Automotive Supplier Industry Experts Convene in Detroit and Share 2018 Outlook

The Original Equipment Suppliers Association (OESA) held its 19th Annual Conference this week in suburban Detroit under the theme:  “The Industry’s New Landscape.”  And while much of the day was devoted to autonomous vehicle developments and the potential negative impacts on the industry’s North American competitiveness that would result from substantial changes to NAFTA, the afternoon session included a robust discussion of today’s strong market in North America and the more guarded outlook for 2018 and beyond.

 During this session, Mike Jackson, Executive Director of Strategy and Research for the OESA moderated a panel called “Cycle Dynamics:  The Industry Outlook Panel,” comprised of a leading automotive forecaster, a leading Wall Street analyst and the lead economist for one of the world’s largest OEMs.  While the panel remained fairly optimistic about the near term, the longer term theme was that the automotive industry is cyclical and the next down cycle is SOMEWHERE OUT THERE …

The panelists included Dr. G. Mustafa Mohatarem, Chief Economist, General Motors; John Murphy, Managing Director, U.S. Autos Equity Research, Bank of America Merrill Lynch; and Michael Robinet, Managing Director, Automotive Advisory Services, IHS Markit.

Dr. Mohatarem began with a very optimistic evaluation of the global economy, referring to our current condition as a “global synchronous expansion.”  Not only is the U.S. economy strong, but China’s growth has exceeded recent expectations, the EU has experienced a mini-boom after dodging a debt crisis, India continues to grow steadily and Russia and Brazil’s recessions have ended.  He noted that the current U.S. production rate is 17.4 -17.5 million units for 2017, a healthy market if not quite as healthy as last year.  On the cautionary side, he noted a potentially more hawkish bent to Fed policy and a significant labor shortage that will continue to dog the U.S. automotive industry.  On the whole though, he noted: “this is a very favorable time for the global automotive industry.”

Mike Robinet summed up current supplier sentiment as follows:  suppliers see the demand and the market opportunities out there, but there will be a lot of disruptors that can derail them.  These disruptors include the impact of “ACES” (AutonomousConnectedElectrifiedand Shared), the emergence of “Super Tier 1’s” who may dominate the future landscape with their integration capabilities (leaving other suppliers behind potentially), shifting trade winds, indecision about U.S. regulatory policy including CAFÉ standards, and an acceleration of the planning cycle that creates execution risk.  He noted that the cadence of model changes has kept the supply base on its toes this year, as has the adjustment to the continuing decline in sedan sales (which was viewed by the panel as a continuing trend into the future).  Will the internal combustion engine disappear soon?  According to Robinet, 95% of the vehicles in North America will have an engine on board by 2025.  Places like China will see a faster adoption of EVs during this period, he noted, including as a result of government policies promoting them. He ended by cautioning suppliers not to focus too much on the “nirvana” of Level 5 autonomy, but rather to focus on the movement to Level 3 and 4 in the shorter term and try to find there place in those realms.

John Murphy, more bullish in recent times, conceded that he has “moderated his outlook a bit.”  Murphy noted that leasing is helping support current demand, but worries about the upcoming impacts on the used car market as those vehicles come off lease (which he referred to as a “tsunami” that will hit in 2018 and beyond).  He noted that vehicle pricing is also starting to moderate (unrelated to just mix), and that the CUV market is getting very crowded.  He described three “Big Bangs” that will shape the industry in the future:  The increase in the Efficiency of Travel (cost per mile), the impact of Autonomous Mobility On Demand on the ease and cost of travel, and the increase in Speed of Travel.  Only the latter will provide a material economic stimulus – the first two will provide only a marginal or moderate stimulus – but all three Big Bangs will significantly impact the automotive industry.   But, before these Big Bangs reach their full impact, Murphy sees a downturn within the next two years taking U.S. volume down below the 14 million unit level (compared to the miserable 9 million level reached during the Great Recession).  During the Q&A session that followed, Murphy noted that he expects EV penetration in the U.S. to reach 10% by 2025 (slightly more optimistic than Mike Robinet’s prediction).  He also noted his perception that we are not experiencing an auto technology valuation bubble despite the recent eye-popping valuations in this space (no irrational exuberance here!).

On the whole, the panel’s 2018 and beyond outlook is for an automotive supply industry in North America that continues to be good, with significant challenges and disruptors that must be overcome by those automotive suppliers who will flourish in the long term.

This post was written by Steven H. Hilfinger of Foley & Lardner LLP., © 2017

5 Business Communication Etiquette Pet Peeves

I frequently work with my children to help them understand the importance of good table manners – elbows off the table, how to set a table, which fork to use, how to hold a fork and knife (and properly use them), which glass to drink from, and to never chew with their mouths open. Let’s just say it is a work in progress.

While these lessons seem obvious, you would be surprised how frequently we get requests for etiquette training for lawyers. But it’s a fact that how we present ourselves has a significant impact on our brand. If you are seated next to a lawyer who slurps his soup, uses the wrong fork and drinks from your water glass, how likely are you to hire him?

