Caselaw: When Bad Security Makes for Invalid Electronic Signatures

Signatures are essential – as in, legally required – for many healthcare records, among them medical records, drug orders and prescriptions. Failure to sign violates licensing and frequently other state law provisions, and in some cases federal requirements and accreditation standards.Federal and state laws – E-SIGN and the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA, adopted in almost all states) also permit electronic signatures, and these have become a standard part of electronic health record (EHR) and electronic prescribing (e-Rx) systems.

Neither E-SIGN nor UETA specify the technologies which are acceptable as electronic signatures, but instead leave it up to the agreement of the parties. As a matter of law, then, an electrronic signature is any “electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to or logically associated with a record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record.” For example, when you download a new application you are usually confronted with several pages of license agreement and a “click to accept” button, or something similar. When you click the button, you are executing an electronic process (the results of the click) logically associated with a record (the license agreement) with intent to sign (implied by the fact that you clicked after being asked if you accept the license agreement). From a legal point of view, you have just electronically signed the license agreement.

As you can imagine, this open standard creates many opportunities for error and fraud. You could click to accept without intending to, just because you’re fumble-fingered. (This is why double-click is often better solution.) Somebody else could log on to your account, or create an account using your information, and “sign” records in your name – for example, bank transfer authorizations. And so on.

The security of the process used to create an electronic signature is therefore essential to its reliability, and both E-SIGN and UETA have provisions allowing an electronic signature’s validity to be proven by evidence of the “efficacy” of the security of the process. Conversely, “bad” security may be grounds to contest an electronic signature, and even have it thrown out.

This recently happened in a Kansas federal district court case, Kerr v. Dillard Store Services. The record there was an arbitration agreement potentially applicable to the plaintiff’s discrimination claim against her employer.In Kerr, the employer required employees “to memorialize their arbitration agreements by executing electronic arbitration agreements
through an intranet computer system.” The signature process was as follows:

To access the intranet each associate had a unique, confidential password that was created by and known only to the associate. Executing the agreement to arbitrate required the associate to (1) enter his or her social security number or associate identification number (AIN); (2) enter his or her secure password and; (3) click the “accept” option at the bottom of the arbitration agreement screen.

The execution transaction was confirmed by an email to the employee. All in all, a pretty standard electronic signature process, better than many, in my experience.

Dillard, the employer, tried to hold employee Kerr to the online arbitration agreement it claimed she had signed. However, the plaintiff claimed she never executed this process, and the burden of proof was on the employer. The court found for Kerr, reasoning that:

The problem with Dillard’s position is that it did not have adequate procedures to maintain the security of intranet passwords, to restrict authorized access to the screen which permitted electronic execution of the arbitration agreement, to determine whether electronic signatures were genuine or to determine who opened individual emails. . . . Therefore, it is not inconceivable Champlin [the store secretary] or a supervisor logged on to plaintiff’s account and executed the agreement. . . . Dillard’s has not demonstrated the efficacy of its security procedures with regard to electronic signature. . . . On this record, the Court cannot find that it is more likely than not true that plaintiff executed the electronic agreement to arbitrate.


While Kerr is not legally binding authority, as an unpublished district court decision, it does demonstrate the pitfalls of bad security for electronic signature processes as well. Healthcare organizations, which depend on signed records for essential functions associated with some of their most significant liabilities, might do well to consider how their solutions would look in court.

Related Posts


I Seem to be a Spime: Why Nobody Wants EHRs and PHRs

How’s that for an obscure subject line? Please bear with me; I will explain. And if you, like me, have been trying to figure out how to implement electronic health records (EHRs) and personal health record (PHRs) in the face of seemingly unrelenting foot-dragging and friction, you might even find this worth reading. First off, […]

Read story

One Response to Caselaw: When Bad Security Makes for Invalid Electronic Signatures