Court Dismisses Democrats' Nutty Lawsuit Against Russia, Wikileaks And Trump Associates
from the phew dept
A little over a year ago we wrote about a truly ridiculous lawsuit filed by the Democratic National Committee against the country of Russia, Wikileaks, the GRU, Julian Assange, the Donald Trump campaign, and a long list of Donald Trump associates, including Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and more. As we discussed in great detail, this was a pro se-level lawsuit full of absolutely crazy legal theories that stood no chance in court, ostensibly over the hacking of the DNC’s computers that occurred during the 2016 election. The complaint was mostly a conspiracy theory wrapped in a legal complaint, tossing in absolutely silly CFAA claims, SCA claims, DMCA claims and (because why not?) a RICO claim, despite the fact that it’s never RICO.
We predicted that this lawsuit would go nowhere fast, and separately noted that many of the theories the DNC put into the lawsuit represented a very real threat to basic press freedoms. Thankfully, though not surprisingly, federal Judge John Koeltl, has dismissed the case. The order runs over 80 pages, but the judge does a nice job summarizing the many, many faults of the complaint upfront. Let’s start with suing Russia. That’s not how any of this works.
The primary wrongdoer in this alleged criminal enterprise is undoubtably the Russian Federation, the first named defendant in the case and the entity that surreptitiously and illegally hacked into the computers and thereafter disseminated the results of its theft. But, as explained below, under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1602 et seq. (“FISA”), the Russian Federation cannot be sued in the courts of the United States for governmental actions, subject to certain limited exceptions not present in this case, just as the United States government generally cannot be sued in courts abroad for its actions. The remedies for hostile actions by foreign governments are state actions, including sanctions imposed by the executive and legislative branches of government.
I mean, this seems like basic lawyering 101. You can’t just randomly sue foreign governments in the US for state actions. How about all those other defendants? Well, they’re not the ones who did anything. And the things they did — publishing or sharing documents — is so obviously protected under the First Amendment:
The DNC seeks to hold the second-level participants in this alleged activity — the Campaign, the Campaign defendants, WikiLeaks, Assange, the Agalarovs, Mifsud, and Stone — liable for dissemination of the stolen materials. But, as also explained below, the First Amendment prevents such liability in the same way it would preclude liability for press outlets that publish materials of public interest despite defects in the way the materials were obtained so long as the disseminator did not participate in any wrongdoing in obtaining the materials in the first place. The plausible allegations against the remaining defendants are insufficient to hold them liable for the illegality that occurred in obtaining the materials from the DNC. Therefore, for the reasons explained below, the defendants’ motion to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint is granted.
The judge did reject a request by the Trump Campaign for Rule 11 sanctions against the DNC’s lawyers, and even if this was obviously a frivolous lawsuit, courts are very, very reluctant to ever issue Rule 11 sanctions unless the activity is incredibly egregious. This dumb lawsuit was just everyday egregious.
The judge here clearly understood all of the myriad problems with the lawsuit, and the long ruling is a masterclass in pointing out how each of the DNC’s theories is crazy. Let’s start with the First Amendment/freedom of the press issues. It seems clear that the court understood how dangerous this kind of precedent would be. The judge cites the key cases on this issue which are pretty damn well established: the NYTimes v. the United States, which decided that it was protected by the 1st Amendment for the Times to publish the Pentagon Papers, and the more recent Bartnicki v. Vopper, which made it clear that even illegally obtained materials can be released by journalists, so long as the journalists did not participate in the illegal activities to obtain the materials. As the court notes:
As Bartnicki makes clear, there is a significant legal distinction between stealing documents and disclosing documents that someone else had stolen previously.
The DNC tried to get around this by playing the “but RICO!” card, and arguing that there was a grand conspiracy at work, that magically meant that the Trump Campaign and all the associates did participate in the “stealing” of documents. The judge points out this is… not a sound legal theory.
However, the DNC has not alleged that any defendant other than the Russian Federation participated in the hack of the computers or theft of the DNC’s documents. The DNC argues that the various meetings and conversations between the defendants in this case and with persons connected to the Russian government during the time that Russian GRU agents were stealing the information show that the defendants conspired with the Russian Federation to steal and disseminate the materials…. That argument is entirely divorced from the facts actually alleged in the Second Amended Complaint.
The judge further points out that just showing certain people met with one another or worked with one another doesn’t automatically establish either a conspiracy or anything suggesting that they participated in the illegal obtaining of the DNC’s content.