Like our table manners, our communication etiquette sometimes needs attention, too. After all, good relationships begin with good communication. As a communications professional, here are my five biggest communication pet peeves:

  1. Email Signatures: It is a best practice to include your telephone number in your email signature, even on the reply. In this day and age, a majority of our business is conducted without ever hearing someone’s voice. Sometimes, though, actually talking is the best way to communicate, and it is terribly frustrating to have to go digging through old emails, files and even paper notebooks to find a phone number.

If your law firm doesn’t already have a standard email signature protocol, now is the time to institute it. Use it as a way to market your law firm, being mindful not to overwhelm readers with too many ways to reach you. If you are including a graphic, make sure recipients can view it on a mobile device and that it does not make an email too large to open. Your clients will thank you!

  1. Grammar & Spelling: They’re/their, who’s/whose, you’re/your, it’s/its. Learn it, live it, love it. Sure, we all can make mistakes when using our smartphones and blame them on autocorrect, but there are some basic grammar rules that we as legal industry professionals should know.

In addition, try to tighten up your sentences. For example, “I thought I would connect with Jane to discuss,” can be rewritten as “I am going to call Jane to discuss,” or “Jane and I are going to discuss.” To put it concisely, be direct.

And take the time to ensure that you do not have any spelling errors. Readers will automatically assume the worst of you – and your intellect – if you misspell words. Spellcheck is not always accurate, so proofread your work. If you are not a great proofreader yourself, enlist the help of a colleague or a professional proofreader before you send documents to clients. With emails, take a few extra seconds before clicking send.

  1. Limit the Word “Just”: In the spirit of being direct, I want to share my dislike of the word “just.” Improper use of the word often weakens what you are communicating and implies an unspoken apology. I am certainly guilty of using it and am consciously trying to eliminate it from my vocabulary. For example, “I am just following up” suggests that I am sorry to bother you but have something that I think is important to say. “I just have to say” implies that what you have to say is somehow a side note.

Try eliminating the word “just” when you are asking someone to do something for you as well. “Can you just…” minimizes a person’s contributions. Count how many times you use the word “just” in a day, and see if eliminating it helps you become a stronger communicator.

  1. “At Your Earliest Convenience”: Be careful with this term because, when used the wrong way, it makes you seem lazy and unengaged. It is perfectly fine to ask someone to respond at their earliest convenience, but how do you feel when I tell you that I will call you back at my earliest convenience? Probably like I will get to you after I drink my coffee and check social media. For most law firm marketers, your “clients” are the attorneys in your firm. They are your most important asset. Make them feel that way, and avoid telling them that you will do something when it is convenient for you. Try “as soon as possible” instead. It feels much better!

  2. Emphasize Sparingly: When I receive an email that is filled with bold, underlined and all-caps words, I FEEL LIKE I AM BEING YELLED AT and that whatever isn’t emphasized probably isn’t important! Think about what you are emphasizing. Is it really crucial? As a general rule of thumb, focus on headers and deadlines to make sure that all of the content of your email is properly read and understood. Then think about using the signature at the bottom of the email to give the person a way to call to confirm.

All of the ways we present ourselves and communicate – both directly and indirectly – impact our personal brands. Making yourself available and easy to communicate with will boost your personal brand, make people feel good about doing business with you, and hopefully drive more business.

This post was written by Stephanie Kantor Holtzman of Jaffe Associates.,© Copyright 2008-2017
For more legal analysis, go to The National Law Review

Can They Really Do That?

Effective October 18, 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Index, and National File Tracking System of Records, implemented new or modified uses of information maintained on individuals as they pass through the immigration process.

The new regulation updates the categories of individuals covered, to include: individuals acting as legal guardians or designated representatives in immigration proceedings involving an individual who is physically or developmentally disabled or severely mentally impaired (when authorized); Civil Surgeons who conduct and certify medical examinations for immigration benefits; law enforcement officers who certify a benefit requestor’s cooperation in the investigation or prosecution of a criminal activity; and interpreters.

It also expands the categories of records to include: country of nationality; country of residence; the USCIS Online Account Number; social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results; and EOIR and BIA proceedings information.

The new regulation also includes updated record source categories to include: publicly available information obtained from the internet; public records; public institutions; interviewees; commercial data providers; and information With this latest expansion of data allowed to be collected, it begs the question: How does one protect sensitive data housed on electronic devices? In addition to inspecting all persons, baggage and merchandise at a port-of-entry, CBP does indeed have the authority to search electronic devices too. CBP’s stance is that consent is not required for such a search. This position is supported by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has determined that such border searches constitute reasonable searches; and therefore, do not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment.

Despite this broad license afforded CBP at the port-of-entry, CBP’s authority is checked somewhat in that such searches do not include information located solely in the cloud. Information subject to search must be physically stored on the device in order to be accessible at the port-of-entry. Additionally, examination of attorney-client privileged communications contained on electronic devices first requires CBP’s consultation with Associate/Assistant Chief Counsel of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

So what may one do to prevent seizure of an electronic device or avoid disclosure of confidential data to CBP during a border search? The New York and Canadian Bar Associations have compiled the following recommendations:

  • Consider carrying a temporary or travel laptop cleansed of sensitive local documents and information. Access data through a VPN connection or cloud-based warehousing.
  • Consider carrying temporary mobile devices stripped of contacts and other confidential information. Have calls forwarded from your office number to the unpublished mobile number when traveling.
  • Back up data and shut down your electronic device well before reaching the inspection area to eliminate access to Random Access Memory.

