October 13, 2003

Intel Corporation v. Hamidi: Spamming Is Not a Trespass in California

Holland & Knight Newsletter

On June 30, 2003, the opinion of a sharply divided California Supreme Court was issued in the case of Intel Corporation v. Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi, 30 Cal 4th 1342, 1 Cal. Rptr. 3d 32.  The Court, in a 4-3 decision, held that Intel could not use state trespass to chattels laws to block Hamidi’s e-mail messages to its employees, since Intel’s property had not been damaged.

The facts of the case are not complex:  Hamidi had been an Intel engineer for four years when, in 1990,  his car was rear-ended while he was returning home from a work-related meeting.  As a result of the accident, Hamidi was in chronic pain with injuries to his shoulder and neck that did not respond to any treatment.  After 16 months, he took extended medical leave, and applied for workers’ compensation benefits alleging a work-related injury.  The claim was originally granted, but was overturned after an appeal by Intel.  In 1995, Hamidi was terminated for cause.

Soon thereafter, he formed an organization, FACE-Intel, for current and former employees of the company.  A Web site was launched to disseminate information about the company, including allegations that job stress at Intel had a causal affect on the health of employees. 

Hamidi was anonymously sent two floppy disks that permitted him to assemble an e-mail list for Intel employees.  Over a 21-month period, Hamidi sent six e-mail messages to between 8,000 and 35,000 Intel employees criticizing Intel’s employment practices, warning them of the danger that those practices posed to their careers, suggesting that they consider moving to other companies, soliciting their participation in FACE-Intel and urging them to visit the FACE-Intel Web site.  Each message notified the recipients that they could, by contacting the sender, be removed from FACE-Intel’s mailing list.  There is no allegation that anyone who requested removal ever received additional messages.

Some messages were blocked by Intel before reaching employees, though Hamidi evaded some blocking efforts by using different computers to send messages.  When, in March of 1998, Intel demanded in writing that Hamidi and FACE-Intel stop sending e-mails to Intel’s computer system, Hamidi asserted that FACE-Intel had the right to communicate with willing Intel employees and subsequently sent a new mass mailing in September 1998.

There was no evidence that Hamidi had breached any of Intel’s computer security in order to obtain the e-mail addresses he used, nor was there any evidence that the receipt or internal distribution of Hamidi’s electronic messages damaged Intel’s computer system or slowed or impaired the system.  There was undisputed evidence, however, that many employee recipients asked Intel to stop the messages, and that Intel staff spent time trying to block further messages from FACE-Intel.

On these facts, Intel brought suit, claiming that by communicating with its employees over the company’s e-mail system Hamidi had committed the tort of trespass to chattels.  The trial court granted Intel’s motion for summary judgment and enjoined Hamidi from any further mailings.  A divided Court of Appeals affirmed.

After reviewing decisions that analyzed unauthorized electronic contact with computer systems as potential trespass to chattels, the California Supreme Court concluded that the tort did not encompass and should not be extended to encompass an electronic communication that did not damage the recipient’s computer system or impair its functioning. 

The Court stated that its conclusion did not rest on any special immunity for communications by electronic mail.  To the contrary, the Court determined that e-mail, like other forms of communication, may in some circumstances cause injury to the recipient or to third parties and that may be actionable under various common law or statutory theories.  In fact, the Court's opinion stated that Intel might have the option of suing for interference with its business prospects, interference with contract, defamation and other “speech-based” torts or intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Court distinguished a series of “spam” e-mail cases where the Internet service providers were permitted to proceed on a trespass to chattels theory because the sheer volume of the e-mail sent by spammers both overburdened the ISP’s own computers and made the entire computer system harder to use for recipients, the customers of the ISP.  Intel did not make any such showing here.

The decision is likely to have significant implications. Some believe this decision will result in more spam e-mails, or that it will permit unions to solicit members by e-mail while at work. The long-term effects, however, remain unclear.

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