For example, the DNC argues in its opposition to the current motions that the conspiracy between the Russian Federation and the other defendants to hack the computers and steal its electronic information began in March 2016…. However, the only events alleged to have taken place in March 2016 are that Manafort was hired as the Campaign’s convention manager, Papadopoulos was hired as a foreign policy advisor, and Papadopoulos met with Mifsud on March 14 and 24. The entirety of the allegations regarding the March meetings between Mifsud and Papadopoulos are that “[o]n March 14, 2016, Mifsud met with Papadopoulos in Italy,” and “[o]n March 24, 2016, Mifsud met again with Papadopoulos, this time bringing along a Russian national who was introduced as a relative of Putin.” … Papadoponlos reported back to the Campaign that “his conversation was to arrange a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump.” These vague references to meetings between Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to the Campaign, and Mifsud, a London-based academic not officially affiliated with the Russian Federation, do not raise a plausible inference that the defendants agreed to participate with the Russian Federation in hacking the computers and stealing its documents…. To the contrary, Mifsud is alleged to have told Papadapoulos about emails harmful to the Hillary Clinton campaign only after the Russian Federation had hacked the DNC and had those emails in its possession.
The section on Wikileaks shows just how awful the DNC’s case really was — as their own complaint undermined their own argument.
The DNC also repeatedly argues in its brief that WikiLeaks participated in the theft of the DNC documents…. But in the Second Amended Complaint the DNC alleges that WikiLeaks first requested stolen DNC materials from Guccifer 2.0 only after the Russian Federation had already stolen them and after Russian agents began disseminating them through Guccifer 2.0…. The Second Amended Complaint does not allege that WikiLeaks agreed to participate in the theft or that it had any advance knowledge that the Russian Federation was planning to hack the DNC.
The court also points out that the infamous “meeting at Trump Tower” that has been subject to much speculation, happened after the DNC hacking had already occurred, meaning that it couldn’t possibly have been held to establish a conspiracy to hack the DNC (and, of course, the DNC has no evidence to suggest, and thus, no allegations, to say that there was any discussion at that meeting of hacking the DNC). In other areas the judge points out that allegations “are even more threadbare.” As we said, this is a conspiracy theory disguised as a legal complaint.
In short, the DNC raises a number of connections and communications between the defendants and with people loosely connected to the Russian Federation, but at no point does the DNC allege any facts in the Second Amended Complaint to show that any of the defendants other than the Russian Federation participated in the theft of the information. Nor does the DNC allege that the defendants ever agreed to help the Russian Federation steal the documents. Indeed, the DNC does not raise a factual allegation that suggests that any of the defendants were even aware that the Russian Federation was planning to hack the DNC’s computers until after it had already done so. At most, the DNC has alleged that after the Russian Federation stole the documents, Mifsud and the Agalarovs told campaign members about the stolen documents (although it is unclear whether the communications were about stolen DNC documents or generally about documents harmful to Hillary Clinton), WikiLeaks requested the stolen documents and published them, and some of the other defendants welcomed the publication of the documents at times helpful to the Campaign.
And thus, the actions of the others in passing around or publishing those documents later is quite clearly protected under the 1st Amendment.
The judge does separately deal with the issue of Wikileaks. This was the one that most concerned press freedom advocates, and the judge clearly understands the issues:
The argument for liability is strongest against WikiLeaks because it is the only defendant other than the Russian Federation that is alleged to have published the stolen information. The DNC alleges that WikiLeaks solicited stolen documents from the GRU and then coordinated with the GRU and the Campaign defendants to publish the stolen documents at times helpful to the Trump Campaign. Like the defendant in Bartnicki, WikiLeaks did not play any role in the theft of the documents and it is undisputed that the stolen materials involve matters of public concern. However, the DNC argues that this case is distinguishable from Bartnicki because WikiLeaks solicited the documents from the GRU knowing that they were stolen and coordinated with the GRU and the Campaign to disseminate the documents at times favorable to the Trump Campaign. The DNC argues that WikiLeaks should be considered an after-the-fact coconspirator for the theft based on its coordination to obtain and distribute the stolen materials.
As an initial matter, it is constitutionally insignificant that WikiLeaks knew the Russian Federation had stolen the documents when it published them. Indeed, in Bartnicki the Supreme Court noted that the radio host either did know, or at least had reason to know, that the communication at issue was unlawfully intercepted….
And, contrary to the argument, it is also irrelevant that WikiLeaks solicited the stolen documents from Russian agents. A person is entitled publish stolen documents that the publisher requested from a source so long as the publisher did not participate in the theft…. Indeed, the DNC acknowledges that this is a common journalistic practice.
The argument that WikiLeaks can be held liable for the theft as an after-the-fact coconspirator of the stolen documents is also unpersuasive. That argument would eviscerate Bartnicki; such a rule would render any journalist who publishes an article based on stolen information a coconspirator in the theft….
WikiLeaks and its amici argue that holding WikiLeaks liable in this situation would also threaten freedom of the press. The DNC responds that this case does not threaten freedom of the press because WikiLeaks did not engage in normal journalistic practices by, for example, “asking foreign intelligence services to steal ‘new material’ from American targets.” … The argument misconstrues its own allegations in the Second Amended Complaint. In the Second Amended Complaint, the DNC states that “WikiLeaks sent GRU operatives using the screenname Guccifer 2.0 a private message, asking the operatives to “[s]end any new material [stolen from the DNC] here for us to review.'” … This was not a solicitation to steal documents but a request for material that had been stolen. Journalists are allowed to request documents that have been stolen and to publish those documents…. Therefore, the DNC cannot hold WikiLeaks or Assange liable for publishing the information that Russian agents stole.
