Category Archives: Litigation

Prosecutor’s Facebook postings did not warrant overturning conviction

State v. Usee, 2011 WL 2437271 (Minn. App. June 20, 2011)

A jury convicted defendant of attempted murder and other violent crimes. He asked the court for a Schwartz hearing (which is what they call these things in Minnesota) to evaluate whether a posting by the prosecutor on her public Facebook page improperly influenced the jury. According to affidavits that defendant submitted to the court, the prosecutor made the culturally insensitive remark that she was keeping the streets safe from Somalis.

The trial court denied the motion for a Schwartz hearing. Defendant sought review. On appeal, the court affirmed the denial of the motion.

It held that there was no evidence that the Facebook posting led to any jury misconduct. The jurors had been instructed not to research the case. (And we all know that jurors take those instructions seriously, right?) Any harm to defendant’s interests, the court found, would merely be speculative.

More subpoenas on the way to identify John Doe BitTorrent users in copyright cases

First Time Videos v. Does 1-37, 2011 WL 1431619 (N.D. California, April 14, 2011)

Hard Drive Productions v. Does 1-118, 2011 WL 1431612 (N.D. California, April 14, 2011)

There have been a couple of new cases filed in federal court in California alleging that unknown BitTorrent users committed copyright infringement and engaged in civil conspiracy by trading porn files online. [Read about some earlier, ongoing cases of this type here and here]. The court has issued orders that move the process of uncovering the identities of the John Doe defendant BitTorrent users.

Generally a plaintiff cannot start the discovery process in a case until it has had a “Rule 26(f)” conference with the defendant. But when the defendants are anonymous (as they are in these BitTorrent cases — they’re known only by IP address), the plaintiff has a bit of a problem. It needs discovery to find out the names of the defendants, but it cannot take discovery before the Rule 26(f) conference. [More on this]

So in cases like this, a plaintiff will ask the court to allow the early discovery to be had. Courts grant those motions allowing early discovery when good cause has been shown.

In this case, the court allowed the discovery because the following four criteria had been met:

(1) The plaintiffs had identified the Doe defendants with sufficient specificity that the court could determine that the defendants are real people who can be sued in federal court. On this point, the court credited the list of IP addresses associated with each of the unknown defendants.

(2) The plaintiffs recounted the steps taken to locate and identify the defendants. Again, the court looked to the fact that the defendants were known only by IP addresses. The names of the defendants could not be ascertained from the information available.

(3) The plaintiffs demonstrated that the action could withstand a motion to dismiss. In some cases this is a tough hurdle to get over. But in copyright cases the threshold can be met relatively easily — simply alleging ownership of a copyright and unlawful copying satisfies this element.

(4) The plaintiffs proved that the discovery was likely to lead to identifying information that will permit service of process. Getting the subscriber information from the ISPs would allow names to be associated with the IP addresses, for further action to be taken.

(The above 4-factor test is drawn from Columbia Ins. Co. v. seescandy. com, 185 F.R.D. 573, 578–80 (N.D.Cal.1999).)

So ISPs across the country will be getting peppered with more subpoenas, and sending out letters to their John Doe subscribers, giving deadlines to move to quash the subpoenas. More mad scramble to protect identities is on its way.

Texas supreme court says identities of anonymous bloggers should not be disclosed

In re Does, — S.W.3d —, 2011 WL 1447544 (Texas, April 15, 2011)

The issue of anonymity is a hot topic in internet law. The question of whether an internet user known only by an IP address or username or website name should be identified arises fairly often in the early stages of internet defamation and certain copyright infringement cases. For example, the issue is a big one in the numerous copyright cases that have been brought recently against BitTorrent users who get subpoenas after being accused of trading copyrighted works online.

The supreme court of Texas has issued an opinion that protects the anonymity of a couple of bloggers who were accused of defamation, copyright infringement and invasion of privacy by another blogger. The court ordered that a subpoena served on Google (who hosted the Blogger accounts in question) be quashed.

Texas rules of procedure (Rule 202) allow a petitioner to take depositions before a lawsuit is filed in order to investigate a potential claim. The petitioner in this case filed such an action, and Google agreed to turn over the information about the anonymous Blogger users.

But the anonymous bloggers objected, and moved to quash the deposition subpoena, arguing that the findings required for the discovery to be taken had not been made.

