The High Court recently heard a claim brought by Mark Richmond, a former employee of the defendant, Selecta.
The parties had been undergoing negotiations regarding the termination of Richmond’s employment. During the process, Richmond handed over Company property including passwords to his online accounts, allowing Selecta to check that no Company information was being stored on these accounts.
Selecta accessed the accounts and found Company information on an iCloud account. They changed the password on the account, to prevent Richmond from accessing that Company information, but this left him unable to access other accounts on his personal device.
As a separate issue, Richmond claimed that the parties had also agreed to allow him to keep a car owned by the Company, which he had driven home. However, no registration document was handed to him in this regard.
It later transpired that Richmond had intentions to set up a new business and Selecta believed this to be in breach of the agreement that they had been in the process of negotiating. Selecta therefore summarily dismissed Richmond and a recovery agent made a failed attempt to retrieve the Company car.
The Court handed down Judgment as follows:-
It was clear that a written Termination Agreement was intended by the parties as drafts were circulated, but a final form was yet to be agreed and signed. Therefore, no binding contract had been formed in respect of the terms on which Richmond’s employment would terminate.
This was key, because this meant that the parties’ employer-employee relationship still existed when Selecta changed the password and when Richmond drove the car home.
The Court found that whilst Selecta had the right to protect its own interests by accessing the accounts provided by Richmond, they had no right to change the password. This was found to be a breach of the duty of care owed by an employer to an employee. Selecta was held liable to pay £1,000 in damages to Richmond.
In the absence of a Termination Agreement, Selecta was under no contractual obligation to give the car to Richmond. Moreover, if it had been intended that ownership of the car would change hands, one would have expected Selecta to have handed over the registration document to Richmond. Since his employment had not terminated at that time, the fact that Richmond was allowed to drive the vehicle home was not indicative of his ownership. Richmond was held liable to repay the value of the car to Selecta.
The above case is interesting to note in the current age of technology. Intangible property is a growing element in the field of employment law as more people work from home and access documents remotely. It is important to be aware of what rights each party has, especially if these are accessed on personal devices that store personal data.
Please note that this information is provided for general knowledge only and therefore specific advice should be sought for individual cases.