On March 31, 2011, Judge Blanche M. Manning of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois issued an order cutting short yet another mass copyright infringement lawsuit in which the plaintiff failed to follow the basic rules that govern the proper procedure for suing multiple defendants. The court severed 799 of the 800 defendants from the case entirely, after many of them (including several Booth Sweet LLP clients) fought back with motions to quash.
Last year, in Millenium TGA, Inc. v. Does 1-800, Case No. 1:10-cv-05603 (N.D. Ill. filed Sept. 2, 2010), Millenium TGA (describing itself as “a pioneering company in the transexual adult entertainment niche”) sued 100 unnamed defendants, alleging they had all infringed its copyrights by downloading and sharing files using BitTorrent; they amended the count upward to 800 defendants on November 8, 2010. Judge Manning initially authorized Millenium to subpoena various Internet service providers to get the defendants’ contact information. But this week, she identified two glaring problems with the lawsuit: Millenium had not shown why all 800 defendants belonged in the case together, or why Illinois was the proper venue for the case.
Improper Joinder. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20(a)(2), a plaintiff can sue more than one defendant in the same case if “(A) any right to relief is asserted against them jointly, severally, or in the alternative with respect to or arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences; and (B) any question of law or fact common to all defendants will arise in the action.” But when the plaintiff claims to have been harmed by different defendants in different ways – for example, accusing defendants of downloading different files – the defendants don’t have the kind of common relationship that supports joining their claims in the same lawsuit. Judge Manning extensively quoted from cases cited in Booth Sweet’s motion to quash, agreeing with the reasoning and concluding that the Rule had not been satisfied.
Improper Venue. Millenium wasn’t just going after defendants in Northern Illinois; most if not all of the defendants live elsewhere. This was brought home to the judge, who emphasized that “potential defendants [were] located all over the country with no discernible ties to this district. Indeed, at least five motions to quash have been filed in this case in the past week.” None of those motions, including the one filed by Booth Sweet LLP, was for a defendant in Illinois. Judge Manning wondered why the suit was filed there in the first place: “The plaintiff’s complaint points to no facts indicating why venue is appropriate in the Northern District of Illinois. The plaintiff is a Hawaii corporation with its principal place of business in California. As far as the plaintiff knows, none of the defendants are located in Illinois….” (Emphasis added.) You know something? We wondered the same thing ourselves.
Today’s Lesson. This is just one case in a wave of copyright infringement litigation suits filed by a handful of law firms over the last year, targeting tens of thousands of defendants. While Judge Manning has added to the growing pile of flawed cases tossed by the courts, the plaintiffs (and their lawyers) have raked in untold thousands in settlements from defendants who choose to settle the claims to avoid expensive litigation in a faraway federal court. One lesson from Judge Manning’s decision for plaintiffs (and their lawyers) could be: breaking the rules won’t help you make your case. And for people who get threatening letters from plaintiff’s attorneys or notices of impending lawsuits from their ISPs, there’s another lesson: Don’t be intimidated. You can win if you fight back.
Parting Thoughts. To our happy clients: congratulations! And to the losing plaintiff’s law firm: better luck next time.