The trial court was required to find that:

(1) allowing the petitioner to take the requested depositions may prevent a failure or delay of justice in an anticipated suit; or

(2) the likely benefit of allowing the petitioner to take the requested deposition to investigate a potential claim outweighs the burden or expense of the procedure.

Neither of these findings were made. Petitioner had tried to argue that the findings were not necessary because he had gotten the agreement of Google to turn over the information.

But the court saw how that missed the point. It held that without the required findings, the discovery could not be taken in the face of objections brought by other interested parties (the parties whose identities were at risk of being revealed).

While many courts have evaluated this kind of question using a first amendment analysis (i.e., is the John Doe’s interest in speaking anonymously outweighed by the plaintiff’s right to seek redress), the court in this case looked to more general concerns of avoiding litigation abuse. Citing to a law review article by Professor Hoffman, the court observed that there is “cause for concern about insufficient judicial attention to petitions to take presuit discovery” and that “judges should maintain an active oversight role to ensure that [such discovery is] not misused”.

MySpace evidence was inadmissible hearsay

Musgrove v. Helms, 2011 WL 1225672 (Ohio App. 2 Dist. April 1, 2011)

An Ohio domestic relations court ordered an ex-wife to pay her ex-husband child support. Based on evidence that the ex-wife’s income had increased, the court increased the amount of support she had to pay. One of the pieces of evidence the court relied on was information from the ex-wife’s MySpace page where she had stated her income was “less than $30,000.” (This comported with other evidence suggesting her income was around $29,000).

The ex-wife sought review of the order increasing child support with the appellate court. On appeal, the court found the MySpace page to be inadmissible hearsay, and vacated that portion of the order.

The finding turned on a nuance of the rules of evidence pertaining to hearsay. Generally, hearsay is inadmissible as evidence, but there are exceptions. One of the exceptions is statements made by the declarant that are against her interest. The court found that although the MySpace information was used in a way adverse to the ex-wife’s interest (i.e., to increase her support obligation), as a declaration it was not adverse to her interest because it was not an assertion of fact which was by its nature contrary to her interest.

So this case is a reminder that notwithstanding any increased interest in the discoverability of social media evidence, the rules in place may serve to render the information discovered ultimately useless later in the litigation.

Court: Mark Zuckerberg lives in California

Ceglia v. Zuckerberg, — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 1108607 (W.D.N.Y. March 28, 2011)

Well, maybe that title is a bit of an oversimplification. Technically the court said that Facebook’s founder is domiciled in California. The issue came up in a breach of contract case against Zuckerberg and Facebook in federal court in New York.

Last year, one Paul Ceglia sued in New York state court, claiming he owns 84 percent of Facebook. Zuckerberg and Facebook removed the case to federal court. Defendants can do that if the court would have subject matter jurisdiction over the case. Since a breach of contract case arises under state law, there needed to be diversity jurisdiction in the case — that is, the parties must be domiciled in different states. (The amount in controversy must also be above $75,000. An 84 percent cut of a multibillion dollar company would seem to meet that criterion.)

Zuckerberg claimed that California had become his domicile since 2004. Ceglia challenged that assertion. In the ConnectU v. Facebook litigation, Zuckerberg had claimed New York as his domicile. And Zuckerberg had the burden of proving his change in domicile by clear and convincing evidence. The court found that such evidence existed, including the following biographical tidbits:

  • He currently resides in California and has done so continuously since the summer of 2004.
  • He has no other residences.
  • He does not own real property in New York, California or elsewhere.
  • In 2007, he purchased and registered a vehicle in California.
  • He does not own or lease any other vehicles.
  • Zuckerberg has paid California resident income taxes since 2004.
  • He lists his California residence on his federal income tax returns.
  • He has not filed taxes in any state other than California since 2004.
  • Since at least 2007, he has been registered to vote in California and has voted in California.
  • He possess a valid California driver’s license issued in 2006.
  • His bank and brokerage accounts list his California residence and his investment advisors are located in California.
  • Zuckerberg receives his mail at a California post office box and at his Facebook office.
  • Most significantly, however, he is the owner, founder and CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation with over 1,600 employees and a principal place of business within walking distance to his current residence in Palo Alto, California.

