I ordinarily wouldn’t blog about an unpublished short opinion from a magistrate judge in the Northern District of Mississippi (even though great things do come from there), but I view this as the leading edge of a wave of such opinions. In J.T. Shannon Lumber Co. v. Gilco Lumber, Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 104966 (N.D. Miss. Aug. 14, 2008), Magistrate Judge S. Allan Alexander quashed the plaintiff’s Rule 45 subpoenas on Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo, which sought the “entire contents” of the email accounts of three of the individual defendants, employees of Gilco.
In addition to the ridiculously overbroad nature of the requests (all of the emails in their personal accounts?), J.T. Shannon’s subpoenas ran up against the Stored Communications Act (SCA), Title II of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The SCA prohibits a non-party ISP from disclosing emails to litigants in a civil case without the consent of its subscriber. This law may seem counterintuitive to litigation attorneys, who are used to being able to subpoena whomever they want within the scope of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. But the SCA is not incredibly onerous; it just means you have to request that the party produce their own emails, not the ISP.
The first case to note this limitation on discovery practice imposed by the SCA was FTC v. Netscape Communications Corp., 196 F.R.D. 559 (N.D. Cal. 2000), but since that was a federal agency enforcement action, it may not have received much attention outside of that context. However, since the California Court of Appeals applied the same reasoning in an ordinary civil case in O’Grady v. Superior Court, 139 Cal. App. 4th 1423 (2006), the SCA’s marker has clearly been placed. I expect a surge of such cases in the future as attorneys unfamiliar with electronic privacy law begin looking for emails in ordinary civil matters.
18 U.S.C. § 2702 limits what an ISP can disclose about their subscribers. Section 2702(a) provides that neither an “electronic communication service” nor a “remote computing service” to the public may disclose the contents of any communication stored on the provider’s network to any person, with just a few exceptions. One is with the consent of the subscriber, obviously. There are other exceptions for responses to administrative subpoenas, grand jury subpoenas, or trial subpoenas from a “governmental entity.” But there is no exception for ordinary pre-trial discovery.
For reasons that are too complicated to go into here, I think the ISP holding old emails is best viewed as a “remote computing service,” not an “electronic communication service,” under the Act, but it doesn’t matter; in either case, the ISP cannot disclose emails in response to a civil subpoena. The J.T. Shannon court went even further, however, and said that ISPs cannot even disclose customer records to a private litigant, citing Section 2702(c). Customer records include such things as the name and address of the subscriber, a record of access times, and everything other than the contents of communications. But there’s a difference between the two anti-disclosure rules. Section 2702(a)(1) and (2) provide that ISPs cannot disclose the contents of communications to anyone, other than pursuant to an exception. Section 2702(a)(3), however, only prohibits ISPs from disclosing customer records “to any governmental entity.” (See also § 2702(c)(6).) Selling those records to telemarketers, for example, is A-OK, at least under the SCA. And so, it would seem, is responding to a civil subpoena for “non-content” records.
There’s one wrinkle in that argument, which is that attorneys sending a Rule 45 subpoena do so as officers of the court, Fed.R.Civ.P. 45(a)(3), and one might think that the court is a “governmental entity,” so an ISP could not disclose even customer records in response to a civil subpoena. “Governmental entity” is defined in 18 U.S.C. § 2711(4) as “a department or agency of the United States or any State or political subdivision thereof.” Is the judiciary a “department or agency of the United States”? I don’t think so; that sounds like it is referring to executive departments and independent agencies. There have been decisions that have held courts to be “governmental entities,” but those decisions did not discuss the actual definition of the term. The issue does not arise often since most subpoenas will be seeking the contents of emails anyway.