Tag Archives: discovery

Maryland Court of Appeals addresses important question of internet anonymity

Independent Newspapers, Inc. v. Brodie, — A.2d —, 2009 WL 484956 (Md. February 27, 2009)

Maryland’s highest state court has issued a comprehensive opinion setting out the proper framework trial courts should use when evaluating whether a plaintiff should be permitted to learn the identity of an anonymous (or pseudonymous) internet speaker. After considering the varying standards courts across the country have applied in balancing the First Amendment right to anonymity against the right of a plaintiff to seek redress, the court adopted, in large part, the standard put forth in the New Jersey case of Dendrite, Int’l. v. Doe, 775 A.2d 756 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2001) which requires, among other things, a prima facie showing by the plaintiff before compulsory discovery concerning the identity of an unknown defendant will be had.

One of the great things about the internet is that users can easily speak anonymously or through a pseudonym. This right to remain unidentified is a free speech right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But that right has limits which start to show when an anonymous speaker goes too far by venturing from the realm of protected speech into that of unprotected defamation.

An aggrieved party going after an unknown defamer must first figure out who the defendant is. This usually involves a subpoena to the operator of the service through which the offending content was transmitted, to the unknown John Doe’s internet service provider, or both. This use of compulsory judicial process to reveal the identity of an unknown speaker pits the speaker’s First Amendment right to anonymity against the defamation plaintiff’s right to seek redress for the tort that has been committed.

It is up to the courts to weigh the competing interests so that:

  • a defendant’s First Amendment right to anonymity is not violated by wrongful compelled disclosure in connection with an unmeritorious case; while
  • aggrieved subjects of harmful defamatory speech are not deprived of the remedies due to them in a civil society.

This weighing of competing interests illustrates why the scale is a good metaphor for justice.

The Brodie case

Plaintiff Brodie learned that certain participants in an online forum board were saying negative things about him. Three users identified as “CorsicaRiver,” “Born & Raised Here” and “chatdusoleil” engaged in an online public conversation about Brodie’s sale of an historic farmhouse. Two other users, who went by the monikers “RockyRaccoonMD” and “Suze” criticized the way Brodie ran the local Dunkin Donuts shop.

Brodie sued Independent Newspapers (the operator of the forum) and John Does CorsicaRiver, Born & Raised Here and chatdusoleil for defamation. Absent from the list of defendants were RockyRaccoonMD and Suze.

Independent Newspapers moved to dismiss, arguing, among other things, that it was immune from suit under 47 U.S.C. §230. It also moved to quash the subpoena Brodie had served, which sought the identities of CorsicaRiver, Born & Raised Here and chatdusoleil. The court dismissed Independent Newspapers from the case, but ordered it to identify those three pseudonymous posters.

Immediately thereafter, Independent Newspapers asked the court to reconsider its order directing that the pseudonymous speakers be identified. The court granted that motion and dismissed the portion of the case dealing with the discussion of the historic farmhouse. The claims relating to the Dunkin Donuts stayed in, and the court required Independent Newspapers to disclose information concerning that.

Notwithstanding the fact that the farmhouse defamation claims had been tossed, Brodie sent a subpoena to Independent Newspapers seeking the identity of CorsicaRiver, Born & Raised Here, chatdusoleil, RockyRaccoonMD and Suze. Brodie also conceded that the only posters responsible for discussions about the Dunkin Donuts were RockyRaccoonMD and Suze. Independent Newspapers filed another motion to quash this subpoena which the court denied.

The Maryland Court of Appeals granted certiorari to hear the case. (Here’s some trivia for you: in Maryland, the Court of Appeals is the highest court. For some reason they don’t call it the Supreme Court.) On review, the court reversed the denial of the motion to quash. It held that Brodie did not have a sufficient claim of defamation against any of the pseudonymous speakers to justify revealing their actual identities.

Which standard applied

The court gave thorough and comprehensive analysis on the question of when it is appropriate for a trial court to order that an unknown defendant be unmasked. It recognized the important interests that must be balanced, and observed that courts have applied various standards regarding what a plaintiff must show before discovery of an unknown speaker will be permitted.

For example, the Delaware Supreme Court in Doe v. Cahill put forth a rigorous requirement that in addition to providing notice of the discovery being sought, a plaintiff must come forward — at the pleading stage — with facts sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment. Other courts, such as the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, have set the threshold lower. In Columbia Insurance Co. v. Seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573 (N.D. Cal. 1999), the plaintiff was only required to plead facts sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

The New Jersey appellate court in Dendrite, Int’l. v. Doe took a more moderate approach. That court held that a plaintiff seeking the identification of an anonymous internet speaker must establish facts sufficient to maintain a prima facie case.

The Maryland court in the present case joined in the more moderate Dendrite approach, holding that when a trial court is confronted with a defamation action in which anonymous speakers or pseudonyms are involved, it should:

  • require the plaintiff to undertake efforts to notify the anonymous posters that they are the subject of a subpoena or application for an order of disclosure, including posting a message of notification of the identity discovery request on the message board;
  • withhold action to afford the anonymous posters a reasonable opportunity to file and serve opposition to the application;
  • require the plaintiff to identify and set forth the exact statements purportedly made by each anonymous poster, alleged to constitute actionable speech;
  • determine whether the complaint has set forth a prima facie defamation per se or per quod action against the anonymous posters; and
  • if all else is satisfied, balance the anonymous poster’s First Amendment right of free speech against the strength of the prima facie case of defamation presented by the plaintiff and the necessity for disclosure of the anonymous defendant’s identity, prior to ordering disclosure.

The Independent Newspapers case is an important case not necessarily because of any groundbreaking jurisprudence that it establishes, but because of the comprehensive way it treats the issue of unmasking unknown internet speakers. The opinion is a nearly exhaustive look at the current state of this question of law.

