Monday, September 3, 2007

New Developments in Anti-Spam Law – Spam Plaintiff Ordered to Pay Spam Defendant’s Attorneys’ Fees under CAN-SPAM

Under CAN-SPAM, courts have discretion to award a prevailing party defendant its attorneys’ fees incurred in defending a case brought under that law. In a decision issued on August 1, 2007, in Gordon v. Virtumundo, the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington awarded Virtumundo, see previous post, more than $100,000.00 in attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in defense of that suit. The Court, however, only awarded Virtumundo approximately 20% of the more than $500,000.00 that its counsel requested. The opinion is accessible here.

In ruling on the request for fees, the Court took into account the fact that Gordon had not claimed that he had suffered any actual injury, that Gordon actually benefitted from receiving spam, and that Gordon appeared to be in the business of collecting email in order to bring lawsuits. The Court commented that:

First, it is obvious that Plaintiffs are testing their luck at making their “spam business” extraordinarily lucrative by seeking statutory damages through a strategy of spam collection and serial litigation. Plaintiffs are parties to ten additional cases similar to the instant case in the Western District of Washington alone, see Case Nos. C06-1118-MJP, C06-1129-JCC, C06-1210-TSZ, C06-1284-TSZ, C06-1348-MJP, C06-1350-JCC, C06-1469-MJP, C06-1537-JCC, C07-222-RSM, and C07-386-MJP, as well as at least one “spam” case in the Eastern District of Washington, see Case No. C05-5079-FVS. The Court is not merely speculating on Plaintiffs' motives or assessment of potential profits. In analyzing Plaintiffs' CAN-SPAM standing, this Court noted that Gordon testified that the “benefits” of receiving spam can be quantified in terms of his dissertation research, as well as “settlement agreements for people who have said that they wouldn't spam me any longer.” (May 15, 2007 Order 7.) The Court recounted the lists of Gordon and Omni “clients,” more than half of whom share the “Gordon” surname. (Id. at 6-7.) The Court recognized that Gordon took over control of e-mail accounts for “gordonworks” clients in order to continue collecting spam. (Id. at 7.) The Court noted that none of the Omni or Gordon clients has paid Plaintiffs for their services. (Id.) Gordon testified that all of Plaintiffs' income or revenue for 2006 and 2007 has been from settlements and disputes. (Id. at 7-8.) Gordon also testified regarding the “time-consuming process” of collecting, sorting, and compiling spam regarding these and other defendants. (Id. at 8.) Clearly, Plaintiffs are assembling a litigation factory, which, if successful, could net millions of dollars in profit, at least theoretically.

Moreover, after assessing the utter lack of evidence going to any technical impact or financial harm due to the alleged illegal spam, this Court found it significant that Gordon did not seek actual damages in the instant litigation, because none exist, and that he is instead seeking solely statutory damages for each e-mail sent. (Id. at 8.) Plaintiffs admitted that they benefit from receiving spam, and this Court concluded that “Plaintiffs' continued use of other people's e-mail addresses to collect spam and their undisputed ability to separate spam from other e-mails for generating lawsuit-fueled revenue directly contradicts any hint of adverse effect that otherwise might exist.” (Id. at 15.) Not only are Plaintiffs “ not the type of entity that Congress intended to possess the limited private right of action it conferred on adversely affected bona fide Internet access service providers” (id. at 15), they are not the type of plaintiff that should be allowed to pursue the strategy outlined above without financial cost.(emphasis added
In light of the August 1st decision in the Gordon v. Virtumundo case, professional spam collecting plaintiffs (like Beyond Systems in its dozens of Maryland cases) need to beware that they may be subject to paying the legal fees incurred by those that they choose to sue in baseless cases.