The court found that these facts overwhelmingly showed that as of June 2010 (when Ceglia filed the lawsuit), Zuckerberg had changed his domicile to California and intended to remain there indefinitely. Since diversity jurisdiction existed, the court ordered the case to remain in federal court.

Court leaves thousands of BitTorrent copyright infringement defendants joined in single action

Call of the Wild Movie v. Does 1 – 1,062 — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 996786 (D.D.C. March 22, 2011)

One of the craziest things about the copyright infringement lawsuits that have been brought against BitTorrent users accused of trading movies over the internet is the vast number of John Doe defendants that are usually lumped into one case. After the plaintiff copyright owners file a complaint for infringement — sometimes against thousands of anonymous defendants — they ask the court for leave to take expedited discovery. Then the movie companies serve subpoenas on the John Does’ internet service providers, asking the ISPs to disclose the identities of their customers associated with particular IP addresses.

Prosecuting a case against thousands of copyright infringement defendants is an enormous task, both for the plaintiffs’ attorneys as well as the ISPs who must respond to the subpoenas. Having so many defendants risks making the case unmanageable. So one may question whether it is appropriate under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to have so many unknown defendants all in the same case. In the nomenclature of civil litigation, the question is whether the joinder of all the defendants in one action is appropriate.

In three of the BitTorrent copyright cases pending in federal court in Washington DC brought by the US Copyright Group on behalf of a handful of independent film makers, groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and others argued improper joinder. These organizations filed amicus briefs in the cases of Call of the Wild Movie v. Does 1 – 1,062, Maverick Entertainment v. Does 1 – 4,350, and Donkeyball Movie v. Does 1 – 171, arguing that joining all the defendants in one action violated Rule 20 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The court rejected these arguments, finding that joinder was proper, at least in such early stages of the litigation where the defendants had not yet been identified.

The court considered three factors when answering the question of proper joinder: (1) whether the claims arose from the same transaction or occurrence or series of transactions or occurrences, (2) whether the legal and factual questions are common to all defendants, (3) and whether joinder would cause prejudice to any party or needless delay.

Same transaction or occurrence

The court observed that claims against joined parties must be “logically related,” and that this is a flexible test, with courts seeking the broadest possible scope of action. The court held that the claims against the BitTorrent users were logically related, based on plaintiffs’ allegations that the BitTorrent protocol makes every downloader of a file also an uploader, and accordingly, every user who has a copy of the infringing file on the network must necessarily be a source of download for that infringing file. This is an interesting finding, in that the strength of plaintiffs’ allegations were based on how BitTorrent works.

Common legal and factual questions

As for this second factor, the court found that the legal and factual questions were common because the parties would be litigating the same copyright claims, and all of the claims related to the use of BitTorrent.

Prejudice or needless delay

The court said some intriguing things about the interests of the parties in making its findings on this factor. For one, it said that leaving all the defendants joined in the same action would benefit them all, in that they would be able to see the defenses that other defendants were making. The court also expressed concern in favor of the efficiencies afforded the plaintiffs in filing these mass lawsuits. The plaintiff movie studios have been criticized for filing suit against large numbers of defendants in one action rather than separate suits against each defendant (and thereby having to pay only one filing fee to start the action versus several thousand filing fees). The court saw this question squarely in favor of plaintiff. It found that forcing plaintiffs to administer multiple actions, and having to pay the filing fees in all those actions “would certainly not be in the ‘interests of convenience and judicial economy,’ or ‘secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of the action.’”

Drunk reality show participant’s invasion of privacy claim stays in court, for now

Amirmotazedi v. Viacom, Inc., — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 802134 (D.D.C. March 9, 2011)

Plaintiff sued the producers of The Real World (MTV, Viacom and Bunim-Murray Productions) for, among other things, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress over the way that the show portrayed her in an episode and in outtakes posted on the web. Defendants moved to dismiss, claiming that the plaintiff signed a release on the night she visited the Real World house, and that the release’s arbitration clause meant the case did not belong in court. The court denied the motion.

To argue against the enforceability of the arbitration provision, plaintiff asserted that she was so drunk on the night of the filming that she lacked the mental capacity to understand the significance of the arbitration provision. (This is called the voluntary intoxication defense.)