  • Use an alternate account to hold sensitive information. Apply strong encryption and complex passwords.

  • Partition and encrypt the hard drive.

  • Protect the data port.
  • Clean your electronic device(s) following return.
  • Wipe smartphones remotely.

This post was written by Jennifer Cory of Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP All Rights Reserved.,Copyright © 2017
For more Immigration legal analysis, go to The National Law Review

Citing Failure to Cooperate, Court Orders Use of Specific Keyword Search Terms

United States v. New Mexico State Univ., No. 1:16-cv-00911-JAP-LF, 2017 WL 4386358 (D.N.M. Sept. 29, 2017)

In this pay discrimination case, the Court addressed Defendants’ motion for a protective order precluding further searching for responsive documents. Citing defense counsel’s failure to “adequately confer” before performing the initial searches, “which resulted in searches that were inadequate to reveal all responsive documents,” the Court concluded that “which searches will be conducted is left to the Court” and went on to order Defendants to conduct additional searches with specific terms, many of which were proposed by the plaintiff.

Plaintiff alleged that Defendants payed a female employee less than they were paying her male counterparts, despite similar responsibilities in the track and field program, and sought, broadly speaking, production of documents reflecting communications regarding her compensation; production of documents regarding her complaints concerning pay; and production of documents regarding any other complaints of pay discrimination made by other coaches, trainers, etc. Without adequately cooperating with the plaintiff, Defendants performed “more than 20” keyword searches and produced “more than 14,000 pages of documents.”  When Plaintiff indicated concern regarding the adequacy of Defendants’ searching, the parties were unable to resolve their dispute and Defendants ultimately moved for a protective order. Defendants argued that the discovery sought was not proportional to the needs of the case, noting the efforts already undertaken.  Plaintiff disagreed.

Indicating that this case presented “the question of how parties should search and produce [ESI] in response to discovery requests,” the Court reminded the parties that “[t]he best solution in the entire area of electronic discovery is cooperation among counsel” and that “[c]ooperation prevents lawyers designing keyword searches ‘in the dark, by the seat of the pants,’ without adequate discussion with each other to determine which words would yield the most responsive results.” In the present case, the Court concluded that the failure to confer resulted in inadequate searches and, acknowledging Plaintiff’s argument that “[Defendant] alone is responsible for its illogical choices in constructing searches” indicated that, “which searches will be conducted is left to the Court.”

As promised, the Court went on to discuss the three disputed discovery requests and identified specific search terms and custodians to be searched, many of which were proposed by the plaintiff. The Court also instructed the parties to work together to the extent necessary, if the non-responsive documents returned were too voluminous, for example.

The Court ended the opinion by returning to the topic of cooperation:

Electronic discovery requires cooperation between opposing counsel and transparency in all aspects of preservation and production of ESI. Moreover, where counsel are using keyword searches for retrieval of ESI, they at a minimum must carefully craft the appropriate keywords, with input from the ESI’s custodians as to the words and abbreviations they use, and the proposed methodology must be quality control tested to assure accuracy in retrieval and elimination of “false positives.” It is time that the Bar—even those lawyers who did not come of age in the computer era—understand this.

[Citation omitted.]

A copy of the Court’s order is available here.

This post was written by the Electronic Discovery at KL Gates of K & L Gates., Copyright 2017
For more legal analysis go to The National Law Review

FTC Provides Guidance to Social Media Influencers in Live Twitter Chat

Influencer marketing is the popular practice of using individuals with large social media audiences—known as “influencers”—to advertise products and services through their social media accounts. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has made it clear that influencers must clearly and conspicuously disclose their relationships to brands when promoting or endorsing products through social media. To emphasize this point, the FTC sent letters to 90 influencers and marketers earlier this year reminding them of their obligation to make appropriate disclosures on ads. The FTC has also provided Endorsement Guides with answers to frequently asked questions from advertisers, ad agencies, bloggers, and others.

Most recently the FTC hosted a live Twitter chat to answer questions and provide guidance on influencer marketing. The FTC covered a number of topics during the chat, from the use of the hashtag “#ad” as a disclosure to built-in disclosure tools on popular social media platforms. Key takeaways from the Twitter chat are:

  • Using “#ad” is a sufficient disclosure, as long as it is hard to miss in the post.

  • Even if an influencer posts from abroad, U.S. law still applies if it is reasonably foreseeable that the posts will affect U.S. consumers.

  • Built-in tools such as the “Paid” tag on Facebook and “includes paid promotion” mark on YouTube are not sufficient to disclose that a post is an ad.

  • For Snapchat and Instagram posts, the FTC suggests superimposing a disclosure over the images. For a series of images, a disclosure on the first image may be sufficient, as long as it stands out, and viewers have time to see it.

