A California federal judge has ruled a lawsuit by Cook County against Facebook, which alleges the social media giant let user data be mined to aid President Donald Trump’s election campaign, should be returned from federal jurisdiction to Cook County Circuit Court, saying the suit was filed on behalf of Illinois and belongs in state court.
The Jan. 29 ruling was issued by District Judge Vince Chhabria, of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
On behalf of Illinois residents, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx sued Facebook and British data firm Cambridge Analytica in March 2018 in circuit court, alleging the companies breached the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act. Facebook is headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif.
According to the suit, Facebook allowed Cambridge to “steal” information from as many as 87 million Facebook users, under the “false pretense” of “academic research.” Cambridge allegedly then distributed the data to manipulate voting by Illinois residents, and millions of other American voters, to aid Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx
In doing so, Cambridge violated “mandatory user privacy protections,” according to the county’s legal action. The suit asks the judge to order Facebook and Cambridge to pay at least $50,000 per violation, plus attorney fees, and to refrain from such alleged activities.
Facebook had the case moved in April to U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois, arguing federal jurisdiction was proper, because of diversity, in that litigants are from around the country.
Cook County countered that for diversity to apply, the state would have to be considered a “citizen,” which it is not, and it’s well established that suits by citizens, but not states, can be moved to federal court on the basis of diversity.
Before the county’s argument about venue was addressed, the suit was consolidated with dozens of other similar suits from across the country in California federal court.
Judge Chhabria, however, favored Foxx and Cook County, differentiating the county’s actrion from lawsuits filed by individuals or private groups. The judge said the issue in the end was “fairly straightforward.”
“If Foxx’s lawsuit primarily serves parochial or private interests, then Illinois is not the real party in interest. But if the lawsuit serves primarily interests of the State of Illinois, then Illinois is the real party in interest. Sometimes the line is hard to draw, because after all, a state’s general interests will often overlap with parochial or private interests within that state. But this case does not come close to the line, because it’s clear that Foxx’s lawsuit serves primarily the interests of the State of Illinois,” Chhabria observed.
Chhabria justified his position by noting the county seeks civil penalties and a statewide injunction against Facebook that private citizens could not obtain.
“The point is that she (Foxx) has the right, on behalf of the State of Illinois, to assert these claims and attempt to vindicate these interests. Overall, this is the embodiment of a state enforcement action brought in the public interest,” Chhabria said.
Chhabria ruled the diversity doctrine doesn’t apply and sent the case back to Cook County.
Foxx has been aided in the suit by the Chicago firm of Edelson PC., which Foxx hired as “special state's attorneys.” The Edelson lawyers would collect 20 percent of whatever the county may receive, plus any out-of-pocket costs.
Another suit against Facebook and Cambridge, stemming from Chicago, was a class action originally lodged in Chicago federal court, which was brought by the Lombard-based Sulaiman Law Group, on behalf of plaintiffs Brandon M. Carr and Victor J. Comforte II. The suit was also consolidated in California federal court, where it remains.
Facebook is represented by the Chicago firm of Eimer Stahl, and the firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, of New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.