Monday, March 30, 2015

Walton v. Network Solutions (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed: February 26, 2015

Opinion By: Michael W. Reed

Holding: Appellant, Jeffrey Walton, failed to allege facts sufficiently specific to substantiate his claims against Appellee, Network Solutions, for violating either the Maryland Commercial Electronic Mail Act (“MCEMA”) or the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (“MCPA”), and his claims were timed barred under the applicable three year statute of limitations.

Facts: Appellant was the recipient of certain unsolicited commercial email (“spam”) from Appellee starting in 2009.  Appellant complained twice to Appellee, but continued to receive spam, which he alleged in his complaint was false or misleading as to where the spam came from and the information provided in the subject line of each email message.

Analysis: The Court began with the language of MCEMA, which specifically bars sending commercial emails that contain unauthorized, false or misleading information under section 14-3002.  Md. Com. Law Code Ann. § 14-3002 (2014).  Section 14-3002(b)(2)(ii) specifically bars “sending a message that contains false or misleading information about the origin or the transmission path of the commercial electronic mail.”  Appellant had asserted that Appellee had violated this provision because when Appellant sent a message to the reply-to address of Appellee, the message was returned indicating that the destination mailbox was full.  The Court concluded that this was not prohibited conduct under the statute because the statute did not require the mailbox to accept messages, only that it be a misrepresentation of where the spam originated from.  Moreover, the Appellant was able to determine from the sending email address to contact Appellee

Section 14-3002(b)(2)(iii) prohibits sending a message that contains false or misleading information in the subject line of the message.  The Court examined the subject lines of the emails attached to Appellant’s complaint, and concluded that because the subject lines of each such message were related to Appellee’s business of selling domain names, the subject lines did not, as a matter of law, have “the capacity, tendency, or effect of deceiving” the Appellant.  Instead, the case before the Court was factually distinguishable from a California case, Hypertouch, Inc. v. ValueClick, Inc., 123 Cal. Rptr. 3d 8 (Ct. App. 2011), because the subject lines in Hypertouch offered free gifts without any limitation when the offer was actually far more limited.

Finally, the Court determined that Appellant’s claims under MCPA were time barred, holding that Appellant was aware on December 1, 2009 that Appellee had failed to remove him from Appellee’s email list, but failed to file a claim against Appellee until March 7, 2013 – more than three years from when he knew or should have known of the allegedly false or misleading conduct of Appellee.  Appellant’s claim here is premised on the statements of Appellee’s employees that Appellant was removed from the mailing list, but continued to receive spam after being told he was removed.  The Court concluded that such a claim had to be filed within three years, and that the continuing harm doctrine, which if applicable, might extend the limitations period for each new spam message received, was not applicable to the present matter.  The Court held that this argument was waived by not being raised and decided by the trial court at the hearing on the motion to dismiss, but that even if not waived, the continuing harm doctrine should not be applied to alleged violations of MCEMA.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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