Lawsuit Based on Online Enemy’s Attempt to Induce Breaches of Contract Can Proceed

A decision by Judge Eli Richardson (M.D.) last month. Tenn. Santoni v. Mueller:

[The Plaintiff’s complaint alleges:] Plaintiff identifies as a businessman who “as a hobby … used various social media platforms” to discuss topics like politics, religion, and world history. Plaintiff kept his anonymity protected by using a pseudonym while active on social networks. Over time, his accounts developed a following and he found himself, “often engaged in debate … and banter with professional journalists, political pundits, celebrities, and other full-time intellectuals and creatives.”

Plaintiff found himself involved with Defendant on Twitter, from 2016 to the spring 2019. They have never been in person. Sometimes, interactions between Plaintiffs and Defendants would get so heated that Plaintiff might block Defendant’s contact. But Plaintiff would ultimately be forced to deblock Defendant. The cycle was repeated many times between 2018-2018. Plaintiff was unable to access his Twitter account permanently and instead switched to another social media platform. Plaintiff tried to contact defendant on the new site but he declined to do so, leading to Defendant displaying a pattern of harassment and tortious behavior.

Between October 2018 to March 2020, Defendant attempted or hacked into three “internet networks accounts” that had been owned at one point by Plaintiff or his family. This included Plaintiff’s email address. Defendant gained illegal access to Plaintiff’s personal information, and she was able hack into other accounts owned by Plaintiff or his family.

Plaintiff’s business relationships and contractual relationships were discovered by Defendant. He then reached out to them to try to get them to violate their agreements. Some of Plaintiff’s business relationships were able to break their agreements with the defendant. Defendant also contacted Plaintiff’s friends and family by posting to their public social media profiles, as well as privately messaging them about Plaintiff….

This is the statutory version for tortious interference [under Tennessee law]The following elements must be present: 1. That there was a legal agreement; 2. that the wrongdoer had enough knowledge about it; 3. that the wrongdoer intends to induce its breach; 4. that the wrongdoer acts maliciously; 5. that the contract has been breached; 6. that the complainant was the proximate reason of the breach; 7. that damages have resulted.

{[The] common law version of tortious interference in Tennessee …. The common law version of tortious interference in Tennessee differs from its statutory counterpart because it applies not only to ActualNot only contracts, but also to prospectiveContractual relations as well as to business relationships NotThis is a contract that becomes enforceable in writing. Additionally, the statutory version of tortious interference allows for treble damages….. [But the] Complaint clearly references the statutory version of tortious interference ….}

The fourth element of the cause-of-action is being challenged by Defendant. Plaintiff does not have sufficient evidence of malice. The context of tortious interference is not one in which malice requires illwill. [sic]Any form of spite or vengeance toward an injured person. This does not necessarily mean that you intend or want to cause harm to another person, but it is a common meaning in informal contexts. Malice, as defined by the dictionary, is “the willful violation a recognized right.” Plaintiff must claim that defendant committed malice to successfully plead tortious interference. Interference can be deemed unjustified if the interference is made for an indirect purpose to injure plaintiffs or benefit the defendant at plaintiff’s cost. …

Plaintiff’s complaint states that Defendant illegally obtained personal data “to determine various people with whom Plaintiff had contractual relationships”. Continued the Complaint: “[a]fter becoming aware of Plaintiff’s contractual counterparties, Defendant SE subsequently set about intentionally and maliciously to interfere with Plaintiff’s contractual relationships ….” By “supplying [them]with any data, documents or information, which was obtained illegally in whole or part. Plaintiff’s Complaint also includes a screenshot from a comment Defendant made on Plaintiff’s Instagram account back in September 2020. It includes these lines: “[Plaintiff]One abusive, lying clown,” “This clown should keep his threats at his house,” and “I don’t secretly keep abusive men.”

All inferences drawn from the allegations are interpreted in favor of Plaintiff. The Court finds that Plaintiff adequately alleged that the defendant sought out information regarding Plaintiff’s contractual counterparts. He then intentionally reached out to those counterparts in an attempt to harm Plaintiff and his relationships. Plaintiff has alleged in sufficient detail that Defendant was acting with intent and disregard for reason. Plaintiff also pled “malice,” as this term is used to refer to tortious interference claims.

Intentional infliction or emotional distress claims were also approved by the court. The court found plaintiff was not a public figure and therefore didn’t need to prove knowing or reckless falsity.

While Plaintiff might have participated in discussions about political and religious controversies online, the substance of Defendant’s alleged tortious comments does not relate to those controversies. It is Plaintiff’s online behavior. And … “[t]There is no evidence to suggest that Plaintiff’s online conduct was seen as a “live issue” or a topic of discussion by anyone other than Defendant. According to the Complaint Plaintiff, although she is a limited-purpose figure, is not a public person. Defendant’s tortious comments about a controversy are simply a matter of fact. Between her andPlaintiff was not involved in a controversy whose outcome “affects the broad public or an identifiable segment of public in an appreciable manner.” Since the Court found that there is no public controversy, the Court concludes that Plaintiff does not constitute a public figure with limited purpose.

The court concluded also that the anti-SLAPP statute statute did not apply to federal courts, a question about which circuits of federal government are divided (on which the Sixth Circuit was not able to comment).

Although the caselaw doesn’t clarify, it is likely that inducing people to violate binding contracts with someone specific would not be protected by the Constitution. Hacking into online accounts of people is an illegal act and therefore would make it more difficult to instigate breach of contracts.