Is the Confidentiality Disclaimer at the Bottom of an Email Legally Binding?

iStock/Mlenny
iStock/Mlenny

For most of us, a day doesn’t go by without receiving a notice that “This email and attached documents may contain confidential information” and that you’re not authorized to read it if you aren’t the intended recipient. Anyone who has ever received one of these has probably wondered: How legally binding are these boilerplates?

The answer is: not very—though that’s not the entire story.

It’s generally agreed by legal experts that the generic boilerplate at the end of many emails has no legal weight behind it. It’s attempting to create a contract, but for a contract to apply both parties need to agree, which doesn’t happen in this case. At best it may make people paranoid about sharing your email and have an effect that way, although not necessarily through the power of law.

One case followed a doctor looking into suing his employer. Perhaps foolishly, the doctor emailed his lawyer from his work email, meaning that the employer felt that any confidentiality had been waived by use of the work email. The doctor disagreed and went to court. Part of the case was that every email sent by the law firm had the same standard disclaimer, but on that point the court ruled “[the law firm’s] pro forma notice at the end of the e-mail is insufficient and not a reasonable precaution to protect its clients.”

And their scope can be limited. One famous case seeking a protective order involved an extremely threatening email that included lines such as “Your most determined, unstoppable, and visceral enemy,” ending with "DISCLAIMER: Not one word herein should be construed by anyone as meaning violent or threatening intentions, and instead the entire contents is to be taken by the strict literary meaning. There have not been, and will be any elucidated threats of violence or intent, either expressed or implied, within the entirety of this document.” The court was unimpressed, granting the protective order and explaining "You can't send documentation of both a threatening and harassing manner and then think that you can get away with that by simply putting a disclaimer on it."

SHOULD I HAVE ONE?

This is not to say it’s useless to put a disclaimer on your emails, particularly with professional correspondence. In 2011 a lawsuit dealt in part with whether a customer list was a confidential trade secret. To maintain a trade secret, you need to take “reasonable efforts” to protect it. And the court determined that for a slew of reasons this customer list didn’t qualify as a trade secret. One of the issues brought up by the judge—though by no means the only one—was that the customer lists were sent to the other party on multiple occasions, and “The emails contain no disclaimer about the confidentiality of the materials attached.” That’s not to say the sending party would have been protected had they included the disclaimer, but the lack of one was a knock against them.

Disclaimers can also protect against contracts being formed. In one case, a real estate investor contacted a bank to inquire about some properties for sale. They signed a negotiation agreement acknowledging that email messages wouldn’t be considered binding. Over email he then made an offer, the bank made a counteroffer, and the investor agreed. The officer at the bank, however, had a disclaimer explaining that any price or term mentioned was not binding until the executive management committee signed off. Eventually the bank declined the agreement and the investor sued arguing breach of contract. The court ultimately ruled “in light of the e-mail disclaimers and the negotiation agreement [the investor] signed, any belief he had that his e-mailed acceptance of the counteroffer had created a binding contract was unreasonable.”

SO WHAT TO DO?

If you want to make your disclaimers count, and have a fighting chance in court if the situation arises, experts have a few suggestions. According to the law firm Reid & Hellyer, “To maximize the chances that such a disclaimer might be found effective, it may be better practice to place it at the beginning, not the end, of an email. However, if one were to do that for all e-mails sent, one might wonder if one really meant for the disclaimer to apply. It might be better practice to use disclaimers sparingly to certain particular emails only, not to every email sent.” But it’s probably best not to count on it to get you out of a jam.

*Disclaimer: this is not intended as a substitute for legal advice. Please consult a lawyer first!

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Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?

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iStock

Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from paraskavedekatriaphobia, a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki.

According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Some street addresses also skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception: in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

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