By AISLING SWIFT, Naples Daily News
Lori Ann Crawford was celebrating her 45th birthday with her husband and family when a text arrived on her cell phone.
The text claimed her 64-year-old husband, Richard, was having an affair with one of his employees.
Not knowing who sent the message, the Crawfords hired an attorney and sued John/Jane Doe for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional stress. The lawsuit allows the attorney to start serving subpoenas to trace the origin of the message.
The by the North Naples, Fla., couple joins a growing field of law called “textual harassment.”
Instead of he-said, she-said allegations, texts don’t lie. Unlike a phone call, they leave a trail of evidence that’s hard to erase.
With texting and cyber-harassment rising, 37 states, including Florida, have enacted cyber-harassment laws. Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington target texting in addition to e-mails, blogs, the Internet and other electronic communication, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A 2009 U.S. Department of Justice study on harassment showed 23 percent of victims in 2006 reported that some form of technology, including texting and e-mails, was used to harass them.
“Technology has become a quick and easy way for stalkers to monitor and harass their victims,” the study said.
The Crawfords’ lawsuit, filed recently in Collier County, Fla., Circuit Court, alleges Doe knew the text message was false and disregarded that, causing severe emotional stress. The lawsuit seeks damages of $15,000 or more.
The lawsuit means Naples attorney William Hazzard —who declined to comment — can serve a subpoena on Lori Crawford’s cell phone provider to start to track down the texter connected to the phone number. Once the texter’s cell phone provider is named, Hazzard can then seek the texter’s name and subpoena him or her.
For some, that would be an expensive proposition. But Richard Crawford is a multimillionaire entrepreneur and chairman and CEO of The Crawford Group in North Naples.
Americans sent 173 billion texts monthly last year, up from 7 billion a month in 2005, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association.
As texting’s popularity grows due to its rapid back-and-forth convenience, lawsuits involving texts are increasing, with most involving sexual and workplace harassment.
Across the nation, textual harassment litigation is shaping how far an employer can go in examining texts sent on work time, on employer-owned or private equipment — even after-hours banter.
Some courts already have weighed in on electronic privacy.
Among them is the California Supreme Court, which in January allowed a warrantless search of a cell phone after an arrest.
And the U.S. Supreme Court in July ruled that a search of a police sergeant’s text messages sent on a department-issued SWAT team pager didn’t violate his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.
In January 2009, texts were pivotal in proving two Ohio Attorney General’s Office employees were subjected to a hostile work environment under Attorney General Marc Dann, who resigned after a sex scandal. Their sexual harassment lawsuit ended in a $495,000 settlement — and an official apology — and their attorney got $95,000 of it.
Last December, World Wrestling Entertainment settled a 2008 lawsuit involving Alex Romer, a top executive who allegedly sexually harassed a female employee for two years. The confidential settlement came two months after a federal judge ruled there was enough evidence to show managers knew Fara D’Angelo was subjected to constant harassment and the case should head to trial.
Attorney Patrick Boyd, of Boyd Law Group in New York, which won the settlement, calls texts strong evidence, especially in employment cases, and he urges clients to immediately print out what they’ve received.
“This electronic evidence tends to be tremendously useful, hard to discard and extremely hard to delete,” Boyd said, noting how freely people text. “These days, somebody sits back after work with a glass of wine and bangs out a text.”
Attorney Steven Palazzolo of Grand Rapids, Mich., who has developed employment policies involving company equipment, including cell phones and texting, likened Crawford’s text to the type of sinister, anonymous letter that would arrive in a mailbox years ago.
Palazzolo said lawsuits such as the Crawfords’ involve First Amendment issues — whether the texter has a right to remain anonymous.
“It is entirely possible the provider will fight it to the bitter end,” Palazzolo said. “They will claim they have a responsibility to protect the customer.”
Jayne Hitchcock, president of WHOA, Working to Halt Online Abuse, said people wrongly perceive they’re anonymous when they use free e-mail accounts, create fake profiles or hide their cell phone number when texting.
“Even with the wonders of technology, you can still be found out,” she said. “What it comes down to is: Don’t post it. Don’t send it. Don’t comment on it unless you want it come back and bite you in the butt.”
(Aisling Swift is a reporter for the Naples Daily News in Florida.)