Have you or your business been anonymously attacked or defamed online and are considering filing a lawsuit? The anonymity of the internet makes it possible for people to attack or harass an individual or business online and then disappear. Or does it?
If you are the target of anonymous defamatory online reviews, cyberstalking, online extortion or sextortion, or other forms of internet harassment, a John Doe lawsuit may help you identify the anonymous poster behind it and put an end to the abuse.
Costs are the number one question that we receive from potential clients when it comes to pursuing a lawsuit to identify anonymous online perpetrators and stop online abuse. At Minc Law, we have litigated hundreds of internet-related cases in over 25 states and 3 countries, so we know what contributes to the cost of a John Doe lawsuit (in any jurisdiction).
Filing a John Doe lawsuit involves a number of steps, and there are respective costs associated with each one. If you choose to pursue a John Doe lawsuit, your costs will depend on a variety of factors, including:
- The platform(s) where the online harassment and internet attacks occurred, or where the defamatory and damaging content was posted (Yelp, Google, Ripoff Report, etc.);
- How much damaging content is published online;
- How many legal claims you want to pursue;
- How urgently you want the harassment to stop or need the damaging content removed;
- Where you file your lawsuit;
- The costs associated with identifying the anonymous perpetrator.
This post covers what John Doe lawsuits are and the process for filing one. It also gives a detailed overview of the three kinds of costs involved: content-based costs, legal costs, and case-related costs.
What is a John Doe Lawsuit?
A John Doe lawsuit is any case in which the person filing the suit (the plaintiff) does not know the identity of the defendant or thinks they might be able to identify other defendants later on. You might also hear this type of lawsuit described as a “fictitious defendant” or “unknown defendant” suit.
Filing a John Doe lawsuit accomplishes two primary goals:
- Gets your claim filed within the statute of limitations, and
- Initiates the discovery process so that you can subpoena online platforms and internet service providers (ISPs), and (hopefully) identify the anonymous perpetrator.
There are a few different circumstances in which someone might need to file this type of case. For example, you may choose to file a John Doe lawsuit in cases where an unknown person carries out defamatory and malicious attacks on the internet. Common types of internet attacks include: posting fake online reviews, lodging baseless social media allegations, cyberstalking and online extortion, and other forms of internet harassment.
A pedestrian struck by a hit-and-run driver who struck them may also file a John Doe personal injury lawsuit to conduct an investigation to uncover the driver’s identity.
Process of a John Doe Lawsuit
The process for a John Doe lawsuit follows the basic steps of any civil claim, including how to file a defamation lawsuit. Because you do not know the identity of the person you are suing, however, the first steps in a John Doe lawsuit look a bit different than a typical case.
The first step is the preparation of the complaint, which is where you lay out how you have been wronged and tell the court what kind of relief you want. In a typical lawsuit, you would also name the defendant and then make sure they receive a copy of the complaint so they can respond.
Because you do not know the name of the defendant, you cannot serve them with a copy. This is where a John Doe case deviates from the usual steps in a lawsuit. Once you have filed your complaint, you can conduct discovery and issue subpoenas to the website or platform where the internet harassment occurred or the damaging content was posted. To identify the anonymous user, you will also need to subpoena the ISP.
The goal of the subpoena is to get the platform or ISP to turn over the information you need to determine the anonymous perpetrator’s identity. If you can obtain this information, you then amend your complaint and replace “John Doe” with the defendant’s real name.
As you might expect, platforms and ISPs are generally not very forthcoming about handing over their users’ data. Depending on which site you are dealing with, you might have to fight to get them to turn over the info you need.
Average Cost of Suing an Anonymous Party
When you file a John Doe lawsuit to identify an anonymous internet perpetrator and hold them liable for their unlawful behavior, you can expect to pay three types of costs:
- Content-based costs,
- Legal costs, and
- Case related costs.
The first costs you will encounter are those forcing you to file a claim in the first place. You do not know the identity of the person posting bad things about you or your business, so now you have to go through the discovery process to find out.
To uncover the identity behind anonymous online posters, you need to subpoena the platform hosting the damaging or defamatory content. This could be Yelp, Google, Glassdoor, Ripoff Report, or any number of websites that publish online reviews. Or, it could be a popular social media platform (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), a cheater website or public shaming site, or internet blog or discussion forum.
You will also need to subpoena the ISPs of posters to get their identifying information. This is not always easy, because many websites are reluctant to expose user data. Some platforms take a more flexible view than others, and some have strict policies about protecting posters’ identities.
If the website fights the subpoena, you will have to pay for your lawyer’s time to respond, which will increase overall costs.
Your legal costs can also go up if you need to track down the identities of multiple online posters. This is because you will likely receive multiple IP addresses which will require more subpoenas to ISPs.
In addition, you must address each piece of content in your court filings, showing that each one meets the legal requirements for your legal claim, such as defamation. This creates more legal work, which will increase total case costs.
