Serving an internet “John Doe” in a civil action. Can it be done?

I was having a discussion with an acquaintance online about this.

The short story is: acquaintance ran a creative writing blog. Someone decided to take her work and embellish it a little bit, in a new blog. What I term a “slam blog” whose sole purpose is to attack the character and dignity of a targeted person.

Next, the individual researched my acquaintance’s friends, family, work associates, employer, and proceeded to share this new, slam blog with them.

What that individual apparently didn’t know, though, is that my acquaintance’s father is an attorney, coincidentally, here in Pennsylvania. So now a complaint sits docketed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania about the matter, with John Doe as one side of the “v”.

This had me curious. I often mention about the Wild West nature of the Japan-side expat blogging community, which I had been a part of for a couple years, and still am connected to in some ways. Particularly in certain groups, trolls of sorts, the worst just comes out. I am convinced that part of the reason–maybe the main part–is that these people feel that they are untouchable. Japan won’t go after them, Japan treats it as a “foreigner issue” (best handled by foreigners), and so they think they can just make up their own codes of behavior. Usually, for them, this means no code.

Now someone in Japan, an American, basically gets torted on the internet. The tortfeasor didn’t exactly put their own name on the website. So, “John Doe”.

But how do you serve a John Doe who is causing the harm over the internet?

The major case that I could find involving service by e-mail was in the Ninth Circuit, ten years ago: Rio Properties v. Rio International Interlink. In that case, the federal court allowed e-mail service, under a section of the Federal Rules.

But there aren’t exactly a lot of these cases. I don’t see any in the Third Circuit, in which the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is located. I haven’t exactly done a thorough search, however.

Service of process is meant to let the defendant know that there is an action in the court. If the defendant is not made aware, then the defendant is not getting due process. The defendant can simply lose, because the defendant was never told.

What I wonder, though, is if someone sets up a slam blog, which usually requires e-mail communication at one point or another, and the lawyer for the plaintiff asks the court if it is permissible to serve the e-mail address of the slam blogger, hasn’t that blogger received notice of the action in court? And a chance to respond to the federal judge?

This is a 21st century problem. Someone makes a website to smear you. They do it anonymously. They play a game like, “all this is out on the internet already about so-and-so!”, so [they say] it’s OK. Or “it’s their own words, boss, so it’s OK that I contact you about your employee!” People who do this sort of thing have dozens of excuses.

A federal court should allow e-mail service in these type of instances. If the slam blogger chooses not to answer or object within 20 21 days of receiving the e-mail, they should face a default judgment. When they want to cure the default judgment, they have to show themselves. (Then the sh*t starts.)

As readers know, I had a similar thing happen to me in September 2010, through a slam blog called “Japan Blog Review”. That site still posts various trivial updates about the fictional authors, and it’s interesting to see them keep it up. (It’s also more evidence every time an IP is accessed to make those posts.) The site looks very much like a Cardwell and Jerez production, but that awaits some discovery–because it has an off chance of being someone who didn’t like the EEOC matter.

As for my acquaintance, she has been a wreck since someone decided to use the internet to cause all this damage. I was happy to hear that something solid is being done about it, and the complaint is very, very thorough. It’s actually based on copyright violation, which is what gets it into federal court. The tort claims come in under supplemental jurisdiction, which I discussed in the IBM Japan context.

I hope the judge allows an e-mail service. I am sure he will if he means justice.

[Update: How can you have PJ (personal jurisdiction) on John Doe, if he/she is overseas? Good question. I bet it would go to where the e-mails were sent. Back to America? I don’t think there is a good answer at the moment, but that’s what (good) case law does: answers this stuff.]

[Update #2: Interestingly, this one is not “Acquaitance v. Doe” anymore. I have my own theories about what/who the “Doe” is (actually, two people–or more.)]

[Update #3: Yes, and it involves the individuals who hang around, at some degree of separation, in the Tepido Oort Cloud—whose target this month appears to be Christopher Johnson.]