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Latham Secures Win for Craigslist Regarding the Scope of Website Immunity Against State Civil Claims

August 25, 2020
The Northern District of California dismissed state and federal claims, adopting Latham’s statutory arguments involving Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

Latham secured a major victory for craigslist, Inc. in high-profile litigation about the extent to which online classifieds websites can be held liable for unlawful material posted by third parties. On August 20, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed all state and federal claims against craigslist in J.B. v. G6 Hospitality (No. 3:19-cv-07848-HSG), setting an important precedent about the scope of website immunity afforded under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The case involved cutting-edge legal issues related to whether the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2018 (FOSTA) eliminated website providers’ Section 230 immunity from state civil claims, and the interaction between FOSTA and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). The Latham team argued that Section 230 provides websites complete immunity from state civil claims that treat the website as the publisher or speaker of information provided by another. Although these Section 230 principles are well-settled, the case presented novel questions about the effect of Congress’s passage of FOSTA in 2018, and the extent to which FOSTA withdrew immunity from websites for state and federal civil claims related to trafficking. Partner Roman Martinez argued the motion to dismiss telephonically to Judge Gilliam of the Northern District of California on April 9, 2020.

In an opinion that closely tracked Latham’s textual and statutory arguments, the Northern District of California dismissed plaintiff’s claims in their entirety, finding the plaintiff’s state-law claims barred by Section 230 and finding insufficient factual pleading to support the federal TVPRA claim. The Court’s opinion contains what is to date perhaps the most careful and thorough analysis of Section 230 immunity as amended by FOSTA. The Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that FOSTA revoked Section 230 immunity against state civil claims, noting the plain language of the amended statute, repudiating Plaintiff’s interpretation of the legislative history, and treating the exemptions to immunity listed at Section 230(e)(5) as exhaustive as to state claims.

The Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that craigslist “materially contributed” to the offending content and thus was the information content provider responsible for the content. Plaintiff had pleaded no facts to support her argument, the Court determined, because “Craigslist’s requirement that a third-party creator of a post confirm that he or she is an adult does not support any inference of inducement or material contribution to the post.” For all these reasons, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s state-law claims with prejudice.

With respect to the plaintiff’s federal TVPRA claim, the Court found that plaintiff did not plead facts establishing that craigslist tacitly agreed to the unlawful conduct of third-parties toward plaintiff or others. The Court rejected the notion that craigslist, or any website “enters tacit agreements” with every poster that that uses its website, and agreed with Latham’s argument that websites do not have a legal duty to inspect every single user-generated message before it is communicated or displayed to the public.

Latham’s success in this case is notable, both because of the novel statutory issues involved and because of the recent federal attention paid to Section 230 immunity by the Executive and Legislative branches. The decision will likely become a landmark for future cases interpreting the interaction between Section 230, FOSTA, and the TVPRA. Latham’s victory reflects tremendous collaboration between the firm’s trial and appellate litigators.

Latham’s team was led by partner Perry Viscounty, and included Roman Martinez, counsel David Troutman, and associates Allison Blanco, Caroline Flynn, Josh Craddock, and Catherine Rizzoni.