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Van Alsytne v. Electronic Scriptorium

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Citation Edit

Van Alsytne v. Electronic Scriptorium, 560 F.3d 199 (4th Cir. 2009) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

Bonnie Van Alsytne (“Van Alsytne”) was terminated from her position as Vice President of Marketing at Electronic Scriptorium, Limited (“ESL”) in March 2002 following an alleged incident of sexual advances by her boss, Leonard, who owned and operated ESL along with his wife. Van Alsytne initiated claims for sexual harassment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); for employment benefits with the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC); and for unpaid commissions in Virginia state court. Van Alsytne prevailed on her claim with the VEC, the EEOC claim was dismissed for want of jurisdiction, and she nonsuited her claim for unpaid commissions.

ESL instituted it own claims against Van Alsytne in Virginia state court under a number of business tort theories, and in the course of discovery it was revealed that Leonard had accessed Van Alsytne’s personal email account. During a June 2006 deposition Leonard admitted to accessing Van Alsytne’s personal email account following her termination. He subsequently admitted to accessing the account numerous times from various countries and produced copies of 256 different emails he had downloaded from the account.

Trial Court Proceedings Edit

Van Alsytne filed suit against Leonard in the district court (later amending the complaint to include ESL). She alleged that Leonard’s actions violated the Stored Communications Act (SCA)[1] portion of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)[2] and the Virginia Computer Crimes Act.[3] Her complaint alleged that Leonard caused her “actual damages”[4] or, in the alternative, that she was entitled to the minimum statutory damages provided by the SCA.

Van Alsytne’s second amended complaint removed her claims for mental anguish and emotional distress, and her third amended complaint withdrew the claim for damages incurred in defending the suit commenced by ESL. Van Alsytne’s final claim for relief consisted only of punitive damages and statutory damages under the SCA. Leonard and ESL moved for summary judgment based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Doe v. Chao,[5] claiming that the SCA does not provide for statutory damages absent a showing of actual damages.

The District Court denied the motion for summary judgment and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Van Alstyne against Leonard in the amount of $150,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages, and against ESL in the amount of $25,000 each for compensatory and punitive damages. The District Court also awarded Van Alsytne $124,763.38 in attorney’s fees.

Appellate Court Proceedings Edit

On appeal, the 4th Circuit court agreed with Leonard and ESL that under the SCA a plaintiff must establish actual damages to recover statutory damages, however no such showing is required for attorney’s fees or punitive damages.

Like the Privacy Act of 1974, the SCA limits an award of damages to the “actual damages suffered,” which, with regard to the Privacy Act, was interpreted by the Doe court using a “straightforward textual analysis” to mean that plaintiffs must first prove they suffered actual damages to recover damages provided under the statute.

The Fourth Circuit found this analysis persuasive and noted that other acts drafted by Congress contain similar requirements for actual damages.[6] The court also rejected an argument made by Van Alsytne, that the language of the SCA provides that any “person aggrieved” may “recover” from the violator. A look at the language cited by Van Alsytne in context reveals that a person aggrieved under the statute is entitled to “relief as may be appropriate,” which includes equitable or declaratory relief and attorney’s fees and costs, as well as damages actually suffered (actual damages).

Similarly unpersuasive was Van Alsytne’s analogy of the SCA to common law trespass, which does not require proof of actual damages. Violations of the SCA are more appropriately compared to trespass to chattels rather than to land, which does require proof of some harm.

The court found no error in the award of punitive damages citing Section 2707(c) of the SCA, which states, “[i]f the violation is willful or intentional, the court may assess punitive damages,” or the award of attorney’s fees.

References Edit

  1. 18 U.S.C. §2707(a).
  2. 18 U.S.C. §2810 et seq.
  3. Va. Code Ann. §§18.2-152.1 et seq.
  4. Van Alstyne’s “actual damages” included attorney’s fees and costs, mental anguish and emotional distress.
  5. 540 U.S. 614 (2004).
  6. The Wiretap Act, for example, provided that “the court may assess as damages whichever is greater of . . . the sum of the actual damages suffered by the plaintiff and any profits made by the violator . . . or . . . statutory damages of whichever is greater of $100 a day for each day of violation or $10,000.”

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