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Erasure of Phone Data |Did Not Violate Privacy

HOUSTON (CN) - A company that erased all the data on a fired worker's personal cellphone did not violate his privacy rights, a federal judge ruled.

Saman Rajaee went to work as a Houston-area salesman for Design Tech Homes in 2012.

Design Tech is a privately held, family-owned company that has built nearly 2,000 homes for Texas clients. The company does not supply cellphones to its workers and asks them to use their personal devices.

Rajaee used his iPhone for the job and connected it to Design Tech's server to access his company email. After 13 months with Design Tech he gave his two weeks' notice and the company immediately fired him.

But it was what Design Tech did next that provoked Rajaee to sue the company in August 2013.

As described in his complaint, Design Tech remotely accessed his iPhone through its server without any forewarning, and "wiped or erased all of the information on the plaintiff's device, including all of plaintiff's personal and professional information."

Rajaee claims that forever lost along with his more than 600 business contacts, were irreplaceable family photos and videos, including those of his home remodeling project, which he says decreased the project's value by $50,000.

Most importantly, Rajaee said, the loss of his business contacts denied him "a hard-won competitive advantage over others in the residential construction business."

Rajaee contended the company's action violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein disagreed, dismissing the case this week.

Personal data stored on a cellphone is not protected under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Werlein found, referencing 5th Circuit precedent.

As for Rajaee's Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claim, Werlein noted that although the law is a criminal statute, it can also be used as a civil cause of action if the alleged loss is at least $5,000.

While Rajaee tallied the damages from his lost data at more than $100,000, Werlein sided with Design Tech and decided Rajaee's math did not pass muster under the CFAA.

The law defines "loss" as the cost of investigating an alleged violation, restoring the data, or any other damages caused by a service interruption.

"Plaintiff has not produced evidence of any costs he incurred to investigate or respond to the deletion of his data, nor do the losses and damages for which he does produce evidence arise from an 'interruption of service,'" Werlein wrote in the 12-page order.

Werlein declined to exercise jurisdiction over Rajaee's state law claims, which included misappropriation, theft, negligence and conversion, and dismissed them without prejudice so that he can pursue them in state court.

Despite the dismissal, Rajaee's attorney, William Ramey of Houston, said the ruling makes clear that Rajaee has been wronged.

"We're still evaluating the case and we haven't made up our minds whether to appeal or whether to go into state law. Of course we recognize, as the judge sees, there has been a wrong to our client here ... We are thankful that the court has recognized our client has been damaged," Ramey said in a phone interview.

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