Justia U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Internet Law
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The Pennsylvania Attorney General (OAG) charged Walker with forgery and computer crimes. The prosecutor and the lead investigator requested that Penn State produce Walker’s emails from her employee account. At Penn’s request, they obtained a subpoena. The subpoena was missing information regarding the date, time or place where the testimony or evidence would be produced, or which party was requesting the evidence. The subpoena was incomplete and unenforceable. The prosecutor offered the subpoena to Penn’s Assistant General Counsel, who instructed an employee to assist. After the OAG obtained Walker’s emails, the pending criminal charges were dismissed with prejudice. Walker filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court dismissed, citing qualified immunity because Walker did not have a clearly established right to privacy in her work emails. A Third Circuit panel affirmed, reasoning that Penn produced the emails voluntarily, rather than under coercion resulting from the invalid subpoena and was acting within its legal authority and through counsel.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Walker's amended complaint, alleging violations of the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. 2701 (SCA). The SCA is inapplicable because Penn does not provide electronic communication services to the public. Penn acted within its rights as Walker’s employer in voluntarily disclosing her work emails. Penn’s search of its server to produce Walker’s emails is not prohibited by the SCA, regardless of whether its counsel was induced by deceit or knowingly cooperative. It is the law of the case that Penn consented to disclose Walker’s emails. View "Walker v. Coffey" on Justia Law

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Officers executed a search warrant at Rawls’ residence, yielding an iPhone 6 and a Mac Pro Computer with attached external hard drives, all protected with encryption software. With a warrant, forensic analysts discovered the password to decrypt the Mac Pro but could not determine the passwords for the external hard drives. The Mac Pro revealed an image of a pubescent girl in a sexually provocative position, logs showing that it had visited likely child exploitation websites and that Rawls had downloaded thousands of files known to be child pornography. Those files were stored on the external hard drives. Rawls’ sister stated that Rawls had shown her child pornography on the external hard drives. A Magistrate ordered Rawls to unencrypt the devices. Rawls cited the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The court denied Rawls’ motion, reasoning the act of decrypting the devices would not be testimonial. Rawls decrypted the iPhone, which contained 20 photographs that focused on the genitals of Rawls’ six-year-old niece. Rawls stated that he could not remember the passwords for the hard drives. The Third Circuit affirmed a civil contempt finding.Rawls, incarcerated since September 2015, moved for release, arguing that 28 U.S.C. 1826(a) limits the maximum confinement for civil contempt to 18 months. The Third Circuit ordered his release, rejecting the government’s argument that Rawls was not a “witness” participating in any “proceeding before or ancillary to any court or grand jury.” The proceedings to enforce the search warrant fall within the statute’s broad description of any “proceeding before or ancillary to any court or grand jury," the Decryption Order is “an order of the court to testify or provide other information,” and section 1826(a) applies to the detention of any material witness, even if that person is also a suspect in connection with other offenses. View "United States v. Apple Mac Pro Computer" on Justia Law

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News broke in 2012 that Google’s Doubleclick.net cookies were bypassing Safari and Internet Explorer privacy settings and tracking internet-user information. Google settled FTC and state attorneys general lawsuits, agreeing to cease the practice and to pay $39.5 million in fines, without admitting wrongdoing. Plaintiffs' claims were consolidated into a putative class action, alleging violations of federal privacy and fraud statutes, California unfair competition and privacy statutes, the California constitution’s right to privacy, and California’s privacy tort law. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of all but the California constitutional and tort claims. The parties agreed to a settlement. The district court approved certification of an FRCP 23(b)(2) class and the settlement under FRCP 23(e). Under the settlement a cy pres award would be paid to organizations the defendant approved, primarily data privacy organizations that agree to use the funds to research and promote browser privacy. It also included class counsel’s fees and costs, and incentive awards for named class representatives. One objector argued that the cy pres money belongs to the class as compensation and challenged the choice of cy pres recipients because of their pre-existing relationships with Google and class counsel. The Third Circuit vacated, stating that the “cursory certification and fairness analysis were insufficient for us to review its order certifying the class and approving the settlement. The settlement agreement’s broad release of claims for money damages and its designation of cy pres recipients are particularly concerning.” View "In Re: Google Inc. Cookie Placement Consumer Privacy Litigation" on Justia Law

