Guest Post: Sloan v. Truong, et al (S.D.N.Y.)

While he may not be a “Grandmaster,” my law partner John Leonard is our office chess wizard. So naturally I asked him to guest post on the recently filed Sloan v. Truong, et al case, which raises at least one Section 230 issue. Of course one read of the complaint will tell you that this case is about much more than intermediary liability, but I asked John to try to confine his summary to the Section 230 issue.

Please note that the documents linked to in John’s post are not court-filed versions, thus he/I cannot attest to their authenticity. My understanding is that because Mr. Sloan filed pro se, the Clerk will not post certain filings on PACER.

Take it away, John.

For those of you who play chess, or follow the Machiavellian twists and turns in the world of professional chess, and are interested in issues involving online liability, an interesting story is evolving in Federal Court in New York. There, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, former U.S. Chess Federation board member Sam Sloan has filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against former Women’s World Chess Champion Susan Polgar, her husband Paul Truong, and many others, alleging, among other things, that Ms. Polgar and Mr. Truong falsely posted over the Internet “thousands of obscene messages,” under the name of Sam Sloan. (The author or authors of said postings being referred to by Mr. Sloan as the “Fake Sam Sloan.”) Although Mr. Sloan’s 27-page long pro se complaint is quite a read, and the author of this post expresses no opinion on the merits of his case against Ms. Polgar and Mr. Truong, or any of the other defendants save one, of interest to those who follow this site is the fact that Mr. Sloan also named as a defendant Texas Tech University, where Ms. Polgar and Mr. Truong are presently (according to Sloan’s complaint) employed.

In his complaint, at paragraph 6, Mr. Sloan alleges that Polgar and Truong have posted obscene Fake Sam Sloan messages from the university computers at Texas Tech, and that (at paragraph 41) “Texas Tech University has allowed Polgar and Truong to use [its] computers to impersonate Sam Sloan…and to post Fake Sam Sloan…messages on the Internet.”

Obviously, these allegations raise questions under the “immunity” provisions of the CDA. Significantly, and perhaps fatally to Mr. Sloan’s complaint in its present form, Sloan’s complaint does not allege that Texas Tech knowingly allowed the use of computers to post and transmit the alleged obscene Fake Sam Sloan messages, although perhaps knowledge could be implied from the above-quoted language from the complaint. No doubt such an allegation would be difficult to prove. But perhaps the more fundamental question is whether Texas Tech qualifies for Section 230(c)(1) immunity in the first place.

I believe that it does, following the reasoning of the California Sixth District Court of Appeals decision in Delfino v. Agilent Technologies, 145 Cal. App. 4th 790, 52 Cal. Rptr.3d 376 (Dec. 14, 2006). There, the Court considered whether a corporate employer that makes its computers available to its employees is a “provider of an interactive computer service” within the meaning of the CDA. While acknowledging that there is no case directly on this point, the Court also noted that “several commentators have opined that an employer that provides its employees with Internet access through the company’s internal computer system is among the class of parties potentially immune under the CDA.”

Interestingly, the Court in Delfino also addressed the question of whether the employer who provided the computer access could be liable for misuse of the same under the common law theory of respondeat superior, by which an employer can be held responsible for the misdeeds of its employees. However, as the Court observed, in order for this doctrine to apply, the employer must have ratified the employees’ wrongful conduct; it must have, in effect, treated the employees’ conduct as its own. In the Sloan case, given that the case seems to derive from a long-simmering feud between Mr. Sloan and the individual defendants, it seems to me that it would be an almost impossible burden for Sloan to prove that Texas Tech University adopted the alleged conduct of Polgar and Truong as its own.

Based on the above, I predict that Texas Tech will soon be out of the lawsuit.

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