Expedited electronic discovery includes subpoena to ISP and imaging of defendants’ hard drives

Allcare Dental Management, LLC v. Zrinyi, No. 08-407, 2008 WL 4649131 (D. Idaho October 20, 2008)

Plaintiffs filed a defamation lawsuit against some known defendants as well as some anonymous John Doe defendants in federal court over statements posted to Complaintsboard.com. The plaintiffs did not know the names or contact information of the Doe defendants, so they needed to get that information from the Does’ Internet service provider.  But the ISP would not turn that information over without a subpoena because of the restrictions of the Cable Communications Policy Act, 47 U.S.C. § 501 et seq. [More on the CCPA.]

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(d)(1), a party generally may not seek discovery in a case until the parties have had a Rule 26(f) conference to discuss such things as discovery. Because of the Rule 26(d)(1) requirement, the plaintiffs found themselves in a catch-22 of sorts: how could they know with whom to have the Rule 26(f) conference if they did not know the defendants’ identity.

So the plaintiffs’ filed a motion with the court to allow a subpoena to issue to the ISP prior to the Rule 26(f) conference. Finding that there was good cause for the expedited discovery, the court granted the motion. It found that the subpoena was needed to ascertain the identities of the unknown defendants. [More on Doe subpoenas.] Furthermore, it was important to act sooner than later, because ISPs retain data for only a limited time.

The Plaintiffs also contended that that the known defendants would likely delete relevant information from their computer hard drives before the parties could engage in the ordinary process of discovery. So the plaintiffs’ motion also sought an order requiring the known defendants to turn over their computers to have their hard drives copied.

The court granted this part of the motion as well, ordering the known defendants to turn their computers over to the plaintiffs’ retained forensics professional immediately. The forensics professional was to make the copies of the hard drives and place those copies with the court clerk, not to be accessed or reviewed until stipulation of the parties or further order from the court.

Anonymous defendants to be unmasked in Computer Fraud and Abuse Act case

Kimberlite Corp. v. Does 1-20, No. 08-2147, 2008 WL 2264485 (N.D. Cal. June 2, 2008)

Plaintiff Kimberlite sued a number of anonymous John Doe defendants after it learned that its network and email system had been unlawfully accessed. A few days after filing suit for violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and trespass to chattels under state law, Kimberlite served a subpoena on AT&T, the owner of the IP address from which the unauthorized access originated, seeking to discover who was responsible.

One of the John Doe defendants, pro se, wrote a letter to the court which the court treated as a motion to quash the subpoena. The court denied the motion.

Doe argued that Kimberlite had failed to state a claim under the CFAA. The court rejected that argument, observing that Kimberlite had adequately alleged and had provided preliminary evidence of a CFAA violation. (Doe had not challenged the sufficiency of the trespass to chattels claim.) Kimberlite’s computers were “protected” computers under the CFAA because they were used in interstate and foreign commerce. They were password protected and accessed without authorization by someone from the subject IP address. Kimberlite succeeded in alleging the threshold amount of CFAA damages ($5,000) through an employee declaration describing over 100 hours of investigation and repair following the intrusions.

Doe also argued that Kimberlite had not demonstrated a need to obtain the information that outweighed Doe’s privacy rights under the Cable Communication Policy Act (CCPA). That act prohibits cable operators from disclosing subscriber information unless certain criteria are met.

The court rejected the CCPA argument first by expressing serious doubt that AT&T, as an Internet service provider was a “cable operator” and thus subject to the CCPA. Even if the CCPA did apply, the court found Kimberlite had demonstrated a compelling need for the information sought. It had adequately set forth a cause of action, so discovery of the anonymous parties was proper.

Employee text messages covered under Stored Communications Act and Fourth Amendment

Quon v. Arch Wireless Operating Co., Inc., — F.3d —-, 2008 WL 2440559 (9th Cir. June 18, 2008)

Sergeant Quon’s employer, the City of Ontario, California Police Department, issued him a pager with which he could send and receive text messages. Copies of text messages sent and received using the pager were archived on Arch Wireless’s computer server. The City’s agreement with Arch Wireless allowed for each user to send up to 25,000 characters’ worth of messages a month.

The police department required any employee who went over that monthly limit to pay the overage charges. Quon went over that limit several times and paid the extra fees. After awhile, the department started to investigate Quon, ostensibly to see whether the department should seek to raise the 25,000 monthly character limit. Quon’s supervisor had told him that the department would not review the contents of the messages if he continued to pay for the overages.

But the department acquired transcripts of the messages anyway. Quon sued, alleging violations of the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. §§2701-2711 (SCA) and the Fourth Amendment.