The Twitter chat followed shortly after the FTC announced its first settlement with two social media influencers, Trevor Martin and Thomas Cassell, for endorsing the online gambling service CSGO Lotto without disclosing that they were the owners of the company, as well as paying other well-known social media influencers to promote the company without requiring them to disclose the payments in their posts.

Click here to read a transcript of the questions and the FTC’s responses during the official Twitter chat.

This post was written by Edward J. McAndrewPhilip N. YannellaKim Phan & Roshni Patel of Ballard Spahr LLP Copyright ©
For more legal analysis go to The National Law Review

Recording Conversations with Your Cellphone: with Great Power Comes Potential Legal Liability

In the cellphone age, nearly everyone walks around with a multi-tasking recording device in their pocket or purse, and it comes in handy for many of our modern problems: Your dog suddenly started doing something adorable? Open your video app and start rolling. Need to share that epic burger you just ordered with your foodie friends? There’s an app for that. Want to remember the great plot twist you just thought of for that novel you’ve been working on? Record a voice memo.

Sometimes, though, the need arises to record more serious matters. Many people involved in lawsuits choose to record conversations with their phones, all in the name of preserving evidence that might be relevant in court. People involved in contentious divorce or child custody cases, for example, might try to record a hostile confrontation that occurred during a pickup for visitation. Conversely, others might be worried that an ex-spouse has secretly recorded a conversation and plans to use it against them out of context.

But while everyone has the power to record just about anything with few swipes on their phone, do they have the legal right to do so? If not, what are the possible consequences? Can you even use recorded conversations in court? Consider these important questions before your press record.

Criminal Liability: Can you go to jail just for recording someone’s conversation?

The short answer: Yes. Under Michigan’s Eavesdropping law,[1] it is a felony punishable by up to two years and $2,000 to willfully use any device to eavesdrop on (meaning to overhear, record, amplify, or transmit) a conversation without the consent of all participants in that conversation.[2]It is also a felony for a person to “use or divulge” any information that they know was obtained through illegal eavesdropping.[3]

But there is one important distinction that Michigan courts have recognized: if you are a participant in the conversation, then you do not need permission of other participants to record the conversation (at least not when it comes to the eavesdropping law; there may be other laws that apply, as discussed below).[4] This makes sense given the purposes of the law. The theory is that if you are a participant in the conversation, then other participants at least have a chance to judge your character and determine if you are the kind of person who might relay the conversation to others (either verbally or by making a recording).

The bottom line is that if you use a device, like your cellphone, to record, overhear, amplify, or transmit a conversation that you are not a part of without the permission of all participants, you could face criminal consequences.

Civil Liability: If someone records your private conversation, can you file a lawsuit against them?

The short answer: Yes. The eavesdropping statute allows eavesdropping victims to bring a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator.[5] But the same distinction applies; you cannot sue someone for recording a conversation that they participated in.

Before filing a civil eavesdropping claim, though, consider what if anything there is to gain. The eavesdropping statute permits a judge to issue an injunction prohibiting the perpetrator from further eavesdropping. This may be a valuable remedy if there is a risk that the eavesdropper would otherwise continue eavesdropping on your conversations. The statue also allows a plaintiff to recover actual damages and punitive damages from the wrongdoer. In many cases, actual damages will likely be minimal, and punitive damages are subject to the whims of the judge or jury deciding the case. A result, the cost of litigation may exceed any monetary recovery unless actual damages are significant or the eavesdropper’s conduct was egregious enough to elicit a large punitive award from a jury.

Evidence and Admissibility: Can I use a recorded conversation in court?

Many people are familiar with the exclusionary rule that arises from the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which provides that if police officers obtain evidence as a result of an illegal search or seizure, then the prosecution is prohibited from using that evidence to support their case. This raises the question:

If a regular civilian obtains evidence by recording a conversation in violation of the eavesdropping statute, is that evidence automatically excluded from court proceedings?

The short answer: No. The exclusionary rule is specifically designed to curb the potentially oppressive power of the government in order to guarantee the protections of the Fourth Amendment, at the expense of excluding potentially valuable evidence from court proceedings. Since the Fourth Amendment only restricts government conduct, the exclusionary rule only applies to evidence obtained as a result of unconstitutional government action. As a result, even if a private citizen breaks the law and records your conversation, that recording is not automatically excluded from court.[6]

So does this mean you can use any recorded conversation in court whenever you want?

The short answer: No. Anything presented in court still needs to comply with the Rules of Evidence, and in many cases recorded conversations will not make the cut. A big reason is the hearsay rule, which says that out of court statements cannot be used to prove the truth of the matter asserted.[7] In other words, you can’t use a recording of your neighbor saying “I use my neighbor’s Wi-Fi” as evidence to prove that he was, in fact, using your Wi-Fi.

But there are many exceptions to the hearsay rule which might allow a recorded conversation into court. Salient among these exceptions is the rule that admissions of a party-opponent are not hearsay.[8] Consequently, if a man records his ex-wife’s conversation with her current husband, the hearsay rule will not prevent the man from using the recording of his ex-wife against her in a child custody case; the ex-wife is a “party-opponent” and her out-of-court statements are not considered hearsay.

