Stored Communications Act Update: Yahoo Wins Appeal

The Stored Communications Act “SCA” prevents unlawful access to stored electronic communications to promote freedom of expression and enhance subscriber privacy. The penalty for failing to comply with the SCA can result in a fine and/or imprisonment not to exceed 5 years for the 1st offense. There are exceptions permitting disclosure for a variety of reasons including to law enforcement upon the issuance of a valid subpoena. In a recent decision out of the 9th Circuit, Sams v. Yahoo!, Inc., Yahoo received legal vindication for having released subscriber information. Having received a subpoena from a Georgia District Attorney’s Office, Yahoo complied by appearing in Court and producing the requested information. The Plaintiff, Fayelynn Sams, then sued Yahoo in Georgia Fulton County Superior Court alleging the Yahoo subpoena was defective and therefore Yahoo’s compliance had violated the SCA. The alleged defect in the subpoena, that Yahoo was a foreign corporation not amenable to legal process by subpoena in Georgia, was not contested by Yahoo as it did maintain an office in Georgia. Sams’ lawsuit was couched as a “putative class action” on behalf of all Yahoo subscribers whose non-content information was alleged to have been illegally released.

The case was removed to Georgia Federal District Court and then transferred to the Northern District of California. The California District Court granted Yahoo’s Motion to dismiss the case and Sams appealed. The 9th Circuit affirmed holding that Code Section 2703(e) No Cause of Action Against a Provider Disclosing Information Under This Chapter,—

No cause of action shall lie in any court against any provider of wire or electronic communication service, its officers, employees, agents, or other specified persons for providing information, facilities, or assistance in accordance with the terms of a court order, warrant, subpoena, statutory authorization, or certification under this chapter”

provided an absolute safe harbor to any electronic communication services provider, such as Yahoo, acting in good faith. Legality of the subpoena aside, the Court interpreted the statute to offer a broad protection that could not be negated with hindsight. As providers are mere repositories of information rather than interested parties in criminal proceedings, this is a good result. Plaintiff’s remedy to Move to Quash the Subpoena in her proceedings would still be available if necessary. Public policy interests are served as encouraging the good faith compliance by providers to seemingly valid government requests without fear of violating subscriber’s rights under the statute enables the swift and efficient administration of justice.

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