Martin Lomansey, an early twentieth century political boss from Boston, is credited with giving the following warning to young politicians — “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.“
When emailing, it is not often we consider what consequences putting our thoughts into writing and pressing “send” will have down the road. The same traits that make email so appealing – the speed and ease of communication – can also expose pitfalls. These potential issues can be even more important when you serve as a volunteer in your association.
As a general rule for email, save discussions for board meetings (less is more) and email as if your mom is watching over your shoulder (watch what you say). Beyond these common sense warnings regarding brevity and discretion, the following discussion highlights a few issues surrounding email communications in community associations. These issues should be considered when creating or revising an email policy for your association, which is considered good practice.
Emails can be Discoverable
Emails can be discoverable in a litigation context, meaning if the association is involved in litigation, emails sent by directors, officers, committee members, and other volunteers can be sought out by the opposing side. Even outside of litigation, certain emails may be subject to a request for production under Civil Code section 5205, which allows members of the association to make document requests for association books and records. In either scenario, the contents of your email communications, as an association volunteer, could essentially become public.
Separate Email Account for Association Communications
If you serve as a volunteer in your association, then you should have a separate email account for your volunteer role (i.e., [email protected]). Such an account is quite easy to set up and it’s free. Many providers offer free cloud based email accounts that include storage on the cloud for your emails and the ability to sync the email account to your tablet or smartphone so you don’t have to log into a computer separately to gain access (gmail, yahoo and ymail are a few such providers).
Having a separate account helps keep a bright line separation between your communications as an association volunteer and your work or personal communications. This separation is important because if your emails become the subject of a discovery request, it will prevent you from having to sift through and separate association communications from other communications. The separation also helps you realize which hat you are wearing when communicating, which helps keep your association communications thoughtful, brief and professional and lets the recipient know the capacity in which you write them.
Further, litigants have the ability to subpoena an employer for access to your work email if they suspect you were using a work account to conduct association business. This can be problematic because an employer may not take the time to separate out association only emails and may simply produce all emails sent by you on your work account. Not to mention, your employer will likely not be thrilled to receive the subpoena and find you were using a work account for non-work communications!
Cloud Based Services
One caveat to the cloud based services such as gmail, is that they too can be subpoenaed and often are for production of emails during litigation. Therefore, if you do set up a separate association volunteer email address through a free cloud based provider, you must still keep in mind that what you say in an email can be shown to the membership, broadcast to the public or published to a jury down the road.
Shared Email Accounts and Shared Communications
It is also not a good practice to have a shared email account with a spouse or significant other (i.e., [email protected]). Certain privileges that may prevent the discovery of an email communication can be waived or defeated because of the joint nature of an email account. In a scenario where one spouse is a board officer and the other is not, a confidential communication meant for the board officer could become discoverable where it otherwise would not. For the same reason it is not wise to forward or share association emails with third parties.
Use of Email for Association Communications
Finally, when you are communicating over email in your capacity as an association volunteer, everything you say can be construed as being on behalf of the board as a whole. If asked a specific question by a member, use caution when answering and in most cases it is best to direct the member to discuss their issue at the open forum of the next board meeting.
Also, as discussed in other articles (See Email Do’s and Don’ts for Community Associations), except for some very narrow exceptions, email meetings are not allowed and board members should discuss association business at board meetings and not over email.
Next time you are about to press “send” consider the potential impact of your email communication. Remember that when it comes to email, less is more and watch what you say. It is a best practice for your association to have an approved email policy for the board and volunteers setting forth guidelines for procedural items such as the establishment of separate email accounts and for the use of email for association communications such as communications by an individual board member to a member.
 Document requests under Civil Code section 5205 have tight deadlines (as little as 10 days). If you receive one contact your association’s legal counsel immediately.