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Huang Hoang, the actress who sued IMDb for revealing her real age, got a small boost Friday in Washington federal court. The judge overseeing the case has decided that Hoang’s allegations that IMDb breached contract and violated laws on consumer protection are plausible enough to continue. But the judge also offered some relief to the Amazon.com subsidiary by dismissing two of Hoang’s core claims and striking her wish to collect $1 million in punitive damages
The actress sued anonymously in October, alleging that IMDb had taken her private info when she signed up for a Pro Account and posted the fact that she was 40 years old. Hoang, who goes by her American stage name, Junie Hoang, said that by divulging her secret, the website has cost her acting jobs. She wanted to remain anonymous in the lawsuit, but the judge later made her reveal her identity too.
On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss in a lawsuit that she deems to be “unusual.”
Pechman says that Hoang’s complaint is short on specifics but that her cause of action for breach of contract is sufficient to survive at the preliminary stage.
“Defendants fail to show that plaintiff gave permission to use her information to mine public records for additional information about her,” writes Pechman in Friday’s decision.
“These arguments ask the court to go too far,” writes the judge. “The plain language of the contract does not permit defendants’ unfettered use of the personal information that plaintiff provided for the purposes of processing payment.”
The judge then says that Washington follows a view on contract law that discerns the parties’ intent and that judges have to look to the circumstances under which a contract was made as well as the parties’ respective interpretations. She points to the agreement, which says, “We use the information that you provide for such purposes as responding to your requests, customizing future browsing for you, improving our site, and communicating with you” and wonders how a customer would interpret that. The judge writes:
“As a matter of law, it is not clear that the parties intended the phrase ‘improving our site’ to include taking information given for processing payment and using it to search for information to add to individual actor profile pages. The lack of any express limitation in the agreement does not constitute a subscriber’s acknowledgment that no limitations apply. Instead, defendants are required to abide by the general assurances they give to customers to ‘carefully and sensibly’ manage information provided by subscribers.”
Pechman says that Hoang hasn’t conclusively proved that there’s been a breach of contract, but that at the summary judgment stage, facts are viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff — and in doing so, the plaintiff prevails.
If the case doesn’t settle or get sidetracked through appeal, it likely would mean that Hoang gets to present her sympathetic tale of how “”in the entertainment industry, youth is king” to a jury and how the IMDb broke its promises to an aging actress. Besides the actress’ breach-of-contract claim, the judge also is allowing Hoang’s allegations that IMDb violated Washington Consumer Protection Act Claim to survive.
But Hoang doesn’t get everything she wanted.
The judge has agreed to throw out the actress’ fraud claim because of a lack of supporting details in the complaint. Under the state law, a plaintiff has to match factual allegations of an allegedly fraudulent statement with an allegation that the defendant “knew of its falsity.”
Pechman says this is a “high standard,” and one that the plaintiff hasn’t met.
The judge believes that the complaint was broad on many of its allegations and dings the plaintiff for doing things like relying on the current Subscriber Agreement even though the one she agreed when signing up to the service was the operative and relevant one. As such, the lack of particularity is not enough to establish IMDb bad intent, writes the judge.
Hoang also loses her claim that IMDb’s actions were a violation of the Washington Privacy Act.
The judge says that the plaintiff is misapplying that law, which was set up to make it unlawful to intercept a private communications without obtaining consent. According to the decision:
“Here, plaintiff fails to show both that the information was ‘private’ and that the defendants ‘intercepted the information, as the terms are intended in the statute. First, the communication was not ‘private,’ because, even though it contained personal information, the information was intended for IMDb.com and Amazon.com. Second, the information was not ‘intercepted’ or ‘recorded’ as required by the Private Act because plaintiff sent the information directly to the defendants, not to someone else.”
Finally, the judge goes into the damages question.
Hoang wanted at least $1 million in punitive damages, which drew an objection from the defendants, citing the state’s Supreme Court as frowning on punitive damages. The judge agrees with IMDb and strikes her punitive damages claim. If the case gets to trial, Hoang might have to prove damages by calling witnesses to testify about jobs she didn’t get because of her age.
That probably represents the biggest victory Friday for the defendant, who also sought to impose sanctions on Hoang for bringing an “unreasonable and vexatious suit.” The judge doesn’t believe that’s the case, turning down sanctions and allowing the case to proceed on.
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