The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled, on January 18, 2017, on a defendant’s motion to dismiss replevin, conversion, and trespass claims related to the misuse of various domain names and social media accounts. Salonclick LLC d/b/a Min New York , 16 Civ. 2555 (KMW), 2017 WL 239379 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 18, 2017).
The plaintiff in the case (“Plaintiff”) operated a business that manufactured and sold a variety of grooming products, including hair and skin care products. The Plaintiff used various domain names and tag lines in its business, including www.newyorkheart.org and a corresponding Facebook page, which spoke out against ivory poaching. The social media page was used, in part, to promote the company as a socially responsible business.
The Plaintiff hired Mindy Yang (“Yang”), an independent contractor, to assist with marketing and promoting the Plaintiff’s business through, among other things, social media. After what seems to have been a contentious falling out, Yang used her access to the Plaintiff’s various social media accounts to promote her own business and to redirect the Plaintiff’s websites to her own website. Plaintiff sued on a variety of tort claims.
In Yang’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the Plaintiff’s claims, she argued that the counts relating to replevin (essentially a claim that a person is entitled to property to which another has a superior right), conversion, and trespass should be dismissed because the Plaintiff did not have a property interest in the social media accounts of the nature to which these sorts of claims generally apply. The court disagreed, holding that the Plaintiff did state a claim for both conversion and replevin, but not trespass.
In reaching its conclusion, the court relied on several previous cases, including Thyroff and Luve. In answering a certified question in connection with a claim of conversion of electronic data, the New York Court of Appeals responded, in Thyroff:
[T]he tort of conversion must keep pace with the contemporary realities of widespread computer use. We therefore . . . hold that the type of data that Nationwide allegedly took possession of – electronic records that were stored on a computer and were indistinguishable from printed documents – is subject to a claim of conversion in New York.
In Luve, the court concluded that an exception to the general rule that conversion only applies to tangible physical items applies:
when the rightful owner of intangible property is prevented from creating or enjoying a “legally recognizable and protectable property interest in his idea” such as by being prevented from registering the domain name for a website or being denied access to a database he created.
(Triboro Quilt Mfg. Corp. v. Luve LLC, No. 10 CIV 3604, 2014 WL 1508606, at *9 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 18, 2014)).
Ultimately, the court concluded that the Plaintiff did plead a claim alleging conversion and replevin sufficient to overcome Yang’s motion to dismiss. The court, however, granted Yang’s motion to dismiss with respect to the trespass claim because trespass requires injury to a chattel and the facts pleaded by the Plaintiff did not include this sort of injury.
Although the court’s memorandum opinion addressed only a motion to dismiss and did not dispose of the case, or comment on the ultimate success or failure of the Plaintiff’s remaining claims, it could signify a new approach to traditional property torts. The “contemporary realities of widespread computer use” have had an astounding impact on U.S. jurisprudence, and this case would appear to be yet another instance of conforming our legal principles to a rapidly changing world.