9th Circuit reverses sanctions against church seeking identity of Bash Back activists who interrupted worship

Courthouse News Service: A Michigan church that subpoenaed several anonymous email accounts after LGBT-rights activists interrupted its services should not face a sanction, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday.

Mount Hope Church v. Bash Back, No. 11-35632 (9th Cir. Nov. 26, 2012)

Mount Hope Church (“Mount Hope” or “the Church”) appeals a sanction order granting attorneys’ fees and costs to Appellees Riseup Networks (“Riseup”) and Objector dkwatt@riseup.net (“dkwatt”) under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45(c)(1). The order, which followed the quashing of a subpoena seeking identifying information for seven email account holders, found that Mount Hope did not take reasonable steps to avoid imposing an undue burden on Appellees, who were non-parties to the underlying case, when it “shifted its justification for the subpoena multiple times” and “refus[ed] to engage with the applicable [First Amendment] legal standards” in a timely manner. Because there are few published federal court decisions on the meaning of Rule 45(c)(1)’s “undue burden” language as a basis for sanctions, and to place the sanction here in a broader perspective, we write to clarify the scope of that rule.

Holding that Rule 45(c)(1) cannot properly support a sanction where the cost of complying with the subpoena is minimal and there is no showing that the subpoena was facially defective or issued in bad faith, we reverse.