Yahoo Partially Defeats Lawsuit Over Wrongful Account Termination–Buza v. Yahoo

By Eric Goldman

Buza v. Yahoo, Inc., 2011 WL 5041174 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 24, 2011). The complaint.

Buza claims Yahoo terminated two GeoCities accounts related to his advocacy efforts. Buza is proceeding pro se, which is typical for user lawsuits over wrongful account termination. He sued Yahoo in state court. Yahoo tried to remove to federal court. In this ruling, Judge Seeborg dismisses the federal claims and sends the others back to state court. I’m sure Yahoo wished Judge Seeborg had cleaned out the case entirely, but I bet Yahoo will get there soon enough.

Buza claimed that Yahoo violated his First Amendment rights. As I explain in my article on wrongful account termination, plaintiffs often invoke the Constitution to get around any statutory immunities, but Constitutional claims routinely go nowhere. It’s 100% clear that privately owned online service providers like Yahoo aren’t state actors and therefore aren’t restricted by the Constitution. The court says:

Buza’s response that Yahoo!’s services should be seen as a “public forum” in which the guarantees of the First Amendment apply is not tenable under federal law. As a private actor, Yahoo! has every right to control the content of material on its servers, and appearing on websites that it hosts.

Similar recent cases in this vein include Young v. Facebook, Estavillo v. Sony and Jayne v. Google Founders.

Buza also brought an ECPA/SCA (18 USC 2701) claim for unlawful access to stored communications. The court dismisses because the restrictions don’t apply to the service provider’s access of those communications.

Having disposed of the federal claims, Judge Seeborg sends the case back to state court to deal with the remaining claims, which include a violation of California’s state constitution, “intellectual property,” trespass to chattels and breach of contract. The judge expresses some skepticism about some of these claims, but having decided he could quickly clean his docket of the case, he doesn’t go any further than necessary to send the case back to state court.

My understanding is that Yahoo didn’t raise a 47 USC 230(c)(2) defense, the federal immunity for service providers’ filtering decisions. I explore this point in detail in my recent 230(c)(2) article can’t trump federal constitutional claims, but it should (?) trump state constitutional claims. 230(c)(2) doesn’t apply to IP claims per a statutory exclusion, but the Ninth Circuit in Perfect 10 v. ccBill said that 230 trumps state IP claims (the judge says no federal IPs are at issue). The immunity likely trumps the trespass to chattels claim, although I don’t recall seeing that issue tested before. And I explain in my article, 230(c)(2) could very well trump the contract breach claim. (This judge could have also disposed of the contract claim based on express terms giving Yahoo the power to pull the plug on websites, but the state court judge will have do that).

Because the immunity is a federal statute, it would have been appropriate for the federal court to interpret its application to the state claims before remanding. This discussion suggests that had the immunity been raised, Judge Seeborg might have completely ended the case on 230(c)(2) grounds without sending anything back to state court.