Plaintiff failed to make key arguments in bid to unmask anonymous online defendants

Plaintiff sued some unknown defendants for breach of contract and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, based on the defendants’ deceptive conduct that tricked some internet users into signing up for plaintiff’s paid services. The unknown defendants would receive affiliate commissions from operating this scheme. This caused reputation problems for plaintiff.

Plaintiff sought early discovery to ascertain the identities of the unknown defendants. The court denied the motion.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not permit a party to seek discovery from the adverse parties in the case until all parties have conducted an initial conference under Rule 26(f). But when the defendants are unknown, that conference cannot take place. So the plaintiff needs to conduct discovery to find out who they are. In situations like these, for the required early discovery to occur and the unknown defendants to be identified (so that the conference can take place), the court must enter an order permitting early discovery.

A court can authorize early discovery to identify unknown defendants if there is good cause. In determining whether there is good cause, courts consider whether the plaintiff:

  • can identify the missing party with sufficient specificity such that the court can determine that defendant is a real person or entity who could be sued in federal court;
  • has identified all previous steps taken to locate the elusive defendant; 
  • has articulated claims against defendant that would withstand a motion to dismiss; and 
  • has demonstrated that there is a reasonable likelihood of being able to identify the defendant through discovery such that service of process would be possible.

In this case, the court found that plaintiff failed to identify the defendants with sufficient specificity, and did not demonstrate that each defendant was a real person or entity who would be subject to jurisdiction in the Northern District of California. Plaintiff had not explained why defendants would be subject to the jurisdiction of the court, as defendants’ activities seemed directed at Argentina, and plaintiff’s harm was felt in Argentina and other parts of Latin America. The only apparent connection defendants had with the Northern District of California was that they used domain name services from California companies. Plaintiff provided no authority to suggest this was sufficient to create jurisdiction.

Plaintiff also failed to explain what steps it had taken to locate defendants. Citing to Columbia Ins. Co. v. seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573 (N.D. Cal. 1999), the court noted that “[t]his element is aimed at ensuring that plaintiffs make a good faith effort to comply with the requirements of service of process and specifically identifying defendants.” 

In its motion, plaintiff only stated that there were no more practical measures that would permit it to identify the unknown defendants, but did not identify what measures – if any – were taken. For example, plaintiff was apparently able to identify defendants as affiliates, and that a contract existed, giving rise to legal liability. It was therefore not clear why plaintiff was unable to identify defendants based on the contract.

Binbit Argentina, S.A. v. Does 1-25, No. 19-5384, 2019 WL 4645159 (N.D. Cal., September 24, 2019)

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