Website Initially Denied 230 Dismissal But Gets It on Appeal–Shiamili v. Real Estate Group

By Eric Goldman

Shiamili v. Real Estate Group of New York, Inc., 2009 WL 4842470 (N.Y. App. Div. Dec. 17, 2009)

Unfortunately, I am only working from a short and opaque appellate memo. It appears that the defendant operated a website that “administered and chose” to publish user comments. A third party posted an allegedly defamatory comment about the plaintiff, an NYC real estate broker, to the website. On this basis, we know that the website isn’t liable for the post per 47 USC 230. I don’t think I could do a comprehensive census of message board/user comment cases, but similar defense wins in the past 5 years include Finkel v. Facebook, Cornelius v. DeLuca, Joyner v. Lazzareschi, Raggi v. Las Vegas Police, Higher Balance v. Quantum, Best Western v. Furber, Gregerson v. Vilana, Universal Communications System v. Lycos, Eckert v. Microsoft, DiMeo v. Max, Hammer v. Amazon and Faegre & Benson v. Purdy (wow, this list is a blast from the past!). I’m not including the pure web hosting cases or any of the Ripoff Report cases, yet I’m sure there are other cases I’m forgetting. Indeed, given the airtight nature of the precedent, I personally think plaintiffs should be sanctioned for bringing such meritless cases.

Instead, the lower court initially denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss in January 2009. Because this case is in state court, I don’t have easy access to the state court opinion to see how the judge got it wrong. Fortunately, in a brief and unanimous opinion, the appellate court corrected this rogue trial court judge and dismissed the case per 230. Because the appellate opinion is so brief, I’m going to quote the court’s substantive application of 230 to this case in its entirety:

Plaintiff’s claim is barred by the CDA. The complaint makes no allegation that defendants authored any defamatory statements. It merely alleges that defendants “choose and administer content” that appears on the Web site. This is precisely the kind of function that the CDA immunizes ( see e.g. Fair Hous. Council, 521 F3d at 1173-1174; Batzel, 333 F3d at 1031). Even accepting as true all of plaintiff’s allegations and giving it the benefit of all favorable inferences ( see Leon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d 83, 87-88 [1994] ), the complaint does not raise an inference that defendants were “information content providers” within the meaning of the CDA. Plaintiff argues that defendants engaged in a calculated effort to encourage, keep and promote “bad” content on the Web site. However, message board postings do not cease to be data “provided by another information content provider” merely because “the construct and operation” of the Web site might have some influence on the content of the postings ( see Universal, 478 F3d at 422; see also Chicago Lawyers’ Comm., 519 F3d at 671-672; Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, 339 F3d 1119, 1124-1125 [9th Cir2003] ).

Where, as here, there is no allegation that defendants authored the defamatory statements, it is not appropriate to permit discovery to determine if a cause of action exists ( see Walsh v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 289 A.D.2d 842, 844 [2001]; see also Universal, 478 F3d at 425-42; cf. Fair Hous. Council, 521 F3d at 1174).

Two observations:

1) I believe there are some folks who believe that a website becomes liable for any user content it “encourages.” This is one possible reading of Roommates.com, and it underlies the government enforcement agencies’ (e.g., SEC and FTC) content endorsement theories. However, I don’t see precedent supporting that proposition at all. This case, like so many others, doesn’t care if the website encourages the allegedly tortious content. Instead, the only relevant inquiry is whether the content originated from a third party. If so, 230 applies without any need for further inquiry.

2) This is yet another case where the court cited Roommates.com in favor of the defense. The updated census of Roommates.com citations:

Roommates.com Cited for Defense (10 cases): GW Equity v. Xcentric, Best Western v. Furber, Goddard v. Google (and second ruling) Joyner v. Lazzareschi, Atlantic Records v. Project Playlist, Barnes v. Yahoo (note: although the case was a partial loss for the defendant, the Roommates.com discussion came in the defense-favorable part), Doe IX v. MySpace, Doe II v. MySpace, Dart v. Craigslist and now Shiamili v. Real Estate Group

Roommates.com Cited for Plaintiff (2 cases): NPS v. StubHub, FTC v. Accusearch

The 10th Circuit beachhead for Roommates.com is troubling, but overall I think it’s entirely clear that Roommates.com has not changed 230 jurisprudence in any meaningful way–except that it may be giving plaintiffs false hope of success and causing them to overinvest in their cases.

UPDATE: The trial court opinion, which quotes some of the allegedly defamatory posts.

UPDATE 2: The complaint. This has a full list of the alleged defamatory postings. It also indicates that the venue in question was a website/blog called “shittyhabitats.com,” apparently now defunct. The archive.org page from Feb. 2, 2007 and Feb. 5, 2008.

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