative agencies, key clients, opposing counsel, and any other senders whose email you don’t want to miss.
  2. Review spam quarantine summaries daily. Aggressive spam filters will occasionally block senders and domains you have added to your whitelist if the filter finds content in the email to be possible spam.  Addresses and domains may also change, causing new notices to be marked as spam.
  3. Don’t forget to look at your junk mail folder, another place where legitimate messages can land.
  4. Check online court dockets. Weekly will work for most firms; others may need to login daily, depending on case volume.
  5. Listen to your IT staff.  Here, the IT specialist argued against automatic deletion of junk and spam messages and recommended hiring a third-party vendor to handle spam filtering.  He also suggested investing in an online backup system, another idea rejected by the law firm.  Following either of these recommendations may have prevented the firm from missing the deadline.

A few more takeaways

  • It should be clear, but just in case:  everyone needs a backup system. If you can’t afford the cost of an online subscription, buy an external hard drive on sale and use the backup utility built into your operating system.  For backup protocols and additional backup options, see How to Backup Your Computer from the Professional Liability Fund (Practice Management > Forms > Technology).
  • Can’t afford a third-party vendor for spam filtering or another IT task?  Understandable, but the work itself still needs to get done. This may mean you, your partner, or your staff.  Technology is a tool, not a substitute for human judgment.

There are some other interesting twists and turns in Emerald Coast.  For examplethe law firm also refused to join in on a motion for a case management conference – a step that would have likely revealed the existence of the attorney fee award.  Additionally, automatic deletion of spam wasn’t the only email configuration procedure that caused problems for this office.  If you have a few moments, read the full opinion here.

Beverly Michaelis – All Rights Reserved 2017

A New Ethics Standard for Client Email?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away the ABA issued Formal Ethics Opinion 99-413, the gist of which was to give law firms a free pass when it came to email encryption. Since 1999, technology has evolved by leaps and bounds, the ABA has updated its model rules, and cybersecurity is a national concern.  Therefore, it should be no surprise the ABA chose to revisit its 18 year-old position on email and electronic communications.

The New ABA Standard

Is email encryption required by the new ABA opinion?  Yes and no.

As Bob Ambrogi reports in his blog:

In this new opinion, the committee declined to draw a bright line as to when encryption is required or as to the other security measures lawyers should take. Instead, the committee recommended that lawyers undergo a “fact-based analysis” that includes evaluating factors such as:

  • The sensitivity of the information.
  • The likelihood of disclosure if additional safeguards are not employed.
  • The cost of employing additional safeguards.
  • The difficulty of implementing the safeguards.
  • The extent to which the safeguards adversely affect the lawyer’s ability to represent clients (e.g., by making a device or important piece of software excessively difficult to use).

However, special security precautions may be required “to protect against the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of client information when required by an agreement with the client or by law, or when the nature of the information requires a higher degree of security.” ABA Formal Opinion 477.

The Oregon Standard

The last bit of ABA Formal Opinion 477 may sound familiar to Oregon lawyers.  In this article written by Helen Hierschbiel in 2010, the bar gave us some insight on the topic of electronic communications, including email:

Although use of electronic communications is not a per se violation of the duty of confidentiality, special precautions may be necessary in particular circumstances. For example, if information is particularly sensitive or subject to a confidentiality agreement, a lawyer may need to implement special security measures. Also, if a client requests it, a lawyer may be required to avoid, or be allowed to use, a particular type of electronic communication notwithstanding expectations of privacy in the communication method.

While the article cites to a model rule that was later amended, the parallels between Hierschbiel’s language and that of the new opinion are hard to miss.  Bottom line? Email encryption is required if the circumstances warrant it.

Choosing an Email Encryption App

Fortunately, Bob Ambrogi has come to our rescue yet again.  In his article, Encryption so Easy a Lawyer Can Do It, Bob discusses three incredibly simple solutions that allow lawyers to send encrypted messages.  No more clunky interface requiring the sender to transmit keys before the recipient decrypts the message.  No more need for both parties to use the same software.  (Although a simple plug-in may be needed, depending on the software you choose.)

With secure cloud-based solutions Enlocked, Virtru, or Delivery Trust, Ambrogi concludes:

What all three programs have in common is that they make encryption as easy as the push of a button.  If you use email to communicate with clients or colleagues about sensitive matters – and what lawyer does not? – you have no excuse not to encrypt.

What To Do Next

  • Encrypt all client email, not some client email.  Why?  Mainly to eliminate guesswork, reduce risk, and preserve your sanity.  Not convinced?  Consider how clients might view on again/off again encryption: some messages are worth protecting and other’s aren’t?  Hmmm….
  • Put sensitive content behind a secure client portal.  Many practice management programs have this functionality, but if yours doesn’t, consider Slack.
  • Discuss electronic communication policies with clients and reiterate them in your fee agreement or engagement letter.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Best of 60 Tips in 60 Minutes – 2017 ABA TECHSHOW

Yesterday I shared the Best in Mobile Apps for IOS and Android from the 2017 ABA TECHSHOW.  Today: the Best of 60 Tips in 60 Minutes with ideas on:

  • Blockchain Technology [A direct payment solution that bypasses banks]
  • Document and Workflow Automation
  • Document Indexing
  • Email
  • eSignatures
  • Facebook Advertising
  • Hardware Hacks
  • Lawyer Websites
  • Meeting Apps
  • Microsoft Office
  • Mirroring Content from Mobile Devices
  • Mobile Scanners
  • Note Taking
  • Online Collaboration
  • Online Intake
  • Organization
  • Outsourcing Tasks
  • Practice Management Software
  • Productivity
  • Proofreading
  • Saving Money
  • Scheduling Assistants
  • Security
  • Social Media Management
  • Slide Presentations
  • Spam
  • Timekeeping
  • Travel
  • Virtual Assistants
  • Web Conferencing

For a recap, click here or on the image below.