The court then rejects the DNC’s argument that “trade secrets” (by which it meant donor lists) are somehow excluded from Bartnicki, and therefore publishing them is not protected by the 1st Amendment. As the court explains, this is a pretty blatant misreading of Bartnicki, which acknowledged that there could be a different calculus when it involved things like trade secrets — whereas the DNC pretended that Barnicki outright excluded them. Either way, the court says that in this case, the publishing of donor lists is obviously protected by the 1st Amendment:
In this case it is plain that the conclusory allegations that “donor lists” and “fundraising strategies” were among those documents published by WikiLeaks does not provide a basis to overcome the First Amendment. The interest in keeping “donor lists” and “fundraising strategies” secret is dwarfed by the newsworthiness of the documents as whole….
If WikiLeaks could be held liable for publishing documents concerning the political financial and voter-engagement strategies simply because the DNC labels them “secret” and trade secrets, then so could any newspaper or other media outlet. But that would impermissibly elevate a purely private privacy interest to override the First Amendment interest in the publication of matters of the highest public concern. The published internal communications allowed the American electorate to look behind the curtain of one of the two major political parties in the United States during a presidential election. This type of information is plainly of the type entitled to the strongest protection that the First Amendment offers….
And, as basically anyone with a passing familiarity with how RICO works expected, the court also explicitly rejects the whole RICO nonsense:
The allegations provide no basis to infer either that the alleged AIF members formed an ongoing organization or that the defendants formed a coherent entity that was separate and apart from the predicate acts that allegedly comprise the alleged fraudulent scheme….
This is, in part, because the DNC alleges in conclusory fashion that various individuals and entities have committed acts to further the scheme despite not having any apparent connection to most of the other defendants. The DNC asserts only that there were scattered contacts between the alleged AIF members and does not assert any facts suggesting hierarchy or organization. For example, none of the asserted AIF members are alleged to have participated in the theft of the documents with the Russian Federation or to have even been aware that the Russian Federation was planning such a theft. The Russian Federation published at least some of the documents via Guccifer 2.0, and there is no allegation that any of the defendants participated in that publication. WikiLeaks contacted the GRU to obtain the stolen documents, but there is no indication that any of the other asserted AIF members were aware of this contact.
There’s also this:
Moreover, the alleged common goal of the AIF enterprise to get Donald Trump elected is not an unlawful or fraudulent goal.
The final claims in the complaint are dismissed pretty quickly as well. Wiretapping? Wha…? For it to be wiretapping, it has to involve recording something as it happens (“intercepted contemporaneously with transmission”) and that did not happen:
There is no allegation that any of the documents provided to WikiLeaks contained communications that were intercepted contemporaneously with transmission. The documents that the Russian Federation disclosed to WikiLeaks are described as reports and documents rather than items that would suggest electronic communications that were recorded simultaneously with their transmission…. In any event, there is no allegation that WikiLeaks was aware that any documents it published were intercepted contemporaneously with transmission.
The Defend Trade Secrets Act claim flops as well. The earlier discussion about publishing trade secrets being protected by the 1st Amendment mostly covers that, but the claim makes even less sense for the other defendants:
The DNC does not allege that any defendant other than the Russian Federation and WikiLeaks possessed or published its alleged trade secrets. However, the DNC argues that the remaining defendants are still liable under the DCUTSA because they “used” the documents after they had been published by WikiLeaks and the Russian Federation. This argument is untenable — a “trade secret that becomes public knowledge is no longer a trade secret.”… That the defendants might have used documents that had already been published by the Russian Federation and WikiLeaks is not an unlawful or improper use of the documents.
As for the computer hacking claims, again, only the Russians did that, and you can’t bring them into a US court. The DNC tried to argue that there was “aiding and abetting” by the others, but (1) they then “failed to allege facts showing any defendant aided or abetted the hack into the DNC computer systems,” and (2) it doesn’t appear that the Virginia Computer Crimes Act (the local state version of the CFAA) even includes liability for aiding and abetting. But, hey, why would that stop the DNC?
The court doesn’t even seem to bother with the rather insane copyright claim, which was based on DMCA 1201 — the anti-circumvention part of the DMCA, in which the DNC argued that the DMCA 1201 acted as a sort of mini-CFAA, because any activity to get around “technical protection measures” is automatically infringing under 1201. But, that theory is so nuts it looks like the court just skipped right over it.
Again, none of this is surprising, but it’s nice to see a clear and decisive ruling on this — and one hopes the DNC and its lawyers just let this one go rather than trying to appeal (a wish that seems unlikely to be fulfilled). It’s possible this case is more about politics than any legal theory (because there is no reasonable legal theory here), but if so that’s even more abusive of the federal judicial system.