A case recently decided by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, continues the line of cases decided in New Jersey defining the privacy rights of users of the Internet. In Juzwiak v. John/Jane Doe a.k.a. “Josh Hartnett,” a.k.a. Jharthat@yahoo.com (App. Div., August 3, 2010), plaintiff, a tenured teacher, began receiving harassing email messages simply signed “Josh.” The email listed the sender as “ ’Josh Hartnett’ ‹jharthat@yahoo.com ‹mailto: jharthat@yahoo.com››.” Plaintiff received a total of three email messages in July and August 2009. The first two emails, sent only to plaintiff, said that the sender hoped plaintiff would lose his teaching job and that the sender would “make it [his] lifes [sic] work to ensure that wherever [plaintiff] looks for work they will know what [plaintiff] has done.” The third email was sent to plaintiff and others in the school district in which plaintiff worked.  The text of the email read as follows:

It has been brought to my attention and I am sure many of you know that Mr. J is reapplying for his position as a teacher in this town. It has further been pointed out that certain people are soliciting supporters for him. This is tantamount to supporting the devil himself. I am not asking anyone to speak out against Mr. J but I urge you to then be silent as we can not continue to allow the children of this school system nor the parents to be subjected to his evil ways. Thank you. Josh

A week after he received the third email  message, plaintiff filed a lawsuit seeking damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and harassment. Because he did not know the identity of the author of the e-mails, plaintiff named the defendant as “John/Jane Doe” and served a subpoena on Yahoo! Inc. (“Yahoo!”), the Internet service provider listed on the emails, to provide him with the author’s identity. Yahoo! notified its subscriber that it had received the subpoena and the subscriber, proceeding as “John/Jane Doe,” moved to quash the subpoena.

In opposition to defendant’s motion to quash, plaintiff certified that the threatening emails “severely disrupted [his] life . . . [causing] deep anger and depression . . . [and] insomnia [that] impaired [his] ability to concentrate and function effectively.” Plaintiff also certified that the emotional stress manifested itself physically, exacerbating his back problems, causing him to lose twenty pounds and substantially increase his medication. Although the defendant argued that plaintiff had not established a prima facie case for the claims asserted, the trial court disagreed and denied defendant’s motion to quash. The court also denied a motion for reconsideration filed by defendant.

The appellate court granted defendant’s motion for leave to appeal. On appeal, the court first noted that, in general, judges considering applications to discover the identity of an anonymous sender of emails through Internet service providers must strike a balance between the First Amendment right to speak anonymously with the right of the plaintiff to protect his reputation. In doing so, the court set forth the following guidelines:

  1. Plaintiff must notify the anonymous poster.
  2. Plaintiff must set forth the exact statements alleged to be wrongful.
  3. The trial court must then carefully review the complaint and all information provided, and must determine that plaintiff has produced sufficient evidence supporting each element of his cause of action.
  4. If a plaintiff satisfies those steps, the trial court must balance the defendant’s First Amendment right of anonymous free speech against the strength of the prima facie case presented and the necessity for the disclosure of the anonymous defendant’s identity to allow the plaintiff to proceed.

The appellate court analyzed the facts asserted by plaintiff and found that he failed to state a prima facie claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. In that regard, the court held that the comments posted by “Josh,” while upsetting to plaintiff, could not fairly be characterized as “extreme and outrageous” or “beyond all possible bounds of decency, the standard required by the law to state an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. Further, the court held that plaintiff did not submit any objective evidence to support his contention that the emails caused distress “so severe that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it,” also a required element of the claim asserted by plaintiff. As a result, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s Order, and quashed the subpoena served upon Yahoo.

The case is annexed here – Juzwiak v. John/Jane Doe a.k.a. “Josh Hartnett,” a.k.a. Jharthat@yahoo.com