1681924558_4af276dedb_zMay a plaintiff adapt the procedure found in Illinois Supreme Court Rule 224 to get a court order requiring an internet service provider to identify the author of an anonymous internet comment? Earlier this month, a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court held that the answer was “yes.” Our detailed summary of the underlying facts and lower court decisions in Hadley v. Subscriber Doe is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

Hadley began with an online newspaper article describing the plaintiff’s candidacy for the county board. At the end of the article, readers could post comments. An individual posted two allegedly defamatory comments about the plaintiff, identifying himself only by a screen name. In early 2012, the plaintiff filed a defamation claim against the newspaper’s parent company.

While the case was pending in federal court, the plaintiff issued a subpoena to the commenter’s internet service provider, seeking the identity of the person assigned the IP address where the comments originated. Counsel for the commenter entered an appearance seeking to quash the subpoena, but before the motion was ruled upon, the action was dismissed.

The following month, the plaintiff filed a state-court action against the commenter, alleging defamation per se, naming him as “Subscriber Doe” and referencing his screen name. Along with the complaint, the plaintiff issued a subpoena to the commenter’s ISP, once again demanding the subscriber’s identifying information. Counsel for the commenter entered an appearance to contest both the subpoena and jurisdiction. During the hearing on the motion, the circuit court suggested that the better procedure to discover the identity of the commenter would be Supreme Court Rule 224, which authorizes the filing of an independent lawsuit to discover the identity of an unknown person potentially liable to the plaintiff. Based upon the court’s suggestion, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint, restating the defamation claim and purporting to state a second claim against the ISP under Rule 224. After additional briefing, the court concluded that the plaintiff had stated a cause of action for defamation sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss, and ordered disclosure of the commenter’s identity. The Appellate Court affirmed, with one Justice dissenting.

In an opinion by Justice Burke, the Supreme Court affirmed. The defendant first argued that the plaintiff’s original complaint merely named the commenter by his screen name – a fictitious name – and was therefore a nullity. Because the original complaint was a nullity, there was nothing for the amended complaint to relate back to, and plaintiff was outside the statute of limitations. The Court held that although Illinois does not recognize claims against unknown Doe defendants, this was not such a claim. The commenter was known, but by his screen name rather than his legal name. The plaintiff had sued the alias of a real person.

Next, the defendant argued that Rule 224 plainly contemplates a standalone action, meaning that the plaintiff’s purported amended complaint in fact commenced a brand-new action.  Accordingly, the original complaint had been abandoned and, once again, the statute of limitations had expired. The Supreme Court disagreed. Although the Court emphasized that Rule 224 should typically be utilized before suit begins, the plaintiff had proceeded as he did upon the trial court’s express instructions, and the defendant hadn’t been prejudiced by the unusual procedure.

Next, the Court agreed with the Appellate Court’s holding that the proper test for balancing First Amendment interests against the plaintiff’s right to redress was to assess whether the complaint against the unknown defendant was sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss. The Court held that plaintiff’s claim was sufficient – the defendant’s words were not susceptible of a reasonable construction and were reasonably understood to be an assertion of fact rather than mere hyperbole. As a result, the Court held, that trial court had properly ordered disclosure of the defendant’s information.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Valerie Everett (no changes).