Service of process by e-mail allowed for foreign defendants

Williams-Sonoma Inc. v. Friendfinder Inc., No. 06-6572, 2007 WL 1140639 (N.D.Cal. April 17, 2007).

Williams-Sonoma, the well-known purveyor of kitchen and other household goods, and owner of the POTTERY BARN trademark, filed suit against a number of defendants, seeking ot prevent those defendants from using the POTTERY BARN mark in meta tags and in HTML on certain sexually-explicit websites. Many of the defendants were foreign, and a number of them listed incorrect contact information, which foiled Williams-Sonoma’s attempts to serve process in the traditional manner.

Undaunted, Williams-Sonoma asked the court for an order authorizing it to serve process in the manner in which Williams-Sonoma had already been able to communicate with the defendants – by e-mail. The court granted the request.

To determine whether service of process by e-mail was proper, the court looked at some of the more interstitial parts of Fed. R. Civ. P. 4, which deals with service of process. Rule 4(h) says that foreign businesses may be served in the same manner as individuals not within any judicial district of the United States. Rule 4(f) provides the procedure for that, and allows service “by other means not prohibited by international agreement as directed by the court.”

The court determined that the circumstances of the case warranted service by alternative means. Nodding to Rio Properties, Inc. v. Rio Intern. Interlink, 284 F.3d 1007 (9th Cir. 2002), the court found that Williams-Sonoma had established that e-mail was an effective means of communication with the defendants, and that messages sent to the defendants would serve the purposes of notifying them of the pending litigation. Moreover, there was no indication that service in that manner would contravene any international agreement.