Our series "Ashley Madison customers revealed" starts next week, shining light on professional elites from Alabama and Missouri who paid to seek extramarital affairs at the now infamous Web site. We hope eventually to be able to unmask AM customers from other states, as well. But that's not the only news shaking on the Ashley Madison front.
The Ashley Madison scandal, which broke last July, has led to a veritable flower garden of lawsuits, with complaints popping up around the country like new blossoms--or weeds, depending on your viewpoint. The lawsuits have become so numerous that they require consolidation, and the process is taking place now in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, Missouri, where the cases will be heard.
The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation made the decision in early December to base the cases in St. Louis. How convenient, since we happen to currently be based in Missouri.
That's ironic because Legal Schnauzer is one of only two Web sites I'm aware of--the other is gotnews.com--that have provided significant reporting on customers of Ashley Madison--the extramarital-cheating Web site, with the motto: "Life is short; have an affair." Our reporting has been based on AM customer lists for the two states--Alabama and . . . Missouri--where my wife and I have lived over the past two years.
So imagine our surprise to learn that our current home state will become Ground Zero for Ashley Madison litigation. From a January 31 report at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Last summer’s hacking of a website dedicated to arranging romantic infidelity led to angst, embarrassment, accusations and potentially complicated litigation that is all coming here.
Lawsuits filed across the country against Avid Life Media LLC, owner of AshleyMadison.com, are being consolidated in U.S. District Court in St. Louis.
Two dozen lawyers representing Avid and current or former clients met this week with District Judge John Ross. More listened in by phone as Ross scheduled a series of motions and told the attorneys he soon will pick leaders among them to streamline handling of the case.
Here is more information about how St. Louis came to be the center of the Ashley Madison universe. Much of it has to do with geography, and St. Louis' location near the heart of the country.
The Birmingham law firm Heninger Garrison Davis has filed several class-action complaints involving Ashley Madison, mostly in California and Texas.
How much money is at stake and how wide-ranging are the AM cases? An article from thexpertinstitute.com provides some clues:
The original class action, filed by two Canadian law firms, sought to recover $578 million in damages against Avid Life Media. This lawsuit, along with four other class action suits, were centralized in St. Louis, MO, in December, 2015. The cases being consolidated stem from Alabama, Missouri, Illinois, California and Texas. There are still 13 related actions pending in eight different districts that were not included in the consolidation at this time.
How will the consolidated cases proceed? That apparently depends on how the court decides to handle a major issue--privacy. From the Post-Dispatch:
One issue will be the continuing privacy of people who signed on to the site, whose slogan is: “Life is short. Have an affair.” It has boasted of millions of clients, in 50 countries and every U.S. ZIP code.
Ross said lawyers would have to file motions by Feb. 15 to allow plaintiffs to continue using pseudonyms to press their cases. The company can then respond. Lawyers have until March 22 to file a consolidated class action complaint.
Robert A. Atkins, one of the lawyers for Avid Life, said that he expects that some of the 50 or so plaintiffs might drop out of the lawsuit if they have to reveal their real names. Roughly 40 filed as John or Jane Doe or some variation.
If Avid Life Media has its way, the cases might never see a courtroom:
And [Atkins] said a clause in the users’ agreement might put the lawsuit on hold while clients’ claims are handled in arbitration in a venue of the company’s choosing.
St. Louis attorney John Driscoll told Ross that plaintiffs’ lawyers may need some limited information from the company before they proceed, so they know which clients were covered under what versions of user agreements. He said that the arbitration requirement didn’t exist in the beginning, and he disputed whether it could be enforced against anyone.
Driscoll represents a woman from Maryland Heights who is among clients complaining that after quitting the service they paid extra to have their personal information removed but it was not done.
Last summer, hackers harvested data from the company, then released it online when the company refused to shut down the website. That stolen information included user names, emails, home addresses, messages and partial credit card information.
What legal issues are in play?
Besides complaints of breached personal information, some plaintiffs claim fraud, alleging — as some analysts have — that the hacked data showed tens of thousands of the site’s profiles of women seeking flings were merely computer-generated “fembots.” Those allegedly sent millions of messages to male customers in an attempt to garner more money.
The company has denied the claims about fembots, saying in August that the ratio of paying men to women active on the site was 1.2 to 1 in the first six months of 2015.
A tech Web site called anewdomain.com ran an article that includes copies of several federal complaints against Ashley Madison and Avid Life.
The notion of plaintiffs using pseudonyms to press their cases may, or may not, fly in court. It certainly will not fly here. To our knowledge, Legal Schnauzer will be the only Web site providing detailed background information--and real names--on AM customers. That many of them hold exalted positions of trust in corporations and institutions . . . well, that adds an extra layer of significance to the story.
(To be continued)