Continuing this same example, note that the man’s actions would violate the eavesdropping statute (assuming he didn’t have permission to make the recording) because he was not a participant in the hypothetical conversation. But this violation would not keep the recording out of court. Nevertheless, if a prosecutor wanted to press charges, the man could be subject to criminal liability. And if the ex-wife was so inclined, she could file a civil lawsuit against the man and ask for an injunction and monetary damages.

Other Law: Is the eavesdropping statute the only law you need to worry about before recording all of your conversations?

The short answer: No, don’t hit record just yet. Even if you comply with the eavesdropping statute, there are still other potential pitfalls to be aware of. For instance, wiretapping laws govern the recording and interception of telephone calls and electronic communications, and carry criminal penalties. For inter-state phone calls, the laws of other states will come into play as well. And depending on the means you use to obtain a recording and what you do with the recording once you have it, you risk incurring civil liability for a variety of privacy torts, such as intrusion upon seclusion or public disclosure of private facts.

The safest route is to always get permission from everyone involved before recording a conversation or sharing a recorded conversation with anyone. If that’s not an option, consult with a lawyer who has had an opportunity to consider all of the facts involved in your case.

________________________________

[1] MCL 750.539 et seq.
[2] MCL 750.539a; MCL 570.539c.
[3] MCL 750.539e.
[4] See Sullivan v. Gray, 117 Mich. App. 476, 324 N.W.2d 58, 59 – 61 (1982).
[5] MCL 750.539h.
[6] See, e.g., Swan v. Bob Maxey Lincoln Mercury, No. 216564, 2001 WL 682371, at *2 n3 (Mich. Ct. App. Apr. 24, 2001)
[7] MRE 802.
[8] MRE 801(d)(2).

This post was written by Jeffrey D. Koelzer of  Varnum LLP © 2017
For more legal analysis go to The National Law Review

Troll Hunting: Practical Strategies for Businesses to Combat Anonymous Online Trolls

No matter the business you operate, modern commerce increasingly takes place online, rarely putting the consumer and your business face-to-face. A recent study revealed that approximately 80% of American consumers buy products online, and 74% of consumers think it is extremely or somewhat important to read online reviews before making a purchasing decision.[1]  The average consumer reviews three online sources for information before soliciting a local business, typically: a search engine, the business’s website, and a website containing reviews or testimonials.[2]  Small and local businesses are not immune to the internet’s influence, as nearly 40% of consumers seek out online testimonials, ratings, or reviews to evaluate when considering whether to engage a local business for products or services.[3]  In fact, consumers cite negative online ratings and reviews as the second greatest reason not to consider a local business for products or services, behind only high prices.[4]  

Because consumers consistently turn to online resources to determine whether to do business with you, managing your online reputation is an essential task. You must actively control information about your products, address negative reviews, optimize search engines, and improve your customers’ online experience. In fact, many companies employ full time personnel solely to manage their social media presence.

But monitoring your online reputation becomes even more critical when an anonymous user (aka a “troll”) begins posting harmful or false information. The danger lies in the very nature of the internet, as “any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.”[5]  When that voice spreads false information, interferes with your business, or divulges your trade secrets, what can you do to identify the anonymous user and hold them liable for the harm caused?

Understanding The First Amendment and Anonymous Online Speech

To pursue a claim against an anonymous online user, you must first understand the First Amendment protection afforded online speech. Internet speech is generally granted the same protection as traditional offline speech; that is, most types of speech on the internet are protected to some degree.[6]

The right to free speech online also includes a right to remain anonymous.[7]  Far from being hostile to such online secrecy, the courts have held that careful safeguards to protect anonymous online speech are important to preserve “the robust exchange of ideas and allows individuals to express themselves freely without fear of economic or official retaliation [or] concern about social ostracism.”[8] 

As in the traditional offline arena, some categories of speech, such as fighting words, obscenities, and false statements, are not protected by the First Amendment.[9]  Thus, when trolls exploit the anonymous nature of the internet to post false or damaging information about you, they often exceed the First Amendment’s protections for anonymous online speech. For example, anonymous online users may step beyond the boundaries of protected speech by:

• Creating an email account to distribute your CEO’s sensitive personal emails to senior management.[10]

• Creating online accounts to conduct a smear campaign against you with the objective of inducing employees to quit.[11]

• Posting reviews about working for you that disclose confidential or trade secret information.[12]

• Creating a website using your name to complain about your business practices and post negative reviews.[13]

• Posting false reviews of you online by posing as a former customer.[14]

If not for the use of an anonymous online persona, each of these actions could be addressed by filing a lawsuit against the troll. However, anonymity adds a layer of complication as you must either first find a way to unmask the troll’s identity or stop the harmful conduct by some other means.

Strategies to Address Harmful Online Comments Short of Litigation

Before filing a lawsuit to unmask your troll, first consider whether less costly means might stop the conduct or remove the harmful comments. This approach typically depends on the voluntary compliance of companies hosting the content, and thus is not guaranteed to succeed. However, the low cost of this initial step makes it worth considering. Further, pursuing these strategies, whether successful or not, may cause the troll to stop harming you, or to remove the content voluntarily, thereby accomplishing the end goal.

