Lawsuits Over Fraudulent Electronic Relationships

With the Manti Te’o story in the news, I thought I’d note an interesting case from last year, Bonhomme v. St. James (Ill. 2012). I stress up front that I haven’t followed the details of the Te’o story, and can’t opine on any legal implications (civil or criminal) of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo’s behavior in that case. Still, it might be interesting to see how an Illinois court dealt with a generally similar incident under Illinois law (some paragraph breaks added):

The following facts were alleged in plaintiff’s third amended complaint and are set forth in the appellate court’s opinion. In April 2005, plaintiff, a resident of Los Angeles, California, began online conversations with defendant on the “Deadwood Boards,” an Internet chatroom dedicated to the HBO television series “Deadwood.” Defendant, a resident of Batavia, Illinois, had registered as a user of the site under the name “Ms. Magnolia.” In June, defendant registered again, posing as a man named Jesse James (Jesse) and under the user name of “Auboy.” Jesse began chatting with and emailing plaintiff in July 2005. Defendant, in her own name, also began emailing plaintiff in July. Defendant represented to plaintiff that she knew Jesse and many of the people in Jesse’s life.

Plaintiff and Jesse began an online romantic relationship that lasted until July 2006. In addition to exchanging emails, Jesse and plaintiff exchanged personal photos, handwritten letters, and gifts. They also spoke regularly on the telephone, with defendant using a voice-altering device to disguise her female voice.

During this same period, defendant continued to maintain a relationship under her own name with plaintiff. In addition, defendant created a universe of approximately 20 fictional online characters either related to or involved with Jesse, including an ex-wife, a son, various family members, a therapist, and friends living both in the United States and abroad. These characters communicated with plaintiff from separate and distinct email accounts and even sent photos, handwritten mail, and packages from different states and foreign countries. For her part, plaintiff sent gifts totaling more than $10,000 to defendant, Jesse, and various other characters.

In September 2005, plaintiff purchased round-trip airline tickets from Burbank, California, to Denver, Colorado, for the purpose of meeting Jesse in person. Jesse, however, cancelled the plans. Shortly thereafter, defendant informed plaintiff that Jesse had attempted suicide. This caused plaintiff great emotional distress, and plaintiff began seeing a therapist, with bills totaling more than $5,000.

In April 2006, plaintiff and Jesse decided to move in together in Jesse’s Colorado home. The move was to take place in July 2006, and plaintiff spent approximately $700 preparing for the anticipated move. When July came, however, plaintiff was informed by Jesse’s “sister,” Alice, that Jesse had died of liver cancer. Posing as her other fictional characters, defendant sent plaintiff several letters of condolence. Plaintiff entered a deep depression at this point, experiencing headaches, exhaustion, inability to sleep, and inability to focus on job-related tasks. She also contracted a recurring infection known as MRSA (multidrug resistant staphylococcus aureus) because her immune system was so weakened.

Yet even after Jesse’s death, defendant stayed in touch with plaintiff, communicating with her on a daily basis for the next seven months. In September 2006, plaintiff and defendant met in Colorado to visit some of Jesse’s favorite places, after which they drove to New Mexico to visit other Jesse-related sites. During that trip, defendant gave plaintiff a letter that Jesse had written in which he professed his love for plaintiff and set out his dying wishes.

In February 2007, defendant visited plaintiff at her home in California. Plaintiff spent $1,000 preparing her home for defendant. The expenses included the purchase of an inflatable bed and linens and the installation of a handrail, sliding chair, and “medical bath assist devices.” It was during this trip that some of plaintiff’s actual friends discovered the fictional nature of the universe of people that defendant had created, and they confronted defendant. Defendant admitted on videotape that she had put plaintiff through an “emotional [wringer]” for “maybe a year and a half.” Plaintiff continued to see a therapist to deal with the emotional aftermath of the false statements regarding the existence of the fictional characters, and her therapy bills continued to accumulate. Her “affected mental state” also resulted in lost earnings….

To prevail on a claim of fraudulent misrepresentation, a plaintiff must establish the following elements: (1) a false statement of material fact; (2) known or believed to be false by the person making it; (3) an intent to induce the plaintiff to act; (4) action by the plaintiff in justifiable reliance on the truth of the statement; and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from such reliance…. [W]hile the courts of this state have, on rare occasions, recognized claims for fraudulent misrepresentation in settings that are not, strictly speaking, “commercial” or “financial” in nature, they have never recognized fraudulent misrepresentation in a setting that is “purely personal” in nature….

In light of [past Illinois precedent], the crucial question in this case is whether the facts at issue are purely personal in nature, or whether there exists some commercial, transactional, or regulatory component that moves them beyond the purely personal. This is not a difficult question to answer. When all is said and done, what lies beneath this case is two private persons engaged in a long-distance personal relationship.

To be sure, it was a personal relationship built wholly on one party’s relentless deceit, but it was a purely personal relationship nonetheless. Indeed, all of the hallmarks of ordinary human relationship are present: correspondence, conversation, intimacy, trust, mutual beneficence, emotional support, affection, disappointment, and even grief. And just as importantly, there is absolutely nothing of the commercial, transactional, or regulatory at work. Plaintiff and defendant were not engaged in any kind of business dealings or bargaining, and the veracity of representations made in the context of purely private personal relationships is simply not something the state regulates or in which the state possesses any kind of valid public policy interest.

Consequently, as regrettable as the alleged facts are, we hold that they are not the types of facts upon which a claim for fraudulent misrepresentation may be pled.