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Oberdorf walked her dog with a retractable leash. Unexpectedly, the dog lunged. The D-ring on the collar broke and the leash recoiled and hit Oberdorf’s face and eyeglasses, leaving Oberdorf permanently blind in her left eye. Oberdorf bought the collar on Amazon.com. She sued Amazon.com, including claims for strict products liability and negligence. The district court found that, under Pennsylvania law, Amazon was not liable for Oberdorf’s injuries. A third-party vendor, not Amazon itself, had listed the collar on Amazon’s online marketplace and shipped the collar directly to Oberdorf. The court found that Amazon was not a “seller” under Pennsylvania law and that Oberdorf’s claims were barred by the Communications Decency Act (CDA) because she sought to hold Amazon liable for its role as the online publisher of third-party content. The Third Circuit vacated and remanded. Amazon is a “seller” under section 402A of the Second Restatement of Torts and thus subject to the Pennsylvania strict products liability law. Amazon’s involvement in transactions extends beyond a mere editorial function; it plays a large role in the actual sales process. Oberdorf’s claims against Amazon are not barred by section 230 of the CDA except as they rely upon a “failure to warn” theory of liability. The court affirmed the dismissal under the CDA of the failure to warn claims. View "Oberdorf v. Amazon.com Inc" on Justia Law

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Defendants created a publicly searchable “Inmate Lookup Tool” into which they uploaded information about thousands of people who had been held or incarcerated at the Bucks County Correctional Facility since 1938. Taha filed suit, alleging that the County and Correctional Facility had publicly disseminated information on the internet in violation of the Pennsylvania Criminal History Record Information Act, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. 9102, about his expunged 1998 arrest and incarceration. The district court granted Taha partial summary judgment on liability before certifying a punitive damages class of individuals about whom incarceration information had been disseminated online. The court then found that the only remaining question of fact was whether defendants had acted willfully in disseminating the information. After the court certified the class, the defendants filed an interlocutory appeal. The Third Circuit affirmed the class certification order, rejecting an argument that the district court erred in granting Taha partial summary judgment on liability before ruling on class certification. The court upheld conclusions that punitive damages can be imposed in a case in which the plaintiff does not recover compensatory damages, that punitive damages can be imposed on government agencies, and that the predominance requirement under FRCP 23(b)(3) was met so that a class could be certified. View "Taha v. County of Bucks" on Justia Law

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While investigating Doe concerning online child pornography, agents executed a warrant and seized iPhones and a computer with attached hard drives, all protected with encryption software. Forensic analysts discovered the password for the computer and found an image of a pubescent girl in a sexually provocative position, logs showing that it had been used to visit sites with titles common in child exploitation, and that Doe had downloaded thousands of known child pornography files, which were stored on the encrypted external drives and could not be accessed. Doe's sister related that Doe had shown her hundreds of child pornography images on those drives. A magistrate, acting under the All Writs Act, ordered Doe to produce his devices and drives in an unencrypted state. Doe did not appeal the order but unsuccessfully moved to quash, arguing that his decrypting the devices would violate his Fifth Amendment privilege. The magistrate held that, because the government possessed Doe’s devices and knew the contents included child pornography, the decryption would not be testimonial. Doe did not appeal. Doe produced the unencrypted iPhone, which contained adult pornography, a video of Doe’s four-year-old niece wearing only underwear, and approximately 20 photographs focused on the genitals of Doe’s six-year-old niece. Doe stated that he could not remember the hard drive passwords and entered incorrect passwords during the examination. The court held Doe in civil contempt and ordered his incarceration. The Third Circuit affirmed, noting that Doe bore the burden of proving that he could not produce the passwords and had waived his Fifth Amendment arguments. View "United States v. Apple Macpro Computer" on Justia Law

