An Online Relationship Goes to the Supreme Court

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The Internet offers a wealth of opportunities to learn, shop, and locate friends while simultaneously posing an alarming array of potential threats and scams for the unwary. In May of this year, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled on the case of Paula Bonhomme v. Janna St. James, 2012 IL 112393, deciding that the defendant’s misrepresentation of her sexual identity and affections did not constitute fraud, as there were not business or financial transactions.

In 2005, the plaintiff, Paula Bonhomme began an on-line conversation on the website Deadwood Boards, for fans of the television show Deadwood, with the defendant Janna St. James. Several months later Ms. St. James registered on the site under the male name of Jesse James. Under the pseudonym of Jesse James, Ms. St. James struck up a conversation with the plaintiff while continuing to correspond with her under her female user name.

The plot thickened as the relationship between Ms. Bonhomme and the made-up Jesse James became romantic, involving letters, gifts and even telephone calls where Ms. St. James technologically disguised her female voice. Ms. St. James also established additional on-line personas for the fictitious Jesse James including family and friends, continuing for almost two years to craft various scenarios to keep Ms. Bonhomme from discovering the truth. The court documents read like a television script including Ms. St. James killing of the imaginary Jesse James, which allegedly contributed to the plaintiff’s ongoing mental and medical conditions.

Only when Ms. St. James came to visit the plaintiff as herself was the actual truth discovered. The plaintiff sued the defendant for complaints including intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, defamation, fraudulent misrepresentation, and false light. The trial court dismissed all of plaintiff’s counts with prejudice except for fraudulent misrepresentation, which it dismissed without prejudice. Ms. Bonhomme filed motions to reconsider, which the trial and appellate courts denied as well as additional challenges and appeals, all of which failed.

Finally the Supreme Court took up the case and, while much of the discussion of the case was based on failures to adhere to procedural and language issues, the court determined that the crucial question was whether the facts were personal in nature or whether or not there was some commercial or regulatory component to the case for fraud. They determined that the relationship, while deceitful was a personal one between two private people. The plaintiff and defendant were not involved in any business deals and the relationship was private and personal which is not something the states regulates or has any public policy interest in doing so.

We supervise our children’s contact on social media sites and teach our teens not to post or text inappropriate photos of themselves but, as adults, we are equally susceptible to being duped by another person on the internet.