This afternoon, the California Court of Appeals issued its decision in the case of Zehia v. Superior Court, which sets new precedent for how to sue social media trolls. If you want to read the opinion click HERE. If you would like to read more opinions by the California Court of Appeals or the California Supreme Court, click HERE.
The Minimum Contacts Doctrine
This next part is going to get really law-nerdy, so fair warning. Scroll to the bottom to get the gist. In order to sue someone, you need to sue them in a court that has jurisdiction over them. Often the jurisdiction is clear. For example, if someone lives in Riverside then you can sue them in the Riverside County Superior Court. If someone harmed you in Orange County, then you can sue them in the Orange County Superior Court. But, what happens when someone lives in another state, and the act they did also occurred in another state?
Obviously, you can sue the person in his or her own state. But what if you wanted to sue them in your home state? Well, your home state will apply the “minimum contacts” doctrine. California courts look to the nature of the defendant’s conduct to see if exercising jurisdiction over him/her would be fair. So, if you were hurt by a resident of Nevada in Nevada, and if the defendant frequently travels across the state line to buy lottery tickets (as most Nevadans do), then he or she may have sufficient “minimum contacts” with California to make jurisdiction over him or her “fair and reasonable.”
Suing Social Media Trolls in California
Of course, what happens if you are defamed by a social media troll, living in another state, who has never been to California, and the defamatory conduct only occurred in another state? That was the situation in the case Nadir v. Zehia (on appeal the case name changed to “Zehia v. Superior Court.”)
S.M. lives in California. In 2018, she was introduced to a gentleman, named Nadir, who also lives in California. Zehia, who is an extended family member of S.M., already knew Nadir. Therefore, S.M. asked Zehia for more information about Nadir, prior to engaging in a romantic relationship with him.
Shortly after that, Zehia began receiving messages on a social media account from a username he did not recognize. The messages were all derogatory towards S.M. and her family. Meanwhile, through the same social media account, Zehia sent S.M. screenshots of an alleged text message conversation that Zehia claimed to have anonymously received from an unknown source. The screen shots purported to be a text message conversation between an unnamed individual and Nadir. The alleged text message exchange between this unknown person and Nadir contained sexually explicit statements about S.M. They also contained information about an alleged relationship Nadir had with a woman in San Diego, California.
Nadir Sues the Social Media Troll
Nadir denied having this text message conversation and filed a lawsuit against the unknown person. After the lawsuit was filed, Nadir came to believe that the messages he received on social media and the screenshots that S.M. had received on social media all came from an IP address associated with Zehia.
Nadir served Zehia in his home state of Michigan. Zehia filed a motion to quash service for lack of personal jurisdiction. Zehia argued that he had no contact with California. The trial court denied Zehia’s motion to quash because Zehia had sufficient minimum contacts with California.
Zehia appeal to the California court of appeals. On February 20, 2020, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court. It held that jurisdiction in California is proper, becasue Zehia knew that S.M. and Nadir lived in California, Zehia’s alleged statements attempted to interfere with a relationship occurring in California, and a California audience received the alleged defamatory statements.
What Can We Learn?
Some people make social media trolling an art. If you are one of those people, beware! Even if you do not live in California, a California court may force you to answer a complaint in California. If you are a California resident, suing social media tolls just got a lot easier.
*** NOTE that this decision only means that the lawsuit can proceed. It DOES NOT mean that Zehia actually did what he is alleged to have done. All of that will be decided by a California court sometime soon.