September 30, 2012
Lovelorn Plaintiffs Strike Out Against Match.com – Robinson v. Match.com
[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]
Robinson v. Match.com, 10-CV-2651-L (N.D. Tex. Aug. 10, 2012) [pdf]
This is another suit brought by users of a dating site who claim that a dating site deceptively leaves inactive users in its system, thus reducing the users’ chances of finding their soulmate. The court dismisses their claims and sends them packing.
Breach of contract: Plaintiffs claimed, among other things, that Match.com failed to vet profiles, failed to purge inactive profiles, falsely labeled inactive profiles as “active”, failed to police the site against scammers, and failed to verify its users' identities. Plaintiffs pointed to various provisions in Match.com's user agreement that required users to assume responsibility for their own profiles and warned users against doing nefarious acts via their profiles. The court easily says that these provisions set forth Match.com’s obligations vis a vis users, and do not require Match.com to undertake any corrective action Match.com said it could take when users engaged in shady dealings with their profiles. The court also relies on Match.com’s disclaimer of warranty, which pretty clearly said that Match.com does not vet its users and is not responsible for any incorrect or inaccurate content.
Duty of good faith: Plaintiffs also argued that Match.com had a duty of good faith, and its failure to adequately police its profiles was a breach of this duty. The court says that such a duty only exists where there is a “special relationship” between the parties. While plaintiffs may have been searching for that “special relationship” using Match.com, it’s just another website that provides services to various customers, and the law does not impose a duty of good faith on Match.com. Plaintiffs also argued that there was a special relationship by virtue of the unequal bargaining power, but this argument fails as well. Similarly, plaintiffs’ argument that their provision of confidential or personal information to Match.com creates a special relationship goes nowhere. The court says that if all that is required to create a special relationship is for one party to furnish the other party with personal information, “virtually every online transaction for the purchase of goods or services . . . would give rise to a special relationship.”
Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act: Plaintiffs also brought a claim under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The court issues a show cause order saying it’s going to strike this claim because under Texas law a claim under the DTPA can’t be based on a mere breach of contract. The court directs the parties to file briefs as to why a claim is (or isn’t) viable under this statute. (This claims looks like it's short-lived as well.)
Oy, another set of dating site plaintiffs get the smackdown. Two other cases in this vein are Anthony v. Yahoo! and Badella v. Dinero Marketing (linked below). Yahoo! settled Anthony for $4mm. The Online Cupid case (Deniro Marketing) wasn't certified as a class and promptly settled on an individual basis.
Plaintiffs pointed to contractual obligations allegedly promised by Match.com to get around the obvious Section 230 issue. The Section 230 rules allow a provider such as Match.com broad immunity for its decisions in deleting, purging, or otherwise dealing with accounts. (See Young v. Facebook and Eric's essay on this topic.) This is also a good example of a case where the service provider’s alleged promises were undercut by disclaimers in its terms of services. For better or worse, a robust disclaimer will undermine even seemingly express assurances made in a website's marketing copy. Finally, we've seen the third party beneficiary argument raised again and again but it never goes anywhere. A website terms exist for the benefit of the site and sets forth obligations vis a vis the site and an individual user. A user is never a third party beneficiary of the site's negative contract restrictions. (See Godard v. Google; Balsam v. Tucows; Noah v. AOL.)
At the end of the day, maybe there's some skepticism--around whether the judicial system should be used as a tool to remedy the broken hearts of online daters--that influences the results in these cases, but the court’s reliance on Match.com's terms was in line with other cases.
Class Action Brought by "Lonely and Vulnerable" Men Against Online Cupid Site Moves Forward -- Badella v. Deniro Mktg.