How private is personal e-mail?
Former Wal-Mart executive Julie Roehm found out the answer to that question the hard way.
One of her personal e-mails has become a central piece of evidence in her vicious legal battle with the retail behemoth.
After Wal-Mart fired the 36-year-old advertising chief in December, she sued the company, claiming that it refused to pay her severance and failed to return personal belongings that she had left behind in her old office.
Last week Wal-Mart got its revenge, going public with allegations that Roehm romanced a subordinate, which violates company policy. The company started investigating her relationship with Vice President Sean Womack after one of Roehm's staffers complained about it, said a spokeswoman for the company.
Wal-Mart's evidence included a personal e-mail between the two co-workers that Roehm claims was exchanged outside of the company's e-mail servers. In general, e-mails exchanged over office computers are considered company property, but those sent through employees' personal computers are deemed private.
So, how did Wal-Mart get its hands on the incriminating message?
Womack's estranged wife reportedly gave it to the retailer last week, after one of the company's lawyers contacted her.
And what prompted the wife, Shelley Womack, to hand over the e-mail? The Wal-Mart attorney apparently made small talk with her about how they both attend services at the same church and mentioned that her husband still hadn't received a $200,000 bonus, according to New York magazine.
Roehm insists that the e-mail consisted only of friendly banter. "It's only eight lines taken from an e-mail," said Roehm. "If you want to take eight lines from an e-mail, you can find anything. I think there's no proof there of anything like they're suggesting."
Roehm and Wal-Mart declined to discuss the content of the e-mail.
The fired exec sees a larger conspiracy at work, claiming that Womack's wife was subtly threatened into handing over the e-mail. "I wasn't on the call but from what I understand, he [the Wal-Mart attorney] called and said that Sean hadn't been paid his bonus and if they could turn it over, then he would be paid."
A Wal-Mart spokesman declined comment, since the matter is in litigation, adding "that's a conversation between a lawyer and Shelley Womack, who is likely to be a witness."
Reached at home, Shelley Womack declined to confirm or deny her role in the case or whether her husband's bonus had been discussed by an attorney for Wal-Mart.
Some legal experts contend that Wal-Mart's attorney shouldn't have contacted Womack's wife in the first place. "I personally wouldn't feel comfortable talking to the spouse of one of the opposing parties involved in the suit," said Janet Hill, the past president of the National Employment Lawyers Association.
As for the admissibility of the e-mail at trial, Hill said that it depends on the legality of how it was obtained. "If a court determined that that e-mail was improperly obtained, the court could as a sanction keep it out," said Hill.
But she emphasized that if it's determined that the e-mail was properly obtained, "there's nothing wrong with Wal-Mart accepting documents that demonstrated a violation of their policies."
While the rhetoric heats up and the saga evolves into a soap opera, Roehm keeps herself busy looking for work and entertaining several offers to write a book about her experience. Over the weekend, she traveled to Miami where she watched the Super Bowl with some friends who work at Sports Illustrated. (The former advertising chief's favorite Super Bowl ad: those viewer-generated Doritos commercials.)
And Roehm continued to insist that office politics played a part in the rumors of a romance. "Define inappropriate for me," said Roehm. "Sean is a great friend, not a romantic friend. He's like a brother to me. Some of my very best friends are men. I know that even in this day and age, it's still hard to think that a woman and a man can be friends."