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The Public Relations Society of America Inc. and Catherine A. Bolton v. Road Runner High Speed Online

2005 N.Y. Misc. Lexis 1155 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co., May 27, 2005)

Pre-Action Disclosure Granted To Discover Identity Of Sender Of Allegedly Defamatory Anonymous Email

Pursuant to New York Civil Practice Law and Rules ("CPLR") Section 3102(c), the New York Supreme Court granted petitioner Catherine Bolton ("Bolton") pre-action discovery and directed the Internet Service Provider Road Runner to produce documents that would identify the sender of an anonymous e-mail petitioner Bolton claimed defamed her.  The Court granted such relief because petitioner had made the showing necessary for discovery under CPLR §3102 by demonstrating both that she had a meritorious cause of action against the e-mail's author, and that such discovery was necessary to her prosecution of that claim.  The latter requirement was met by petitioner's need to identify the party who allegedly wronged her. 

In reaching this result, the Court rejected the e-mail author's defense that "his" anonymity was protected by the First Amendment.  Applying the five factor test enunciated by the Court in Sony Music Entertainment v. Does 1-40, 326 F. Supp. 2d 556 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) the Court held that petitioner had made the showing necessary to overcome any protections afforded the e-mail's author by the First Amendment. 

Pre-Action Disclosure Authorized By CPLR 3102(c)

Petitioner Catherine Bolton was the Executive Director and Chief of Operations of the Public Relations Society of America ("PRSA").  John Doe authored an anonymous e-mail which he sent to members of PRSA's board that was highly critical of Bolton.  Among other things, the e-mail stated that Bolton "cannot manage or lead an organization."  The e-mail was sent under the pseudonym "Catherine Hater", and stated it was from an "anonymous staffer" within the PRSA.

Claiming the e-mail defamed her, Bolton commenced this special proceeding to ascertain the identity of John Doe via pre-action disclosure from the ISP Road Runner.  The e-mail in question was apparently sent from a Road Runner IP address.  Such pre-action disclosure is authorized in New York by CPLR §3102(c).  To obtain such disclosure, the petitioner must demonstrate she has "a meritorious cause of action."  As interpreted by the Court, this merely required petitioner to plead a valid cause of action for defamation.  Said the Court:

The question of whether petitioners have sufficiently stated a cause of action for defamation, for the purpose of obtaining pre-action disclosure of "John Doe's" identity, is depositive of the present application

The Court found that petitioner Bolton had stated a valid cause of action of libel per se because John Doe's e-mail "disparage[ed] petitioner Bolton in her profession because it malign[ed] her competence or fitness for the positions she holds as PRSA's executive director and chief of operations."

First Amendment Rights Protected By Sony

John Doe argued that that disclosure of "his" identity would violate his right to speak anonymously under the First Amendment.  The Court rejected this argument, noting that the right to free speech is not absolute and does not give a speaker carte blanche to defame another.  Citing with approval the court's decision in Sony Music Entertainment Inc. v Does 1-40, 326 F. Supp. 2d 556 (S.D.N.Y. 2004), the Court found that petitioner had met the five part showing proscribed thereunder to obtain the requested disclosure.  In Sony Music, the Court held that the appropriate balance between free speech and defamation concerns would be met by requiring a plaintiff, before obtaining disclosure, to show:

(1) whether the claimant has shown a prima facie cause of actionable harm, (2) whether the discovery request was sufficiently specific as to be reasonable likely to lead to the identifying information, (3) whether there was an alternative means to obtain the information, (4) if the information sought was central and necessary to advance the claim, and (5) if the defendant had any reasonable expectation of privacy in the identifying information.

Finding petitioner had met this burden, the Court permitted petitioner to obtain information from Road Runner that would identify John Doe.

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