Quashing Subpoenas with the Stored Communication Act

In a lawsuit over the death of a prison inmate, the Plaintiff served Yahoo with a subpoena for all of the Defendant’s email for a period of nearly two years.  Janice Chasten v. Franklin, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 113284 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 14, 2010).

The Defendant moved to quash the third-party subpoena on Yahoo, claiming the subpoena was “an unwarranted invasion of his privacy and is in violation of the Stored Communications Act.” Chasten, at *2.

The first issue was whether the Defendant had standing to challenge a subpoena on a third-party.  The Court held the Defendant did have standing, because the Defendant had a “personal right with respect to the emails sent from his Yahoo! email account and thus,” standing to quash the subpoena. Chasten, at *4.

The Defendant argued that the SCA prohibited Yahoo from disclosing the contents of his stored email in response to the third-party subpoena.  Chasten, at *4.

The Court’s legal findings were very direct: “He [the Defendant] is correct.”  Chasten, at *4.

As the Court explained, the SCA prohibits electronic communication providers or remote computing services (i.e., Cloud Computing) from “knowingly divulging the contents of their customers’ electronic communications or the records relating to their customers.”  Chasten, at *4.

To be blunt, a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 45 subpoena is not one of the exceptions for an electronic communication provider to knowingly disclosing stored information.  Chasten, at *4-5.

As there was no exception to the SCA to allow the production of the stored email, the Court held such production would be “an invasion . . . of the specific interests that the [SCA] seeks to protect.” Chasten, at *5.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Google, Yahoo!, Facebook and numerous other technology companies subject to the protections of the Stored Communications Act are based in Santa Clara County, California.  I suspect Magistrate Judges at the Federal Courthouse and Discovery Judges at the State Courthouse in San Jose, California will hear many such motions in the months to come.

Josh Gilliland is a California attorney who focuses his practice on eDiscovery. Josh is the co-creator of The Legal Geeks, which has made the ABA Journal Top Blawg 100 Blawg from 2013 to 2016 and was nominated for Best Podcast for the 2015 Geekie Awards. Josh has presented at legal conferences and comic book conventions across the United States. He also ties a mean bow tie.

3 comments

  1. What is the caselaw about direct subpoenas for cloud-based content? What if, for example, the Defendant had been subpoenaed for those Yahoo emails and metadata demanded? Or if there were evidence that the defendant failed to cooperate in good faith with the request?

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