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Comcast Cable Communications, LLC v. Hourani

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 23, 2016

COMCAST CABLE COMMUNICATIONS, LLC, Plaintiff,
v.
ISSAM SALAH HOURANI, Defendant.

          OPINION

          ROSEMARY M. COLLYER United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Comcast Cable Communications, LLC, brought this suit seeking a declaratory judgment to determine its obligation to comply with a foreign discovery order. Comcast was served by Defendant Issam Hourani, who is a citizen of the United Kingdom and a claimant in a U.K. defamation suit, with an order from a U.K. court requiring disclosure of the name and address of the Comcast customer who used a particular Internet Protocol (IP) address on specific dates in 2015 or later. Mr. Hourani believes that the subscriber used the IP address to defame him through internet postings. Under the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. § 551(c), Comcast may only disclose the information sought if so ordered by a U.S. court through the procedure provided in 28 U.S.C. § 1782. Thus, Comcast filed this suit seeking a judgment declaring whether the U.K. discovery order is enforceable against Comcast. The subscriber, proceeding as John Doe, objected to enforcement of the U.K. discovery order. As explained below, the Court will enter a declaratory judgment finding that Comcast need not comply with the U.K. order without a § 1782 order and that a § 1782 order will not be issued.

         I. FACTS

         Issam Hourani filed suit in London against PsyberSolutions LLC, its Chief Executive Officer Allison Blair, Alistair Thomson, and Bryan McCarthy alleging that they operated a “Campaign” to assassinate his character, portraying Mr. Hourani as a criminal involved in the abduction, false imprisonment, torture, drugging, rape, and murder of Anastasya Novikova, in Beirut, Lebanon in 2004. Hourani v. Thomson, Claim No. H14 D 05164, U.K. Compl., dated Dec 10, 2014 [Dkt. 3]. In the U.K. Complaint, Mr. Hourani alleges that (1) the defendants established websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and a YouTube channel on which they published words and images defaming Mr. Hourani by falsely connecting him to Ms. Novikova’s murder; (2) the defendants organized a vigil outside Issam Hourani’s London home on June 19, 2014, and a demonstration in Hyde Park and outside the Lebanese Embassy in London on November 16, 2014 (collectively, the Demonstrations) to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Ms. Novikova’s death; and (3) the defendants videotaped the Demonstrations and posted the videos on the Internet. U.K. Compl. at 2-19. The last of the alleged defamatory statements was posted online on December 12, 2104. Id. at 8. Mr. Hourani contends that this course of conduct, including the publication of defamatory statements, constituted defamation and harassment in violation of a British statute, “section 1(1) of the Protection from Harassment Act of 1997.” Id. at 2, 26.

         The U.K. Complaint is substantially similar to the complaint filed here by Issam Hourani’s brother, Devincci Hourani. See Hourani v. PsyberSolutions, 15-cv-933 (RMC) (Compl. filed June 15, 2015). This Court recently dismissed Devincci Hourani’s case because, among other things, he failed to allege malice as required in a defamation case where a limited-purpose public figure is a plaintiff. See id., Op. (Feb. 18, 2016); Order (Feb. 18, 2016).[1]

On August 19, 2015, the U.K. court ordered Comcast to disclose to Issam Hourani:
(a) the name and address of the user(s) of IP address 98.204.52.170 between 23 May 2015 and 23 July 2015 or the earliest possible time after these dates; and
(b) any other recorded information, including billing information, that may assist in determining the IP address user, to the extent such information is available.

U.K. Order [Dkt. 3] at 1-2 (emphasis added). The U.K. Order further provided that Mr. Hourani may use the information produced “for the purpose of bringing proceedings for defamation and/or harassment and/or other civil proceedings against any individual or other entity thereby identified and/or assisting the Claimant to establish the extent of the involvement of those identified in the matters complained of in the present action.” Id. at 2. Mr. Hourani believes that the subscriber who used the identified IP address is a person who was “hired to stage fake performances to defame and cause harm to defendant and [to] film the performances to be uploaded onto websites and social media sites for dissemination on the internet.” Def. Mem.[Dkt. 17-5] at 2.[2]

         Mr. Hourani served Comcast with the U.K. Order. Comcast did not comply and counsel for Mr. Hourani threatened to pursue legal remedies against Comcast. Compl. [Dkt. 1] ¶ 2. Comcast notified the subscriber shown by Comcast’s records to be the user of the IP address at the relevant times, and the subscriber indicated that it did not consent to disclosure of any of its identifying information. Id. ¶ 3. The subscriber threatened to file suit against Comcast under the cable privacy provision of the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. §551(f), if Comcast disclosed the subscriber’s identity. Id. As a result, Comcast filed this declaratory judgment action to determine its obligation under the U.K. Order. Comcast seeks a declaratory judgment indicating whether or not the U.K. Order is enforceable against it under 28 U.S.C. § 1782 and 47 U.S.C. § 551(c).

         Comcast and Mr. Hourani filed cross motions for judgment on the pleadings. See Def. Mot. [Dkt. 17]; Pl. Opp’n [Dkt. 18]; Pl. Cross Mot. [Dkt. 19]; Def. Opp’n [Dkt. 20]; Pl. Reply [Dkt. 21].[3] The parties agreed that the Court should enter judgment on the pleadings, but they disagreed regarding whether the subscriber should receive pre-disclosure notice and an opportunity to be heard. Def. Opp’n at 2; Pl. Reply at 1. On February 23, 2016, the Court entered judgment in favor of Comcast and granted the petition for an order under 28 U.S.C. § 1782--on the condition that Comcast would serve the subscriber and providing that the subscriber had 21 days to object anonymously to the release of its identifying information. See Op. [Dkt. 23]; Order [Dkt. 24]. The subscriber, proceeding anonymously through counsel as “John Doe, ” timely filed an objection seeking to vacate the Opinion and Order. See Obj. [Dkt.27]. Mr. Hourani opposed. See Opp’n to Doe Obj. [Dkt. 28]. As explained below, with the benefit of these recent filings, the Court resolves this case anew.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) permits a party to file a motion for judgment on the pleadings after the pleadings are closed but early enough not to delay trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). The standard of review on a motion for judgment on the pleadings is virtually identical to the standard for a motion under Rule 12(b)(6). United Parcel Service, Inc. v. Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters, AFL-CIO, 859 F.Supp. 590, 592, n.1 (D.D.C. 1994). A complaint must be sufficient “to give a defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citations omitted). To survive a motion to dismiss or a motion for judgment on the pleadings, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter to state a claim for relief that is “plausible on its face.” See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

         A court must treat the complaint’s factual allegations as true, “even if doubtful in fact.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. A court need not accept as true legal conclusions set forth in a complaint. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). In deciding a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), a court may consider the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached to the complaint as exhibits or incorporated by reference, and matters about which the court may take judicial notice. Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. v. Chao, 508 F.3d 1052, 1059 (D.C. Cir. 2007). “Because a Rule 12(c) motion would summarily extinguish litigation at the threshold and foreclose the opportunity for discovery and factual presentation, the Court must treat [such a] motion with the ...


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