The top court in Massachusetts ruled against Yahoo on Monday by concluding that federal law does not bar it from providing the representatives of a deceased man’s estate access to his email account.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision marked a victory for two people who fought Yahoo for years after their brother’s death in 2006, seeking access to contents of his email account. A probate court still needs to decide whether Yahoo can refuse under its terms of service to provide access to the emails.
A lower-court judge had ruled that a 1986 federal law called the Stored Communications Act prohibited Yahoo from disclosing the emails to the siblings, who pursued the case in their capacity as representatives for John Ajemian’s estate.
But Justice Barbara Lenk wrote that the law, which regulated when service providers could disclose e-mails, did not prevent Yahoo from providing access to representatives of someone’s estate.
“Rather, it permits Yahoo to divulge the contents of the e-mail account where, as here, the personal representatives lawfully consent to disclosure on the decedent’s behalf,” Lenk wrote.
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The ruling appeared to set a notable precedent governing what happens to email after someone dies. Trade groups including the Internet Association, whose members include Alphabet unit Google (GOOGL) and Facebook (FB), had urged the court to rule for Yahoo.
“There have been some other decisions on the periphery of the issue that are cited in the decision,” Robert Kirby, a lawyer for Ajemian’s siblings, said in an email. “But this is the first that addresses the issue squarely.”
Yahoo, now owned by Verizon Communications (VZ), did not respond to requests for comment.
Ajemian died at age 43 in a bicycle accident, leaving no will. He had opened the email account four years earlier.
His siblings Robert and Marianne Ajemian were named the personal representatives. They filed a complaint against Yahoo in probate court in 2009 after it declined to grant them access to the account’s contents, citing the 1986 law.
Yahoo also contented the terms of service governing the account separately allowed it to reject their request. In Monday’s ruling, the court sent the case back to the probate court for further proceedings on that question.
Chief Justice Ralph Gants partially dissented from the other five judges on that holding, saying the siblings “should not have to spend a penny more to obtain estate property in the possession of Yahoo that they need to administer the estate.”