Trial Alert! Actress Suing IMDb Over Age Revelation Gets Day in Court

Huong Junie Hoang Headshot - P 2012

Huong Junie Hoang Headshot - P 2012

On Monday, actress Huong Hoang (aka Junie Hoang) will go to trial against IMDb over allegations that the website improperly revealed her age in her profile.

Covering the Seattle trial for The Hollywood Reporter will be Venkat Balasubramani, a local lawyer who focuses on internet and technology issues. He is well known for his smart analysis at Eric Goldman's Technology and Marketing Law Blog.

Today, he looks at what's ahead and reports some recent new developments including a judge's decision on the precipices of trial to avoid testimony about Hollywood age discrimination.

Here's his first report:

Background: As Eriq mentions in his most recent post, the parties are at odds about various aspects of the trial, including what witnesses and evidence either side can present, and the length of the trial.

IMDb objected to Hoang’s proposed presentation of several witnesses that it argued were not previously disclosed. Both parties also objected to various categories of evidence and filed motions asking the court to exclude certain evidence. Earlier this week, the court issued an order that resolved many of these issues:

Hoang’s Motions:

  • Hoang tried to exclude testimony about her submission of false identification documents to IMDb, but the court denies this request;
  • Hoang also requested the exclusion of (1) who initially submitted her 1978 birthdate, (2) her tax returns and (3) copies of her passport and driver’s license. The court also denied these requests.

IMDb’s Motions:

  • IMDb asked the court to exclude a slew of exhibits (such as other actors' profiles) not previously identified by Hoang; the court grants this;
  • The court grants IMDb’s request to exclude “testimony about ageism in Hollywood” – the court directs the parties to not use the term “age discrimination” during the trial due to its potential for confusing the jury;
  • IMDb also sought to exclude third party opinions about IMDb’s practice of revealing actors’ dates of birth, and the court grants this as well.

Finally, Hoang asked the court to increase the length of the trial but the court rejects this request. Each side gets 7 hours. Including jury selection as well as opening and closing arguments, the trial is expected to stretch out over three days.

Analysis: Rulings addressing the parties’ pre-trial objections are typical, but the court’s short three page order contains a few rulings that limit the scope of the trial from Hoang’s perspective.

To date, Hoang has tried to argue that this case is about much more than an isolated instance of a website using personal information in a way that is different from what is stated in the website’s privacy policy. Hoang has repeatedly tried to paint the picture of this as a frequently occurring wrong, and one that perpetuates ageism in the film and television industries.

The court’s previous ruling already trimmed down the scope of the lawsuit by dismissing Hoang’s consumer protection act claim and limiting the available claim to a breach of contract claim.

A consumer protection act claim allows a party to seek greater damages and vindicate issues that are in the public interest because they are likely to recur. This differentiates a consumer protection act claim from an isolated contract or other dispute between two parties. The court said there was not enough evidence that this was the case, and Hoang's claim was a more straightforward contract dispute, rather than a consumer protection issue.

The court also discussed in depth the fact that Hoang initially submitted incorrect information to IMDb, thus leaving open the possibility that IMDb displayed her correct birthdate only after looking into the then-existing incorrect date at Hoang's request. The most recent ruling narrows the issues further by excluding testimony about ageism in Hollywood and excluding third party opinions about IMDb’s policies.

STORY: Actress Details Amazon's Alleged Data-Mining Fraud in Amended IMDb Lawsuit (Exclusive) 

This case will end up being just about whether IMDb breached its contract with Hoang, and not about any of the supposed far reaching effects of the availability of actors’ demographic details.

On the other hand, it’s unlikely that Hoang will be deterred.  While settlements on the eve of trial happen often, it’s increasingly looking like this is not just about money for Hoang. Hoang is looking to prove a point. And to be sure, there is a lot at stake for IMDb. The court's previous ruling poked a few holes in IMDb's online user agreement, and a ruling in favor of Hoang may set important limits on what IMDb can do with user information. This aspect of the case affects other websites and companies, and has also drawn the attention of privacy advocates. All of this will make for an interesting trial.

Venkat Balasubramani is a lawyer and founder of a boutique firm focusing on internet & technology issues in Seattle. He can be followed on twitter at @Vbalasubramani.