Judge Brings Reunion.com And Spam Suit Together Again
A federal judge in San Francisco has revived a spam lawsuit against Reunion.com for allegedly attempting to entice people to join the site by sending them emails that appeared to have come from their friends.
In the ruling, quietly issued late last month, U.S. District Court Judge Maxine Chesney held that four recipients of emails from Reunion could proceed with their lawsuit alleging violations of California's anti-spam law even though they didn't allege they lost money as a result of Reunion's emails. The ruling vacated a prior order dismissing the lawsuit.
The case dates back to July of 2008, when three California residents and one Texas resident sued Reunion.com for allegedly sending emails that looked as if they came from their contacts.
At the time, Reunion.com was asking new registrants to provide their email addresses and passwords and then sending email invitations to their contacts. Reunion argued that the messages weren't misleading because the site obtained members' permission before sending emails to their friends. (The company has since revised its procedures.)
The consumers who sued alleged that the site violated California's anti-spam law, which prohibits emails with false or misleading headers and subject lines and provides for up to $1,000 per violation. While the federal CAN-SPAM law preempts most state spam laws, there's an exception for state laws dealing with fraudulent emails. The federal law also doesn't allow individual recipients to sue for damages.
In late 2008, Chesney dismissed the consumers' lawsuit on several grounds, including that the federal law preempted California's state statute. She ruled at the time that only emails that induced people to spend money were fraudulent. Therefore, she said, consumers couldn't sue under California law for receiving emails that allegedly contained false information, unless they suffered a monetary loss.
But she reconsidered that ruling and vacated it at the end of March. "Congress did not intend to preempt statutes that ... provide a cause of action based solely on the receipt of emails containing false or deceptive information," she wrote.
Internet law expert Venkat Balasubramani says that the new ruling creates uncertainty about when email marketers can be sued for allegedly violating state spam laws. "It leaves things muddled," he says.
Reunion wasn't the only site that faced criticism for sending allegedly misleading invitations to registrants' contacts. Tagged.com also was sued for allegedly using similar tactics. That company recently agreed to settle the case by destroying all email addresses it collected from users who allegedly were duped into sharing their contact lists. Tagged also agreed last year to pay $750,000 to settle investigations of its marketing procedures by law enforcement officials in New York and Texas.