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The district court dismissed, for lack of jurisdiction, a constitutional challenge to an electronic surveillance program operated by the National Security Agency (NSA) under the authority of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), 50 U.S.C. 1881a. The court noted that the plaintiff failed to plead facts from which one might reasonably infer that his own communications had been seized by the federal government. The Third Circuit vacated and remanded. The second amended complaint alleged that because the government was “intercepting, monitoring and storing the content of all or substantially all of the e-mail sent by American citizens,” plaintiff’s own online communications had been seized in the dragnet. That allegation sufficiently pleaded standing to sue for a violation of plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Plaintiff may lack actual standing to sue; the government may, on remand to make a factual jurisdictional challenge to that pleading. The alleged facts—even if proven—do not conclusively establish that a dragnet on the scale alleged by plaintiff. On remand, the court must closely supervise limited discovery. View "Schuchardt v. President of the United States" on Justia Law

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Under the Facebook account name “Billy Button,” Browne began exchanging messages with 18-year-old Nicole. They met in person and exchanged sexually explicit photographs of themselves through Facebook chats. Browne threatened to publish the photos online unless Nicole engaged in oral sex and promised to delete the photos only if she provided him the password to her Facebook account. Using that account, Browne made contact with four minors and solicited explicit photos. Once he had their photos, he repeated the pattern, threatening to publish their images unless they engaged sexual acts. Alerted by the Virgin Islands Police Department, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents investigated, arrested Browne, executed a search warrant on his residence, and seized a cell phone from which text messages and photos of the minors were recovered. Browne admitted ownership of the phone and Facebook account. Facebook provided five sets of chats and a certificate of authenticity executed by its records custodian, which were admitted at trial. The Third Circuit affirmed his convictions for child pornography and sexual offenses with minors. While rejecting the government’s assertion that, under Rule 902(11), the contents of the communications were “self-authenticating” as business records accompanied by a certificate from the records custodian, the court found that the record reflected sufficient extrinsic evidence to link Browne to the chats and satisfy the prosecution’s authentication burden under a conventional Rule 901 analysis. View "United States v. Browne" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed a class action alleging that defendants, who run internet advertising businesses, placed tracking cookies on the plaintiffs’ web browsers in contravention of their browsers’ cookie blockers and defendant Google’s own public statements. Essentially they claimed that the defendants acquired the plaintiffs’ internet history information when, in the course of requesting webpage advertising content at the direction of the visited website, the plaintiffs’ browsers sent that information directly to the defendants’ servers. They cited the Wiretap Act, 18 U.S.C. 2510; the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C 2701; the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. 1030; and, against Google, violation of the privacy right conferred by the California Constitution, intrusion upon seclusion, the state Unfair Competition Law, the California Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act, the California Invasion of Privacy Act, and the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act. The district court dismissed. The Third Circuit affirmed as to the federal claims, stating that fraud or deceit does not amount to wiretapping; the alleged conduct implicated no protected “facility” under the Stored Communications Act; and the plaintiffs alleged no damages under the Fraud Act. The court vacated dismissal of the state law claims against Google. View "In Re: Google Inc Cookie Placement Consumer Privacy Litig." on Justia Law

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Munroe was an English teacher, generally considered to be effective and competent. The District granted Munroe tenure in 2010. In 2009, Munroe began a blog, using the name “Natalie M.” She did not expressly identify where she worked or lived, the name of the school or the names of her students. According to Munroe, her blog was meant to be viewed by friends that she had asked to subscribe. There were fewer than 10 subscribed readers, but no password was required for access. Most of the blog posts were unrelated to her school or work. Some postings included complaints about students, her working conditions, and related matters. The District administration first learned of Munroe’s blog in February 2011 when a reporter from a local newspaper began to ask questions; students apparently were commenting on social media.” Munroe was placed on paid suspension and, later, fired. The District had no regulation specifically prohibiting a teacher from blogging on his or her own time. The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of Munroe’s 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit; under the Pickering balancing test, Munroe’s speech, in both effect and tone, was sufficiently disruptive so as to diminish any legitimate interest in its expression, and did not rise to the level of constitutionally protected expression. View "Munroe v. Central Bucks Sch. Dist." on Justia Law