Expansive Preemption of State Anti-Spam Laws Is Curtailed

Courts are splitting over the scope of CAN-SPAM preemption, with even judges in the same federal division disagreeing.

By Ethan Ackerman

It is a truth universally recognized that a legal blogger whose legal positions cause them to eat crow or be left crying out in the wilderness usually will be entitled to the occasional I-told-you-so post as well. Two (of three) recent court opinions from California suggest that courts are (sometimes) beginning to reject the broad CAN-SPAM preemption holdings that have followed the reasoning of the 4th Circuit’s Mummagraphics case.

Hypertouch v. ValueClick

First, the status quo. A slight majority of the cases addressing CAN-SPAM preemption of state laws have found preemption. Starting with some adverse rulings in response to repetitious pro-se litigants in Washington state, and building on the sweeping Mummagraphics opinion from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, many judges have been tempted to dismiss state anti-spam law claims as somehow preempted by the federal CAN-SPAM Act.

Hypertouch v. ValueClick falls squarely into this category. The opinion was handed down by Los Angeles Superior Court judge Richard Adler, but it basically relies on the N.D.Cal. District Court Opinion by Judge Chesney in Hoang v. Reunion.com, which in turn relies on Mummagraphics for its preemption analysis. Judge Adler’s holding, “that any claim [desiring to survive preemption] must be based on fraud” represents just the most recent of what is becoming a majority position on CAN-SPAM preemption cases. This case was likely particularly problematic for plaintiff Hypertouch, representing a state court loss following on the heels of its federal court loss earlier.

Fortunately, the tide may be turning away from impossible fraud standards and back in favor of the actual language of the CAN-SPAM preemption clause, as two recent opinions show.

Asis Internet Servs. v. Consumerbargaingiveaways

The defendants in this N.D.Cal. district court case seemed to put in a rather rote defense recycling the holdings of Hoang v. Reunion.com, a previously blogged N.D.Cal. district court that found CAN-SPAM preemption and even a blurry holding that plaintiff might lack Constitutional standing. I imagine they were a tad surprised when another N.D. Cal. district judge in the same division, Judge William Alsup, held that their Constitutional standing argument was “without merit” and their California anti-spam law standing argument was “mistaken.” Over and above this significant difference from the Reunion.com line of thinking, Judge Alsup’s biggest departure occurs later in the opinion where he parses the preemption language of the CAN-SPAM Act. Because a second N.D. Cal. case in another division also follows and amplifies Judge Alsup’s reasoning, I thought I’d summarize them together below.

AsIs v. Vistaprint

Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong wastes no time in getting to the meat of the preemption issue in her Vistaprint holding, declaring after one brief paragraph listing the differing cases on the issue that “[t]his court agrees with the preemption analysis in the recently published order in Asis [v. Consumerbargaingiveaways], and similarly rejects Defendants’ preemption challenge.”

Judge Armstrong’s similarly brief elaboration on this holding is equally informative in its brevity – the core of her holding taking up a few brief paragraphs:

“The very terms of the savings clause exempt laws that proscribe “falsity or deception” in email advertisements, and although the terms are not defined in the Act, this Court finds they should be applied more broadly than just to common-law fraud claims. After all, Congress explicitly used the term “fraud” in the next provision of the preemption clause, yet did not in the savings clause… In the provision immediately preceding the preemption provision, Congress specifies that “[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to affect in any way the Commission’s authority to bring enforcement actions under FTC Act for materially false or deceptive representations or unfair practices in commercial electronic mail messages.” The Court is persuaded that here too, Congress intended the phrase “falsity or deception” to be apply more broadly than just to common-law fraud claims.”

I told you so?

If this ‘when Congress meant one thing, it said it, when it meant something else, it said something else’ argument doesn’t sound familiar, I’ll step in with my own I-told-you-so pointer to my prior post on Congress’ careful word choice in the CAN-SPAM drafting negotiations:

When ‘falsity’ was intended, as in 15 USC 7707(b)1, ‘falsity’ was used. When ‘fraud’ was intended, as in a mere paragraph later in 15 USC 7707(b)2, ‘fraud’ was used. When ‘falsity’ wasn’t enough, but ‘fraud’ was too much, as in 15 USC 7701(a)1, ‘materially false’ was used. When Congress wanted to require actual knowledge, or a specific intent, as in 7704(a)2 and 7702(12), it used the terms “actual knowledge” and “intentionally.”

The brief icing on this I-told-you-so cupcake comes from Judge Alsup’s astute observation that the Mummagraphics opinion doesn’t even expressly hold all that subsequent courts have attributed to it, a point I identically brought up in criticizing the scope of the Mummagraphics holding. Judge Alsup has this to say:

“Most or all of the district court decisions that have equated “falsity or deception” with fraud have relied on [Mummagraphics. Mummagraphics,] however, merely held that state laws were preempted insofar as they permitted claims for immaterial errors. It did not hold, at least not expressly, that all elements of common-law fraud were required or that any particular element other than materiality was required to survive preemption.”

I’d say that’s a more eloquent version of my earlier observations that district courts were extending Mummagraphics even further than its mismatched holding suggested:

“[T]he Mummagraphics holding, for all its strong dicta about fraud and broad preemption, only held that CAN-SPAM would preempt a strict liability statute… Mummagraphics‘ stated holding (strict liability is preempted) is inconsistent with the Mummagraphics result (a ‘more-than-strict-liability’ statute was preempted).”

Also worth a read is the observant coverage at spamnotes.com.