Designer Skin LLC v. S & L Vitamins, Inc., et al.
Intel Corp. v. Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi
30 Cal. 4th 1342, 71 P.3d 296, 1 Cal. Rptr. 3d 32, S103781 (Cal. Supreme Ct., June 30, 2003)
By a 4-3 margin, the California Supreme Court holds that the transmission of six e-mails criticizing Intel's employment practices to approximately 35,000 Intel employees over Intel's Intranet, despite Intel's objection, does not constitute an actionable trespass to chattels because the transmission did not cause any injury to Intel's computer systems. The transmission of these e-mails neither slowed nor otherwise disrupted the functioning of Intel's computer system. As a result, the California Supreme Court rejected Intel's application for an injunction, enjoining defendant, a former Intel employee, from continuing to send e-mails to Intel employees. In reaching this result, the Court held that neither the time Intel's employees spent reviewing these unwanted communications, nor the funds Intel expended in attempting to block their continued transmission, constituted the type of injury necessary to sustain a trespass to chattels claim.
This result constituted a reversal of prior decisions by both the California Superior Court and the California Court of Appeals, each of which had enjoined future transmissions by the defendant. Three justices dissented in two extensive dissents. Each of the dissenters would have continued the injunction issued by the lower courts on the grounds, inter alia, that a trespass to chattels claim does not require injury to the chattel in question -- rather, such a claim can be established solely by showing an unpermitted and objected to use of the chattel.
Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi ("Hamidi"), a former Intel employee, sent six e-mails over a 21 month period to approximately 35,000 Intel employees. These e-mails were transmitted to Intel's employees via Intel's internal e-mail system, and over computers Intel purchased to enable this system to function. The e-mails "criticized Intel's employment practices, warned employees of the dangers those practices posed to their careers, suggested employees consider moving to other companies, solicited employees' participation in FACE-Intel, and urged employees to … visit FACE-Intel's Web site." FACE Intel was an organization formed to disseminate information critical of Intel's employment practice.
The transmissions of these e-mails did not injure the computers which handled Intel's e-mail system, nor impair the functionality of this system.
Hamidi advised the recipients of his e-mails that he would not send them any further materials if they objected. From the record, it appears Hamidi complied with this commitment.
During the course of these transmissions, Intel notified Hamidi that it objected to this use of its e-mail system and directed him to stop. Hamidi refused, and instead continued to send e-mails to Intel's employees.
The e-mails 'caused discussion' among Intel employees, many of whom asked Intel to stop their receipt of further communications. As a result, Intel attempted via technological means to prevent Hamidi from continuing to be able to send his e-mails. Hamidi was able, at least partially, to evade Intel's blocking efforts. Intel expended funds in attempting to block Hamidi's e-mails. It also lost the employee time spent reviewing and/or deleting these materials.
In an effort to prevent Hamidi from continuing his activities, Intel commenced this suit claiming Hamidi's activities constituted a trespass to chattels. Both the Superior Court and Court of Appeals agreed, and issued an injunction, permanently enjoining Hamidi "from sending unsolicited e-mail to addresses on Intel's computer systems."
The tort of trespass to chattels provides a remedy for "the interference with possession of personal property." To state such a claim under California law, "the defendant's interference must … have caused some injury to the chattel or to the plaintiff's rights in it." As explained by the California Supreme Court:
Importantly, the Court spelled out the applicability of this doctrine to computer e mail systems. Said the Court:
Applying these principles to the case at bar, the majority concluded that Intel had failed to establish a trespass to chattels claim because it had failed to show that its computer system sustained the requisite injury. As explained by the Court:
The harms Intel did sustain -- the costs incurred in attempting to block Hamidi's continued transmission of his e-mails, and the lost employee time spent reviewing and/or deleting these e-mails -- were not sufficient to sustain a trespass claim because they did not constitute injury to the chattel in question. Said the Court:
Because Intel failed to establish its trespass claim, the Court held it was not entitled to injunctive relief. Importantly, the Court reached this result notwithstanding its recognition that Hamidi did not have a right to use Intel's Intranet in a manner contrary to its wishes. "While one may have no right temporarily to use another's personal property, such use is actionable as a trespass only if it 'has proximately caused injury.' '[I]n the absence of any actual damage the action will not lie.'"
In reaching this result, the Court rejected the views of two courts which held that evidence of injury to the chattel itself was not a prerequisite to a trespass to chattel claim. The first, Oyster Software Inc. v. Forms Processing Inc., 2001 WL 1736382 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 6, 2001) was criticized for "incorrectly read[ing] eBay as establishing, under California law, that mere unauthorized use of another's computer system constitutes an actionable trespass."
And to the extent the second decision, eBay Inc. v. Bidder's Edge, 100 F.Supp.2d 1058 (N.D. Cal. 2000) held that a trespass to chattel claim could proceed based solely on the unauthorized use of a chattel, without any evidence of its injury, this decision "would not be a correct statement of California or general American law on this point."
Finally, the California Supreme Court declined Intel's invitation to modify existing California law to grant it a viable cause of action.
The majority's decision was accompanied by two extensive dissenting opinions, authored by Justices Brown and Mosk, which collectively garnered the support of three of the seven judges who decided this appeal. Each dissenter would have affirmed the award of injunctive relief granted by the courts below.
According to Justice Brown, the injunctive relief issued by the lower courts was in accord with those cases that allow an individual to avoid unwanted communications, be they junk mail sent to his home, unwanted door-to-door salesmen, or unsolicited 'junk' faxes. Accordingly, Justice Brown would hold that Hamidi's transmission of e-mail to Intel employees can be enjoined once Intel objects to further communications.
Justice Brown would also hold that a claim of trespass to chattels can be sustained without any injury to the chattel in question. It is enough that the defendant used the property of another without permission, a position Justice Brown opines finds support in prior Court decisions such as e-Bay. Finally, Justice Brown would hold that the injuries sustained by Intel -- the cost of blocking and the time expended by employees during their review of the unwanted e mails -- were sufficient to sustain a trespass to chattels claim.
Justice Mosk, in a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice George, would also hold, like Justice Brown, that Hamidi's unauthorized use of Intel's e-mail system over Intel's objection was sufficient to constitute a trespass to chattels, even in the absence of any injury to the chattel itself. Justice Mosk would further hold that, to the extent injury is a required element of a trespass claim, the injuries Intel claimed to have sustained would be sufficient to sustain the claim.