A group of University of Maine legal clinic students are launching an assault on the RIAA’s demands that universities turn over the names of students accused of filesharing. They’ve filed a Rule 11 motion for sanctions against the RIAA in the case of Arista v. Does 1-27.
Rule 11 motions don’t often succeed, but the motion makes a strong case. There’s a federal law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. §1232g(b)(2)(B) (or “FERPA”) that’s analogous to the HIPPA regulations that prevent medical facilities from violating the privacy of patient records. What is happening is that the RIAA is demanding that colleges and universities turn over student records in violation of FERPA, and some of them have acquiesced. By demanding that colleges turn over confidential student information, the students are alleging that the RIAA is circumventing the rights of students under FERPA.
Rule 11 is designed to prevent litigants from suing for “any improper purpose, such as to harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase the cost of litigation.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b)(1). The students are alleging that the RIAA’s John Doe lawsuits are designed specifically to harass litigants into settling—and the record of hardball tactics used by the RIAA support that contention.
Also, the motion alleges that the purpose of the RIAA’s suits is to get the names of the students as an end run around FERPA. They site In re Kunstler, 914 F.2d 505, 518 (4th Cir. 1990) for the proposition that a suit may only filed to uphold a legitimate legal right—you can’t sue someone just to get their name or to embarrass them (as was the case in Kunstler). This argument seems a bit weak. Rule 11 allows a suit to go forwards so long as that litigant has a good-faith argument that discovery will produce enough facts to justify the claim. Here, the RIAA can say that their suits were designed to produce legitimate information in discovery. However, there is an equally strong case that in fact, the purpose of the suits really was for the purpose of harassment—and in fact, some of the RIAA’s own statements in various filings seem to make precisely that argument. (One of which is cited in the motion for sanctions.)
Finally, the students argue that the RIAA is engaging in improper joinder of parties under Rule 20. Rule 20(b) concerns having a case in which a plaintiff (like the RIAA) tries to “join” multiple defendants (like the students) into a single lawsuit. In order to do that, the multiple defendants have to have engaged in “the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences”—just that they all engaged in filesharing isn’t enough. The RIAA has been slapped down several times by other courts for engaging in improper joinder of defendants before. That’s crucial because normally the remedy for improper joinder is just to split up the case—the students are arguing that since the RIAA keeps engaging in the same improper joinder they deserve sanctioning.
This is a very strong move on the part of the students, as Rule 11 sanctions are not something courts take likely. They make a very strong case that the RIAA’s conduct is worthy of sanction, especially if the court finds that the purpose of the RIAA’s suits is to get the names of students and then harass them into settling. In fact, that’s what the RIAA has done several times in the past.
If the purpose of the RIAA’s suits is not to actually sue the “John Doe” defendants but to pressure them into settling, then Rule 11 sanctions are appropriate. The sanctions regime under Rule 11 exists to prevent litigants from harassing others with “nuisance” lawsuits or using the threat of a suit purely for intimidation—and there’s much that suggests that’s precisely what the RIAA is doing. If the judge agrees, this would be a strong case for the imposition of sanctions, and it may be enough to prevent the RIAA from engaging in similar patterns of conduct in the future.