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New Jersey Couple Need Not Turn Over Computer to Opposing Party in Lawsuit, Appellate Court Rules

July 8, 2005

New Jersey Couple Need Not Turn Over Computer to Opposing Party in Lawsuit, Appellate Court Rules

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A couple ordered to turn over their computer hard drive to public officials they sued does not have to give up their computer after all, a court has ruled.

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey has reversed a trial judge’s May 19 order saying that Scott and Charlene “Charlie” Uhrmann had to relinquish their hard drive so the officials they sued could determine whether the Uhrmanns anonymously posted derogatory statements about the officials on the Internet.

After that ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and Public Citizen agreed to represent the Uhrmanns in their request for appellate review of the trial court order. The groups noted that the hard drive contains financial and other personal information and said that the order violated free speech and privacy rights as well as established law on rules of discovery and on anonymous Internet postings.

In a one-paragraph ruling, the Appellate Division said that the requested information was beyond the scope of discovery, not relevant to the case and could lead to the disclosure of personal information.

Charlene and Scott Uhrmann sued a current and a former member of the Mount Olive town council in January 2005, claiming that, as part-time officials, they were not entitled to the medical and dental benefits they received. The Uhrmanns sued to see that the money is returned to Mount Olive. The officials claim that the Uhrmanns were responsible for criticisms about them posted in online chat rooms using pseudonyms and requested the Uhrmanns’ hard drives to determine whether the Uhrmanns wrote the postings.

“This was a fishing expedition by the public officials and a blatant violation of privacy rights and established law,” said Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen, who is lead counsel for the Uhrmanns. “We are pleased that the appellate court recognized that.”

Richard Ravin, the ACLU cooperating attorney in the case, said, “This appellate decision is a warning to all litigants and their attorneys, and a reminder to judges everywhere, that computer hard drives are not simply  pieces of tangible property – they contain highly sensitive and confidential information of individuals and  businesses. A party to a lawsuit is not entitled to inspect and copy such computer hard drives of anybody simply because they are a party to the same suit.”

To read the appellate ruling, click here.