One alternative to litigation is to determine whether the online statements violate the online service provider’s “Terms of Service.” For example, Facebook’s® Terms of Service prohibit users from posting content that “infringes or violates someone else’s rights or otherwise violates the law” and authorizes Facebook to “remove any content or information” posted on Facebook that “violates this Statement or our policies.”[15]  Twitter® also requires users to ensure that posts comply “with applicable laws, rules, and regulations” and permits Twitter to remove “any Content.”[16]  Large online service providers typically offer reporting platforms where you can report a violation of the terms of service and ask to have the false or harmful content removed.[17] Thus, where a post or comment violates the terms of service, a letter to the internet service provider bringing the issue to its attention may be all that’s needed to get the offending content removed.

Another option is to request that search engines, such as Google® or Bing®, “de-index” the page on which the comments appear. “De-indexing” is a request that the search engine voluntarily remove a website from its index, thereby ensuring it will not appear in response to a search about you. Most search engines retain the right to remove offensive content. For example Google’s ® Terms of Service state that Google “may review content to determine whether it is illegal or violates our policies, and . . . may remove or refuse to display content that we reasonably believe violates our policies or the law.”[18]  The result is that, while the website containing the false statement still exists, it can’t be accessed in response to a search. The effectiveness of this step depends on whether the content clearly violates the applicable terms of service or is blatantly unlawful, and a search engine may require a court order finding the content to be unlawful before it will agree to de-index the website.

A final alternative is to address the comments from a public relations perspective. You can choose to simply engage the troll in the online forum itself, to address the falsity of the comments or steer the

discussion in a more beneficial direction. However, this approach carries significant risk that your comments may be used against you, or may even incite a more passionate, negative response. Thus, this approach should be reserved for unique factual situations that justify a public relations response instead of a legal one.

Identifying the Anonymous Online User

If you cannot stop the harmful online comments through one of the strategies above, you should consider filing a lawsuit to identify the troll and assert the appropriate claims against them. First, however, you need to analyze the conduct and determine whether you have a legal claim against the anonymous user. If so, you can file a lawsuit against the troll and attempt to uncover his or her identity.

Step One: Determine Whether the Conduct is Actionable

The types of claims available to combat online misconduct are generally the same as those available in traditional offline situations.

The most common claim pursued against trolls is a claim for defamation. When a person publishes false, harmful statements of fact about your business ethics or financial integrity, they are likely liable for defamation.[19]  Libel—defamation in writing—consists of publishing a false written statement, either deliberately or with at least a negligent disregard for the truth.[20] 

In evaluating whether you have a claim for defamation, you must candidly consider whether there is any truth to the comments, as truth is an absolute defense.[21]  Likewise, opinions are not actionable. So, if the statements are arguably just opinion, as opposed to a statement of fact (or an opinion that could reasonably be interpreted as stating facts), the anonymous speaker will not be liable.[22]  Finally, you must evaluate whether you will be deemed a “public figure,” in full or in a limited capacity.[23]  If you are a public figure, whether limited or not, you will be required to prove that the speaker acted with “reckless disregard of the truth.” Because this is a higher standard than negligence, there is a greater likelihood that the troll will not ultimately be held liable for defamation.

In addition to defamation, there are a number of other claims that you may be able to pursue against your troll:

• If the user is directing its harmful comments at a vendor, business partner, or potential customer, the user may be liable to you for tortious interference with a contract or a business expectancy. To succeed, you must have a valid contract or business expectancy; the anonymous user must both know about it and interfere with it, so as to cause its breach or termination; and have no legal justification for doing so.[24]

• If the user publishes false information about your products or services, the user may be liable for trade libel or business/product disparagement. Each of these claims has similar elements, requiring proof that the anonymous user posted a false statement concerning your products or services to dissuade a potential customer from doing business with you.[25] 

• If the user is a competitor, and the comments contain false or misleading advertisements about your products or services, the user may also be liable for unfair competition under the Lanham Act.[26]  

• If the user posts information containing your trade secrets, the user may be liable under state or federal trade secret laws.[27]

• If the user is a former employee, or had a contractual relationship with you, then the online conduct may violate provisions of that contract, such as nondisclosure or non-compete provisions.

This list is not exhaustive and there may be other potential claims to assert against an anonymous online user.

Step Two: File An Anonymous Lawsuit to Unmask the Troll

Once you identify a viable claim or claims against the anonymous online user, the next step is to file a lawsuit to discover the troll’s identity.

Such a lawsuit is typically filed against an anonymous defendant—John Doe for example—and a subpoena is then issued to the service provider or to the website hosting the content requiring it to identify the user. The service provider or website will likely object, and you will need to ask the Court for an order compelling disclosure of the user’s identity.

There is no universal standard governing when a court will order the disclosure of an anonymous user’s identity. However, most courts apply one of two generally-accepted tests, both of which require a significant showing early in the case that you are likely to succeed on your claims.