The court sided with plaintiff, finding that plaintiff’s mental capacity defense went to the question of formation, or the “making” of the agreement to arbitrate, thus under the Federal Arbitration Act, the question of the arbitration provision’s enforceability must be decided by the court. That’s not to say that the court won’t ultimately kick the case into arbitration. It’s just that the case stays before the court for now to determine whether plaintiff’s voluntary intoxication defense requires the agreement to be voided.

Related: California court invalidates Alienware arbitration provision in online terms and conditions

What is a reasonable cost that should count as loss under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?

1st Rate Mortg. Corp. v. Vision Mortgage Services Corp., 2011 WL 666088 (E.D.Wis. Feb. 14, 2011)

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is a popular weapon that employers use against former employees who steal information on the job. But since the employees just use their credentials to get information off the server, there really is no security breach that occurs in those inside jobs.

So you might tend to agree that the employer overreacts when, after discovering the nefarious acts of its employees, it conducts a thorough and expensive security analysis of its whole system. Just delete the offending employees’ accounts and move on, right?

And this overreaction shouldn’t give the employer something to sue over that it would not have had if it reacted reasonably to the threat, don’t you think? After all, plaintiffs have a duty to mitigate their damages.

The defendants (accused former employee information thieves) in a recent federal case in Wisconsin argued along these lines in their summary judgment brief. But the court did not buy it at the summary judgment stage – whether a CFAA plaintiff’s reaction to alleged theft is “reasonable” should be answered by the jury.

The CFAA allows a plaintiff to recover its “loss.” And courts have interpreted the term “loss” to include the cost of responding to a security breach. But the statute says that loss includes the “reasonable cost to any victim.”

In this case, defendants argued that the employer’s overreaction in doing a system-wide analysis caused the employer to incur an unreasonable (and therefore uncompensable) cost. The court held, however, that “[w]hat matters is whether the employer’s reaction was reasonable, not whether it was strictly necessary to continuing in business.” A jury may well conclude the reaction and its related costs were appropriate.

Tweet by friend of husband of jury foreperson did not taint jury trial

U.S. v. Forde, 2011 WL 63831 (4th Cir. January 10, 2011)

Defendant was convicted of bankruptcy fraud and some other similar crimes. One of his arguments on appeal was that the trial court judge erred by not holding a hearing to investigate alleged juror impropriety. The jury foreperson’s husband’s friend had posted the following tweet during the trial:

assume: suppose to be the case, without proof; presume: suppose that something is the case on the basis of probability.

The appellate court rejected the defendant’s argument. It held that the duty to investigate juror impropriety arises only when the party alleging misconduct makes and adequate showing of extrinsic influence to overcome the presumption of jury impartiality. “In other words, there must be something more than mere speculation.”

The court found that “the string of possibilities” about the tweet — i.e., that the foreperson possibly talked to her husband, who possibly talked to his friend, who possibly took to Twitter in response to what the husband possibly told him — was nothing but speculation and thus fell far short of establishing reasonable grounds for investigation.

Facebook account protected from disclosure in discovery, for now

McCann v. Harleysville Insurance, — N.Y.S.2d —, 2010 WL 4540599 (November 12, 2010)

Unlike some recent cases such as Romano v. Steelcase, which seem to give the impression that the information in a person’s social networking account is always fair game for discovery in litigation, one New York court has come down on the side of protecting the privacy of a Facebook user’s content.

Plaintiff was injured in an automobile accident and filed a lawsuit over her injuries. In the course of discovery, defendant sought photographs from plaintiff’s Facebook account and “an authorization” to access the account. Defendant claimed the sought-after discovery related to whether plaintiff sustained a serious injury.

After plaintiff did not respond to the discovery requests, defendant moved to compel. The trial court denied the motion, finding the discovery to be overly broad, and finding that defendant had failed to show the relevancy of the information to be discovered. Defendant sought review with the appellate court. On appeal, the court affirmed.

The court held that the discovery sought was too broad and that defendant had failed to show the relevancy of the information. It affirmed the denial of the motion as to avoid a “fishing expedition.”

But the holding is anything but reassuring from the plaintiff’s perspective. It affirmed the denial without prejudice to serving additional discovery requests. So it sounds as if defendant tailors its discovery a bit more closely, and shows how accessing plaintiff’s Facebook account will provide relevant evidence, it may see some success.