United States District Judge John A. Gibney, Jr., sitting in Richmond, Virginia thought so little of the well-publicized shakedown tactics of the new wave of “copyright troll” lawyers–in this case practiced by Richmond lawyer Wayne O’Bryan–that he took it upon himself (without any Defendant asking for it) to issue a show-cause order against the lawyer demanding that he explain why his conduct should not be punished with Rule 11 sanctions.
The subject of the lawsuit at issue is Gangbang Virgins, a pornographic film allegedly downloaded by 85 unnamed “John Doe” defendants using popular peer-to-peer network BitTorrent. The Court initially granted the plaintiff permission to issue subpoenas to Internet Service Providers to learn the identities of the people behind the accused I.P. addresses. Later, however, Judge Gibney was apparently moved by some of the letters he received from the John Doe defendants. Several of the defendants, for example, notified the Court that the plaintiff made harassing telephone calls to them as soon as their identities were revealed, asking for a payment of $2,900 to end the litigation.
What the Court found particularly troubling was the lawyer’s behavior after certain defendants filed motions challenging their inclusion in the case. Rather than proceed to argue the merits of the motions in court, he routinely dismissed them, apparently to ensure the Court did not actually rule on any of the motions so that he could continue to threaten others. That, the Court found, amounted to nothing more than a “shake down” and an abuse of the Court’s resources.
“The plaintiffs have used the offices of the Court as a means to gain the Doe defendants’ personal information and coerce payment from them,” the judge wrote. “The plaintiffs seemingly have no interest in actually litigating the cases, but rather simply have used the Court and its subpoena powers to obtain sufficient information to shake down the John Does.”
Accordingly, the judge issued an order asking the plaintiffs’ lawyer to show cause why his behavior did not violate Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which specifies that anyone filing a complaint in federal court certifies that the complaint “is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass.”
Judge Gibney also rejected the plaintiff’s attempt to join 85 unrelated defendants to a single piece of litigation. Rule 20 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a plaintiff to sue multiple defendants in a single proceeding if their behavior arises out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences. Here, the only thing that the 85 had in common was that they all had allegedly downloaded the same movie using the same peer-to-peer network and the same protocol. Accordingly, Judge Gibney ordered that only the first defendant remain in this case, while all others be severed.
“The mere allegation that the defendants have used the same peer-to-peer network to copy and reproduce the Work – which occurred on different days and times over a span of three months – is insufficient to meet the standards of joinder set forth in Rule 20,” the judge found.