The less stringent test requires that you allege facts that—assumed to be true—demonstrate that the anonymous user committed an act giving rise to civil liability.[28]   Because the Court is looking only at whether you have sufficiently alleged a valid claim, your initial complaint is the operative document that the court will consider. You must also demonstrate to the Court’s satisfaction that (1) you have identified the anonymous user and the user is subject to personal jurisdiction; (2) you have made a good faith effort to locate and identify the anonymous user; and (3) the discovery sought is sufficiently limited to identify the appropriate user or users.[29]  This test, or some variation of the test, is used in some Federal Courts—typically in cases involving less protected forms of speech, like commercial speech—and state courts in Wisconsin, and Illinois.[30]

Most jurisdictions apply the second, more stringent test, which requires you to present facts, in the form of admissible evidence or sworn testimony, establishing that you can prove each element of your claim.[31]  This test requires you to provide more than just the pleadings, typically in the form of a statement of facts with supporting documents and testimony. Most states employing this test also require some further steps as well, such as proof that you attempted to notify the anonymous user of the pending proceeding[32]  or satisfaction of an additional balancing test to justify unmasking the troll.[33]  Federal Courts, and many state courts—including Arizona, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Maryland, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia—have adopted some version of this more stringent test.[34]

If it is not obvious from the nature of the statements that they are actionable, some courts may also require an evidentiary showing that you can prove a valid claim before they will order the troll’s identity disclosed.[35] 

Thus, if you file a lawsuit to identify the anonymous user, you must be prepared to present the facts that support your claim much earlier than in traditional litigation. Since most states apply the more stringent “evidentiary” test, the best practice is to prepare to satisfy that test, even if the less stringent test might be applied.

The factual evidence necessary to compel disclosure of an anonymous user’s identity will likely include, at a minimum: (1) copies of the offending posts; (2) sufficient evidence to demonstrate the posts are false, unlawful, or violate the terms of an agreement; (3) sufficient evidence to show that the comments are directed at you, if necessary; and (4) evidence demonstrating that you have suffered damage as a result of the comments. You should be careful to save copies of the offending posts before alerting the anonymous user that action is being taken, in order to guard against any attempt to edit, delete, or restrict access to the comments.

Step Three: Sue The Troll!

Once you have an order compelling disclosure of the anonymous user’s identity, you can serve that order on the service provider or website and expect a response. However, the response may not always identify the user, but may only give you the user’s IP address or other electronic information. You may need to issue additional subpoenas to service providers in order to identify the user of the IP address and ultimately discover the anonymous user’s identity.

Despite having an order in hand compelling disclosure of the anonymous user’s identity, you may still face obstacles from the service provider or website. Typically, large companies that host comments online resist disclosure of their users’ personal information for as long as possible. Thus, they may raise objections to disclosure, justified or not, ranging from invocation of the Stored Communications Act to the Video Privacy Protection Act. But, with the order in hand, you should be able to dispose of these objections through letter-writing, involving the court only if necessary.

Once you know the identity of the anonymous user, you can now amend the lawsuit to substitute the appropriate person for “John Doe.” With an actual defendant named, you can then begin the lawsuit in earnest to hold the no-longer-anonymous user liable for trolling online.

Conclusion

The prospect of trying to identify an anonymous online user can be daunting. But, armed with an understanding of the First Amendment and the applicable procedure, you can readily evaluate whether an anonymous user has engaged in unlawful conduct and whether you can successfully hunt down the troll to hold him or her liable. Good hunting!


References:

[1] Pew Research Center, December, 2016, “Online Shopping and E-Commerce.”

[2] YP Marketing Solutions, 2016, “The Why Before the Buy.”

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844, 897, 117 S. Ct. 2329, 2344 (1997).

[6] In re Anonymous Online Speakers, 661 F.3d 1168, 1173 (9th Cir. 2011) (citing Meyer v. Grant, 486 U.S. 414, 422, 425, 108 S. Ct. 1886, 100 L. Ed. 2d 425 (1988)).

[7] McIntyre v. Ohio Elec. Comm’n, 514 U.S. 334, 342, 115 S. Ct. 1511, 1516 (1995) (“[A]n author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.”); Anonymous Online Speakers, 661 F.3d at 1173 (“Although the Internet is the latest platform for anonymous speech, online speech stands on the same footing as other speech—there is “no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied” to online speech.”); Doe v. Reed, 561 U.S. 186, 218, n.4, 130 S. Ct. 2811, 2831 (2010) (recognizing that the freedom of speech “can be burdened by a law that exposes a speaker to harassment, changes the content of his speech, or prejudices others against his message”)

[8] Anonymous Online Speakers, 661 F.3d at 1173.

[9] Chaplinsky v. N.H., 315 U.S. 568, 571-72, 62 S. Ct. 766, 769 (1942).

[10] Mobilisa, Inc. v. Doe, 217 Ariz. 103, 106-7, ¶¶ 2-9, 170 P.3d 712, 715-16 (Ct. App. 2007).

[11] Anonymous Online Speakers, 661 F.3d at 1173.

[12] Glassdoor, Inc. v. Superior Court, 9 Cal. App. 5th 623, 626-27, 215 Cal. Rptr. 3d 395, 399-400 (Cal. App. 6th Dist. 2017).

[13] Salehoo Group, Ltd. v. ABC Co., 722 F. Supp. 2d 1210, 1212-13 (W.D. Wash. 2010)

[14] Yelp, Inc. v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, Inc., 62 Va. App. 678, 686-88, 752 S.E.2d 554, 557-58 (Va. Ct. App. 2014).

