The March 26, 2018 decision in Hopper v. Schletter Inc., 17-cv-01, 2018 WL 1472485 (W.D. North Carolina 2018) leaves no question that courts are now prepared to hold employers liable if they disclose their employees’ information by mistake. And, if courts around the country adopt the reasoning in Hopper, employers can expect to have their cybersecurity protocols closely scrutinized after a breach or other incident.

On April 19, 2016, the defendant in Hopper, Schletter Group, sent a letter advising its employees and former employees that Schletter had sent its employees’ W-2 forms by mistake to a third-party after it fell prey to a phishing scam. Schletter offered credit monitoring and identity theft protection to those impacted. After the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit seeking alleged damages as a result of this incident, Schletter filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. The District Court denied Schletter’s motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims for negligence and breach of implied contract, invasion of privacy and violations of North Carolina’s Unfair Trade Practices and Privacy Acts. The District Court, however, dismissed the breach of fiduciary duty claim.

As an initial step, the District Court discussed all the warnings it believed Schletter had about phishing scams before it fell prey. In finding Schletter had ample notice of the potential for an incident, the District Court listed various FBI warnings, IRS alerts, articles and examples available of emails used in similar scams that it believed Schletter should have been aware of before the incident. After discussing all the ways the District Court believed the Defendant should have been aware of this scam, the District Court stated that “[d]espite the widespread prevalence of spoofing aimed at obtaining confidential information from employers and despite the warnings of the 2016 tax season W-2 email scam, [Schletter] provided its employees with unreasonably deficient training on cybersecurity and information transfer protocols prior to the Data Disclosure.” The District Court called Schletter’s preparation and response into question. The District Court provided the following examples of how it believed Schletter failed to properly train its employees:

  • How to detect phishing and spoofing emails and other scams including providing employees examples of these scams and guidance on how to verify if emails are legitimate;
  • Effective password management and encryption protocols for internal and external emails;
  • Avoidance of responding to emails that are suspicious or from unknown sources;
  • Locking, encrypting and limiting access to computers and files containing sensitive information;
  • Implementing guidelines for maintaining and communicating sensitive data; and
  • Protecting sensitive employee information, including personal and financial information, by implementing protocols on how to request and respond to requests for the transfer of such information and how to securely send such information through a secure file transfer system to only known recipients.

Based on this criteria, the District Court concluded “[t]he Data Disclosure was caused by the Defendant’s failure to abide by best practices and industry standards concerning the security of its computer and payroll processing systems.” In further support of its conclusion, the District Court listed the various ways it found Schletter had failed to implement the proper security measures to protect the W-2s.

Finally, the District Court opined that the two years of identity protection provided to Schletter’s employees was inadequate because the service “has neither prevented the Plaintiffs from experiencing fraudulent activity using their Personal Information nor alerted them that they had fallen victim to identity theft.”

Based on these findings, the District Court held Plaintiffs could survive Schletter’s motion to dismiss. In particular, the District Court denied Schletter’s motion to dismiss on the following grounds:

  • Negligence and Breach of Implied Contract Claims: The Plaintiffs claimed that they were required to provide their Personal Information as a condition of their employment and Schletter failed to protect that information. The District Court found the allegations were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss on the negligence/breach of implied contract claims.
  • Invasion of Privacy: The Plaintiffs claimed Schletter’s unauthorized disclosure of Personal Information resulted in an invasion of the Plaintiffs’ privacy by intrusion. The District Court found Plaintiffs’ allegations that their names, birthdates, addresses and Social Security numbers were disclosed without authorization was sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.
  • Breach of Fiduciary Duty: The Plaintiffs claimed that Schletter was a “fiduciary in matters connected with their employment.” The District Court rejected Plaintiffs’ claim by finding Plaintiffs’ allegations that Schletter had a fiduciary duty merely by virtue of being an employer was insufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.
  • Unfair Trade Practices and Privacy Acts: The Plaintiffs final causes of action were based on claimed violations of North Carolina’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act and Identity Protection Act. The District Court found Plaintiffs’ allegations were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss when they allege that Schletter “intentionally disclosed their Social Security numbers to an unauthorized third party and that the Defendant should have known in the exercise of reasonable diligence that the third party lacked a legitimate purpose for obtaining this information.”

The District Court’s reasoning should cause all data collectors to look at their cybersecurity protocols. This case may signal a shift by courts to start holding data collectors responsible for cyber incidents even though the disclosure was the result of being tricked by a sophisticated criminal. The outcome of this case may have been dramatically different a few years back before there was a large body of information available on proper safeguards. The District Court’s decision should not be misinterpreted to require all data collectors be liable if they have an incident. Rather, this decision merely establishes that a data collector may be held liable if a court finds the data collector failed to take necessary steps which includes employee training.