Court allows service of complaint and summons via Yahoo email account

U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Com’n v. Rubio, 2012 WL 3614360 (S.D.Fla., August 21, 2012)

The government filed a civil suit against defendant for violation of the federal Commodity Exchange Act and related regulations. Try as it may, the government could not successfully serve the complaint and summons by traditional means. So the government asked the court for leave to file the papers via defendant’s Yahoo email account. The court granted the motion.

email at the beach

During an earlier state investigation, defendand had provided a Yahoo email address while testifying under oath. The government claimed that it had sent several messages to the same account, each time getting a confirmation receipt indicating the message had been read on a Blackberry using the Digicel network. The evidence in the record showed that Digicel is a provider of network services in the Caribbean, Central and South America.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 4(f)(3) authorizes a court to order an alternate method for service to be effected upon defendants located outside the United States, provided that such service (1) is not prohibited by international agreement and (2) is reasonably calculated to give notice to the defendant consistent with its constitutional due process rights.

In evaluating whether email service in this case would run afoul of international law, the court found that the Hague Convention did not apply because defendant’s precise location was not known — the only information in the record was that he was in the Caribbean, Central or South America. The Inter-American Convention on Letters Rogatory did not prohibit email service in this case, as that Convention would not necessarily preclude service by means outside the scope of its terms.

The court found that email service was also reasonably calculated to give notice to defendant, based on the facts in the record. Here, the government showed that the still-active Yahoo email address about which defendant swore under oath was reasonably calculated to give notice of the action against him and an opportunity to respond.

See also:

Federal court permits service of process on Australian defendants by e-mail

Service of process by e-mail allowed for foreign defendants

Court rejects request for permission to serve process by e-mail

Photo credit: Flickr user Giorgio Montersino under this Creative Commons license.

Court says insurance company should have used social media to track down its insured

Cotto v. Universal Underwriters Ins. Co., 2012 WL 2093331 (Mass.App.Ct. June 12, 2012)

Failure to consult Myspace and Facebook kills defense in insurance coverage case.

Plaintiff sued defendant insurance company after the insurance company refused to pay a judgment against its insured — plaintiff’s former friend and driver of the car in an accident that injured plaintiff. The insurance company claimed that because its insured was uncooperative, it did not have to pay. The trial court agreed with the insurance company and threw the case out on summary judgment. Plaintiff sought review with the Appeals Court of Massachusetts. On appeal, the court reversed and remanded.

At issue was whether the insurance company had exercised due diligence in locating its insured. The court held that summary judgment was improper because the court was unable to conclude, as matter of law, that the insurance company carried its burden of proving that it exercised due diligence.

In evaluating the (lack of) efforts the insurance company had undertaken, the court observed that although there was evidence in the record that the insured had Myspace and Facebook accounts, there was nothing to indicate the insurance company or its investigators consulted these sites. Given the insureds “youth and transient lifestyle,” and the “importance of social media sites as centers of communication and sources of information,” the court found that a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the insurance company could have done more to locate its insured.

There is no “generalized right to rummage” through an adversary’s Facebook account

Tompkins v. Detroit Metro. Airport, 2012 WL 179320 (E.D. Mich. January 18, 2012)

Plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against defendants claiming she was impaired in her ability to work and enjoy life. One of the defendants filed a motion with the court asking it to order plaintiff to authorize access to her entire Facebook account. The court denied the motion. Finding that defendant had not made a “sufficient predicate” showing that the sought-after information was relevant, and that the request was overly broad, the court held that defendant “[did] not have a generalized right to rummage at will through information that [plaintiff had] limited from public view.”

The court distinguished two other well-known social media discovery cases, Romano v. Steelcase and McMillen v. Hummingbird Speedway. In those cases, the Facebook users had posted photos of themselves engaged in activities that were inconsistent with their claimed injuries (e.g., going fishing and traveling to Florida). The publicly-visible photos that plaintiff in this case posted, which defendant argued made the rest of her account relevant, were of her holding a 2-pound dog, and standing with friends at a birthday party. “If [her] public Facebook page contained pictures of her playing golf or riding horseback,” the court noted, “[defendant] might have a stronger argument for delving into the nonpublic section of her account.”

The court made clear that its decision did not address the question of whether a Facebook user has a reasonable expectation of privacy in so-called private pages. (And there’s nothing in the decision to suggest that inquiry should be answered in the affirmative.) The court also noted that it was not answering the question of whether one could challenge a subpoena to Facebook under the Stored Communications Act (18 U.S.C. 2701 et seq.) as contemplated by Crispin v. Christian Audigier, 717 F.Supp.2d 965 (S.D. Cal. 2010).

Other coverage from Eric B. Meyer.

Court requires fired social media employee to return usernames and passwords

Ardis Health, LLC v. Nankivell, 2011 WL 4965172 (S.D.N.Y. October 19, 2011)

Defendant was hired to be plaintiffs’ “video and social media producer,” with responsibilities that included maintaining social media pages in connection with the online marketing of plaintiffs’ products. After she was terminated, she refused to tell her former employers the usernames and passwords for various social media accounts. (The case doesn’t say which ones, but it’s probably safe to assume these were Facebook pages and maybe Twitter accounts.) So plaintiffs sued, and sought a preliminary injunction requiring defendant to return the login information. The court granted the motion for preliminary injunction.

The court found that plaintiffs had come forward with sufficient evidence to support a finding of irreparable harm if the login information was not returned prior to a final disposition in the case:

Plaintiffs depend heavily on their online presence to advertise their businesses, which requires the ability to continuously update their profiles and pages and react to online trends. The inability to do so unquestionably has a negative effect on plaintiffs’ reputation and ability to remain competitive, and the magnitude of that effect is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify in monetary terms. Such injury constitutes irreparable harm.

Defendant argued there would not be irreparable harm because the web content had not been updated in over two years. But the court rejected that argument, mainly because it would have been unfair to let the defendant benefit from her own failure to perform her job responsibilities:

Defendant was employed by plaintiffs for the entirety of that period, and she acknowledges that it was her responsibility to post content to those websites. Defendant cannot use her own failure to perform her duties as a defense.

Moreover, the court found that the plaintiffs would lose out by not being able to leverage new opportunities. For example, plaintiffs had recently hopped on the copy Groupon bandwagon by participating in “daily deal” promotions. The court noted that the success of those promotions depended heavily on tie-ins with social media. So in this way the unavailability of the social media login information also contributed to irreparable harm.

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.'”

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