[15] https://www.facebook.com/terms.

[16] https://twitter.com/tos?lang=en.

[17] https://www.facebook.com/help/contact/191381691012854; https://support.twitter.com/articles/15789.

[18] https://www.google.com/intl/en-GB/policies/terms/.

[19] Seitz v. Rheem Mfg. Co., 544 F. Supp. 2d 901, 907 (D. Ariz. 2008) (“Although a corporation may maintain an action for libel, it has no personal reputation and may be libeled only by imputation about its financial soundness or business ethics.”).

[20] Desert Palm Surgical Group, P.L.C. v. Petta, 236 Ariz. 568, 579, ¶ 26, 343 P.3d 438, 449 (Ct. App. 2015).

[21] Read v. Phoenix Newspapers, 169 Ariz. 353, 355, 819 P.2d 939, 941 (1991) (“In a civil action for libel, the truth of the contents of the allegedly libelous statement is a complete defense.”)

[22] Yetman v. English, 168 Ariz. 71, 76, 811 P.2d 323, 328 (1991) (“The key inquiry is whether the challenged expression, however labeled by defendant, would reasonably appear to state or imply assertions of objective fact.”)

[23] Makaeff v. Trump Univ., LLC, 715 F.3d 254, 270 (9th Cir. 2013) (recognizing that a limited liability company can be an all-purpose public figure or a limited purpose public figure)

[24] Dube v. Likins, 216 Ariz. 406, 411, ¶ 8, 167 P.3d 93, 98 (Ct. App. June 28, 2007) (citing Miller v. Hehlen, 209 Ariz. 462, 471, ¶ 32, 104 P.3d 193, 202 (App. 2005)).

[25] W. Tech. v. Sverdrup & Parcel, Inc., 154 Ariz. 1, 4 (Ct. App. 1986)

[26] POM Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co., 134 S. Ct. 2228, 2234 (2014) (“The Lanham Act creates a cause of action for unfair competition through misleading advertising or labeling.”)

[27] 18 U.S.C. § 1836; A.R.S. § 44-401, et seq.

[28] Columbia Ins. Co. v. Seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573, 578-80 (N.D. Cal. 1999); see also Anonymous Online Speakers, 661 F.3d at 1177 (recognizing that “[t]he lowest bar that courts have used is the motion to dismiss or good faith standard.”).

[29] Id. at 578-80.

[30] Anonymous Online Speakers, 661 F.3d at 1176-77; Salehoo, 722 F. Supp. 2d at 1216 (finding that “the prima facie standard is appropriate in order to guarantee that the plaintiff has brought viable claims in connection with his or her attempt to unmask the anonymous defendant.”); Lassa v. Rongstad, 294 Wis. 2d 187, 215 (Wis. 2006) (applying the motion to dismiss standard before compelling disclosure of anonymous identity); Hadley v. Doe, 2015 IL 118000, ¶ 27 (Ill. 2015).

[31] John Doe No. 1 v. Cahill, 884 A.2d 451, 460 (Del. 2005)

[32] Cahill, 884 A.2d at 460; Mobilisa, 217 Ariz. at 110, ¶ 22; Solers, Inc. v. Doe, 977 A.2d 941, 954 (D.C. 2009); Doe v. Coleman, 497 S.W.3d 740, 747 (Ky. 2016); Ghanam v. Does, 303 Mich. App. 522, 541-42 (2014); Ottinger v. Non-Party The Journal News, 2008 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4579, **4-7 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2008); Pilchesky v. Gatelli, 12 A.3d 430, 442 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2011); In re Does 1-10, 242 S.W.3d 805, 821-23 (Tex. App. Texarkana 2007); Krinsky v. Doe 6, 159 Cal. App. 4th 1154, 1167-73 (2008); Indep. Newspapers, Inc. v. Brodie, 966 A.2d 432, 457-58 (Md. 2009); Mortgage Specialists v. Implode-Explode Heavy Indus., 999 A.2d 184, 193, ¶ 13 (N.H. 2010).

[33] Mobilisa, 217 Ariz. at 112, ¶ 28; Coleman, 497 S.W.3d at 747; Ottinger, 2008 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS at **4-7; Brodie, 966 A.2d at 457-58;Mortgage Specialists, 999 A.2d at 193, ¶ 13.

[34] Mobilisa, 217 Ariz. at 112, ¶ 28; Solers, 977 A.2d at 954; Dendrite Intern., Inc. v. Doe No. 3, 342 N.J. Super. 134, 156-58 (2001); Ghanam, 303 Mich. App. at 541-42; Ottinger, 2008 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS at **4-7; Krinsky, 159 Cal. App. 4th at 1167-73; Brodie, 966 A.2d at 457-58;Mortgage Specialists, 999 A.2d at 193, ¶ 13.

[35] Glassdoor, 9 Cal. App. 5th at 636, 215 Cal. Rptr. 3d 395, 407.

This post was written by Kevin Heaphy of   2017 Ryley Carlock & Applewhite. A Professional Association