The district court awarded summary judgment to the defendants on the SCA claim, finding that Arch Wireless was a “remote computing service” as defined by the SCA, and thus it was appropriate for Arch Wireless to turn over the contents of the messages to the police department as a “subscriber” to the service.

On the defendants’ summary judgment motion on the Fourth Amendment claim, the district court determined that Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy, but that the question of whether the search of the contents of the messages by the police chief was reasonable should be heard by a jury. That jury found that the search was reasonable because it was to determine the efficacy of the 25,000 character limit (i.e., to determine whether work-related reasons warranted upgrading).

Quon sought review of both the SCA and Fourth Amendment issues with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court reversed the lower court’s holding that the SCA was not violated. As for the Fourth Amendment claim, the appellate court held that the search by the police chief was unreasonable as a matter of law, and that the question should not have even made it to the jury.

On the SCA claim, the court looked to the plain meaning of the statute as well as the legislative history from 1986 to conclude that the lower court’s determination that Arch Wireless was a remote computer service was erroneous. Arch Wireless did not provide “computer storage” nor “processing services.” Although Arch Wireless was storing the messages after transmission, the court held that that function was contemplated as one for an electronic communications service as well, which was more in line with the services Arch Wireless provided. So when Arch Wireless turned over the contents of the messages to the police department, which was merely a subscriber and not “an addressee or intended recipient of such communication[s],” it violated the SCA.

On the Fourth Amendment question, the court concluded that the search was unreasonable as a matter of law because it was unreasonable in its scope. Assuming that the only reason the police chief wanted to check the efficacy of the 25,000 character limit, there would have been less intrusive ways of doing so. Quon could have been asked to count the characters himself, or could have redacted personal messages in connection with an audit.

Borat movie plaintiff not successful in image appropriation case

[Brian Beckham is a contributor to Internet Cases and can be contacted at brian.beckham [at] gmail dot com.]

Lemerond v. 20th Century Fox, No. 07-4635, 2008 WL 918579 (S.D.N.Y. March 31, 2008)

In the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the fictional Kazakh character (alter ego of comedian Sacha Cohen) journeys to America — all the while videotaping his interactions with unsuspecting people. One scene shows Borat greeting plaintiff Lemerond (“Hello nice to meet you. I’m new in town. My name a Borat”), then promptly running off in the opposite direction screaming (“Get away! What are you doing?”). (Those who have not seen the movie should note that the text does not capture the awkwardness of the exchange). The 13-second clip is shown twice in the full-length film, as well as in a movie trailer (but in the trailer the plaintiff’s face is blurred).

Plaintiff Lemerond filed suit under New York Civil Rights Law section 51 and New York common law for the unlawful use of his image. Defendant 20th Century Fox filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim. The court granted the motion.

Since New York does not recognize a common law right of privacy (the related right of publicity, like a trademark must be used in commerce to identify the source of goods or services — celebrities would normally enjoy such a right), the court decided the plaintiff’s suit on the basis of whether his likeness was used for “advertising purposes or purposes of the trade” without written permission. The most significant question was whether his appearance in the clips and trailer was for advertising purposes.

The court offered what might be considered a strained reading of the New York statute. It first cited to case law that held the statute was limited to “nonconsensual commercial appropriations of the name, portrait, or likeness of a living person.” It then pointed to another case which held that the nonconsensual use of a person’s image to depict “newsworthy events or matters of public interest” is protected by the statute. The court then quoted yet another case stating that this newsworthiness exception broadly covered “social trends, or any subject of public interest” and went on to observe that “public interest” and “newsworthy” have been defined in the most liberal and far reaching terms. Accordingly, the court found that Borat’s antics fit “squarely” within the newsworthiness / social commentary exception of the New York statute, stating that

[T]he movie employs as its chief medium a brand of humor that appeals to the most childish and vulgar in its viewers. As its core, however, Borat attempts an ironic commentary of ‘modern’ American culture…challeng[ing] its viewers to confront, not only the bizarre and offensive Borat character himself, but the equally bizarre and offensive reactions he elicits from ‘average’ Americans.

In a footnote, the court approvingly cited a 1970 case in pointing out that “the mere fact that defendants are spurred by the profit motive and engaged in the commercial exploitation of [a] motion picture does not negate their right to depict a matter of public interest or to advertise the picture by the showing of a ‘trailer’.”

Perhaps an open question is when, if ever, a New York news reporter or movie producer would need permission to use a non-celebrity’s image in his or her reporting, movie, or advertising, i.e., on a subject not necessarily in the public interest.

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.

Posts navigation

1 2 3 6 7 8 9