Anonymous photo courtesy Flickr user Neil Carey under this Creative Commons license.

RIAA’s need for discovery was not so urgent

Elektra Entertainment Group, Inc. v. Does 1-6, No. 08-444 (S.D. Ohio February 5, 2009)

The RIAA’s de-emphasis on lawsuits against individual file sharers may underlie the result in a recent case from a federal court in Ohio. The music industry plaintiffs had sought expedited discovery so they could learn which members in a household (either the mother or one of the children) was responsible for illegally trading files. Finding that the need for the discovery was not urgent, the court denied the record companies’ request.

Electra Entertainment and others sued one David Licata in 2007, accusing him of infringing the copyright in sound recordings back in 2005. Licata claimed he did not know who was responsible for trading the files (though AOL had identified Licata’s account as corresponding with the offending IP address). During discovery in that case, however, Licata identified the other members of his household.

Instead of suing one or more of these other members of the household, the recording industry plaintiffs filed another John Doe suit, leaving it to later to find out the identities of the particular individuals who were allegedly infringing. But instead of acting diligently to figure out who to go after, the record companies did nothing for about five months.

Last November, the court ordered the plaintiffs to show cause why the case should not be dismissed, since the defendants had not been served with process (after all, the record companies claimed they didn’t know who to sue). In response to that order, the plaintiffs sought leave under Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(d) to take expedited discovery. The court denied the motion, holding that there was not good cause shown to accelerate the normal discovery schedule.

The court looked to the long period of time — 152 days — that had passed from the suit being filed to the request for expedited discovery. That duration, coupled with the fact that the plaintiffs already knew the names of the other family members who were likely the proper defendants, undercut any argument that the need for discovery was urgent. Without such urgency (which usually exists when there is a risk that evidence will be destroyed or someone will be injured), there was no good cause to allow the depositions of the mother and children prior to the Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(f) conference.

[Hat tip to Ray Beckerman for alerting me to this decision.]

Photo courtesy Flickr user swanksalot under this Creative Commons license.

No spoliation sanctions for deletion of email where CD copies had been made

Bakhtiari v. Lutz, — F.3d —-, 2007 WL 3377215 (8th Cir. November 15, 2007)

Not too many e-discovery (or any type of discovery) disputes get to the federal courts of appeal. But we have a recent decision from the Eighth Circuit that addressed the topic of “spoliation” when emails had been deleted.

A party in litigation is guilty of spoliation when the court finds that he or she “intentionally destroyed evidence with a desire to suppress the truth.” Greyhound Lines, Inc. v. Wade, 485 F.3d 1032, 1035 (8th Cir. 2007). Plaintiff Bakhtiari filed suit against the University of Missouri-Rolla and a number of administrators there, alleging Title VII and civil rights violations. He had been terminated from his position as a teaching assistant in the chemistry department.

Soon after Bakhtiari was terminated, but before he filed suit, the university’s IT staff backed up the contents of his email account onto two CDs. The university then allowed the messages to be deleted as part of “automated systems maintenance.” It turned over a copy of the CDs to Bakhtiari, but he claimed that large portions of data were missing.

At the trial court level, Bakhtiari claimed that the university should be sanctioned for spoliation for deleting the email messages from the server. The court denied this motion, however, and Bakhtiari sought review with the Eighth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the denial of the motion.

The appellate court held that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the IT staff had taken appropriate steps to backup the data, and that Bakhtiari may himself have been responsible for the missing portions. Moreover, there was credible evidence that third parties had access to the account before the backups were made, and that Bakhtiari had asked that portions be deleted. Bakhtiari had failed to demonstrate, the court held, that the university acted with a “desire to suppress the truth.”

Be careful with email because your employer is “looking over your shoulder”

Workplace email policy destroyed attorney-client privilege

Scott v. Beth Israel Medical Center, — N.Y.S.2d —-, 2007 WL 3053351 (N.Y. Sup. October 17, 2007).

Dr. Scott, who used to work for Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, sued his former employer for breach of contract and a number of other different things. Before he was terminated, however, he had used his work email account to send messages to his attorneys, discussing potential litigation against Beth Israel.

When Dr. Scott found out that Beth Israel was in possession of these email messages, he asked the court to order that those messages be returned to him. He argued that they were protected from disclosure to Beth Israel under the attorney client privilege.

Beth Israel argued that they were not subject to the privilege because they were not made “in confidence.” There was an email policy in place that provided, among other things, that the computers were to be used for business purposes only, that employees had no personal right of privacy in the material they create or receive through Beth Israel’s computer systems, and that Beth Israel had the right to access and disclose material on its system.

Dr. Scott argued that New York law [CPLR 4548] protected the confidentiality. Simply stated, CPLR 4548 provides that a communication shouldn’t lose its privileged character just because it’s transmitted electronically.

The court denied Dr. Scott’s motion for a protective order, finding that the messages were not protected by the attorney client privilege.

It looked to the case of In re Asia Global Crossing, 322 B.R. 247 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) to conclude that the presence of the email policy destroyed the confidential nature of the communications. The policy banned personal use, the hospital had the right to review the email messages (despite Scott’s unsuccessful HIPAA argument), and Dr. Scott had notice of the policy.

The decision has implications for both individuals and the attorneys who represent them. Employees should be aware that when they are sending messages through their employer’s system, they may not be communicating in confidence. And attorneys sending email messages to their clients’ work email accounts, on matters not relating to the representation of the employer, must be careful not to unwittingly violate the attorney client privilege.

What’s more, although the decision is based on email communications, it could affect the results of any case involving instant messaging or text messaging through the company’s server.