Bonhomme v. St. James, — N.E.2d —, (Ill.App. 2 Dist March 10, 2011.)
Perhaps the most famous legal case about someone creating a false persona online and using that to dupe someone is the sad case of Megan Meier, which resulted in the (unsuccessful) prosecution of Lori Drew. The facts of that case were hard to believe — a woman created the identity of a teenage boy from scratch by setting up a bogus MySpace profile, then engaged in sustained communications with young Megan, leading her to believe the two of them had a real relationship. After the “boy” broke that relationship off, Megan committed suicide.
Here’s a case that has not seen quite as much tragedy, but the extent and the nature of the alleged deception is just as incredible, if not more so, than that undertaken by Lori Drew.
The appellate court of Illinois has held that a woman who was allegedly the victim of an elaborate ruse, perpetrated in large part over the internet, can move forward with her fraudulent misrepresentation claim against the woman who created the fake persona of a “man” who became her “boyfriend”. The story should satisfy your daily requirement of schadenfreude.
Plaintiff first got to know defendant Janna St. James back in 2005 in an online forum for fans of the HBO show Deadwood. A couple months after they first began talking online, defendant set up another username on the Deadwood site, posing as a man named “Jesse”. Plaintiff and this “Jesse” (which was actually defendant) struck up an online romance which apparently got pretty intense.
To add detail to the ploy, defendant invented no less than 20 fictitious identities — all of whom were purportedly in “Jesse’s” social or family circle — which she used to communicate with plaintiff.
The interactions which took place, both online and through other media and forms of communication (e.g., phone calls using a voice disguiser) were extensive. “Jesse” and plaintiff planned to meet up in person once, but “Jesse” cancelled. Plaintiff sent $10,000 worth of gifts to “Jesse” and to the other avatars of defendant. It even went so far as “Jesse” and plaintiff planning to move to live with one another in Colorado. But before that could happen, defendant pulled the plug on “Jesse” — he “died” of liver cancer.
Some time after that, defendant (as herself) flew from Illinois to California to visit plaintiff. During this trip, some of plaintiff’s real friends discovered the complex facade. Plaintiff sued.
The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s fraudulent misrepresentation claim. Plaintiff sought appellate review. On appeal, the court reversed, sending the case for fraudulent misrepresentation back to the trial court.
The court said some interesting things about whether the facts that plaintiff alleged supported her claim for fraudulent misrepresentation. A plaintiff suing for fraudulent misrepresentation under Illinois law must show: (1) a false statement of material fact; (2) knowledge or belief of the falsity by the party making it; (3) intention to induce the plaintiff to act; (4) action by the plaintiff in justifiable reliance on the truth of the statement; and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from that reliance.
Defendant made a strange kind of circular argument as to the first element — falsity of a material fact. She asserted that plaintiff’s claim was based more on the fiction that defendant pursued rather than specific representations. And the concepts of “falsity” and “material fact,” defendant argued, should not apply in the context of fiction, which does not purport to represent actuality. So defendant essentially argued that so long as she knew the masquerade was fiction, there could be no misrepresentation. The court recognized how invalid this argument was. The logic would shift the element of reliance on the truth of the statement from the injured party to the utterer.
Though the appellate court ruled in favor of plaintiff, the judges disagreed on the question of whether plaintiff was justified in relying on the truth of what defendant (as “Jesse,” as the other created characters, and herself) had told plaintiff. One judge dissented, observing that “[t]he reality of the Internet age is that an online individual may not always be — and indeed frequently is not — who or what he or she purports to be.” The dissenting judge thought it simply was not justifiable for plaintiff to spend $10,000 on people she had not met, and to plan on moving in with a man sight-unseen. (In so many words, the judge seemed to be saying that plaintiff was too gullible to have the benefit of this legal claim.)
The majority opinion, on the other hand, found the question of justifiable reliance to be more properly determined by the finder of fact in the trial court. For the motion to dismiss stage, plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts as to justifiable reliance.
(Congratulations to my friend Daliah Saper for her good lawyering in this case on behalf of plaintiff.)