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May 19, 2011
Facebook User Loses Lawsuit Over Account Termination--Young v. Facebook
By Eric Goldman
I respect people of conviction, especially when they persevere in the face of long odds. Karen Young is such a person. After Facebook terminated her account, she drove across the country to try to get answers from Facebook in person--and after a very brief return home, stayed in the Bay Area to get results from Facebook (via litigation or otherwise) over her terminated account. Indeed, she dropped by my office a few months ago (unscheduled) to talk about her case. I told her in person that she should go back home because it didn't make sense to put her life on hold fighting Facebook. A woman of conviction, she has held fast. Nevertheless, after this ruling, perhaps she will decide to end her vigil.
Young has bipolar disorder. She sued Facebook for ADA violations for failing to provide adequate customer support to individuals with mental disabilities. The court rules that the ADA is inapplicable to Facebook because it's a website, not a physical place. The court says:
Despite its frequent use of terms such as "posts" and "walls," Facebook operates only in cyberspace, and is thus is not a "place of public accommodation" as construed by the Ninth Circuit. While Facebook's physical headquarters obviously is a physical space, it is not a place where the online services to which Young claims she was denied access are offered to the public.
To get around this, Young argued that some other circuits have directly or impliedly extended the ADA to virtual places. Judge Fogel rejects this as inapplicable in the Ninth Circuit. Young also invoked Judge Patel's troubling opinion in NFB v. Target, arguing that (like Target) Facebook had the requisite "nexus" to a physical place because it sells gift cards in physical retail stores. This argument fails because Facebook doesn't own or control those physical outlets.
The related state claims also fail. The Disabled Persons' Act claim fails for the same reasons as the ADA claim. The Unruh Act claim fails because Young was griping that Facebook's customer support was too hard for someone in her condition to navigate, but she didn't show that Facebook treated bipolar individuals discimrinatorily or that Facebook's policies targets disabled individuals.
Young's breach of contract claim fails because Young never specifically identified a breach, and her negligence claim fails because he didn't allege any source of a duty. Judge Fogel also shuts down the implied good faith obligation bypass. In his prior ruling, he left open the door, saying "[i]t is at least conceivable that arbitrary or bad faith termination of user accounts, or even termination of user accounts with no explanation at all, could implicate the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing." Young doesn't clear this threshold because the only evidence she cited--Facebook's termination email--expressly explained Facebook's reasons for the termination. (The opinion doesn't tie this knot, but it seems that those expressed reasons didn't show bad faith). Although this isn't expressly connected to the Smith v. TRUSTe ruling, it's interesting that this is the second judge in a few months interested in whether the website told users why they are getting ousted. This is in conspicuous contrast to the pressures coming from Barnes v. Yahoo for websites to tell users less, not more, to avoid promissory estoppel arguments.
The opinion concludes with a little advice for Facebook:
The Court is not without sympathy for Young's plight. Young was understandably frustrated that she could not discuss the termination of her account with a live person, and both this frustration and the loss of her access to Facebook's social network had a particularly acute impact on Young because of her bipolar condition. As customer service functions increasingly are handed over to automated systems, it is important that service providers, such as Facebook, understand the implications that such practices can have for the less sophisticated and more vulnerable. However, because Young's amended complaint does not state a cognizable legal basis upon which relief may be granted, it must be dismissed. Because the amended complaint fails to address many of the issues identified by the Court in its previous order, and because it appears that there is no realistic possibility that further amendment could cure the deficiencies in Young's pleadings, leave to amend will be denied.
A few observations about this result:
* the opinion doesn't mention 47 USC 230(c)(2), although I think the immunity might very well apply to some or all of Young's claims. I will have more to say about that in an upcoming UC Irvine Law Review article.
* whether or not 47 USC 230(c)(2) applies, it almost never makes sense for a user to sue a website over account termination. Those lawsuits are almost always a huge waste of time and money.
* Even though the ADA and related state statutes do not apply to websites, websites often can and should voluntarily do more to accommodate users with various physical and mental challenges. Not only is that often a smart business decision, it's often the right thing to do.
UPDATE: Facebook emailed me the following statement: "We want Facebook to be available to everyone, including people with unique needs, and have worked hard to create tools and resources to educate people about our service and its rules. While we're pleased with the court's decision, we'll continue to invest in this area."
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