The next set of costs to consider are those related to actually filing your lawsuit. These costs include costs for local counsel, court fees, and costs associated with court appearances.
Each of these costs can vary widely depending on where you file your lawsuit and whether you need to enlist the help of local counsel.
Local Counsel Costs
At Minc Law, we represent clients throughout the United States and around the world, but we are not licensed in every jurisdiction. Like other law firms with national practices, we rely on local counsel to help us navigate local rules and procedures, as well as make appearances at preliminary hearings.
The costs associated with hiring local counsel vary widely by jurisdiction. For example, legal attorneys’ fees in Chicago are much different than those in Topeka, Kansas.
If you or your business has a lawyer you deal with frequently and who is willing and able to assist in your John Doe claim and lawsuit, this can help drive down your costs.
As with other legal costs, your court fees will vary by jurisdiction. It costs money to file a complaint, and some courts charge a fee every time you file a motion, amend your pleadings, or file a new subpoena. Other courts will tack on additional fees if you are suing more than one defendant.
The takeaway is that there is a lot of variety here. Depending on where you are filing and the complexity of your case, your court fees could quickly add up.
As the name indicates, an appearance involves your lawyer making a personal appearance on your behalf in court. Furthermore, appearances are not just for trials.
Depending on the court and your legal case, your lawyer may need to attend scheduling conferences, preliminary hearings, status conferences, and other events. All of these may impact your total legal costs.
Case Related Costs
The third set of costs to consider are those related to your legal case. These are costs beyond what you have to pay to file a claim, and they can be tough to predict. Will your case settle? Or will it end up in lengthy litigation? Your costs will depend on how your case unfolds.
At the outset, some jurisdictions require a plaintiff to get permission from the court before conducting any discovery. Generally, this means you must be able to show that your claim meets all the requirements and elements for your legal case (ex. Defamation, online harassment, online extortion) before the court will let you begin sending out subpoenas.
Once you, the plaintiff, get the court’s okay to conduct discovery, you might encounter pushback from the various entities you subpoena. This could be a website, platform, hosting provider, or registrar. Some entities have a policy to object to every subpoena, which means you will need to respond to any motions to quash they might file. This can increase total case costs.
After you have received the information you sought from platforms in your initial subpoenas, you will have to subpoena ISPs to determine the identity of your John Doe.
Federal law requires court authorization to subpoena an ISP, so you will need to ask the court before you do this. It is an additional step that can raise your costs. From there, the defendant’s response can play a big role in your costs. Your case might play out in a number of ways, and some outcomes are more costly than others. For example:
The Defendant Responds
While the platform or ISP you subpoena might fight against revealing who the John Doe defendant is, the defendant will also be notified that you have filed a lawsuit. The law gives John Doe defendants the right to stay anonymous for purposes of objecting to your lawsuit.
If the defendant chooses to object, you will have to show the court why they should not be permitted to keep their identity hidden. Your lawyer will have to spend more time on this stage of your case, which will increase your costs.
The Defendant Settles
Another possibility is that the defendant agrees to cease their unlawful behavior or remove the damaging online content, which is the best-case scenario.
In this outcome, you achieve your goal and avoid litigation and all the costs that come with it.
You Cannot Identify the Defendant
In some cases, you cannot identify the John Doe defendant. This can happen when a judge rules in favor of a platform or ISP that moves to block you from getting the user’s data. It can also happen when the defendant’s digital trail hits a dead end and you cannot determine who they are.
Obviously, this is not the outcome you want. However, just because you cannot identify the defendant does not mean you are out of legal options. In some cases, Minc Law can obtain a default judgment in your favor and then ask the platforms to remove the damaging content.
How Much Do John Doe Lawsuits at Minc Law Cost?
Because you cannot really predict how a John Doe lawsuit will unfold until you get started, it is tough to put a definite figure on the cost. However, we can give you an estimate.
There are many aspects of John Doe lawsuits that are no different than regular lawsuits and litigation costs. So I strongly recommend reading our post about the cost of defamation lawsuits (without a John Doe defendant) and our firm’s cost information page for more information.
For starters, at Minc Law, we generally ask for a $7,500 retainer fee for most litigation matters. In exceptional cases, this number could be higher depending on the factors involved in your case. For example, if you need to file a lawsuit against multiple online perpetrators, this could lead to a higher retainer fee. However, the number is generally $7,500.
We generally look at John Doe lawsuits in two phases. The first phase is when the investigation efforts take place. This is where we send out subpoenas and attempt to identify the John Doe Defendant and we are providing online investigation services. The second phase happens after the identification of the defendant occurs (or doesn’t).
For the first phase, costs typically run between $7,000 and $12,000 depending on the jurisdiction and other factors discussed above. In cases that involve less content, less pushback or objections from platforms where content is posted, and smaller local counsel fees, this amount can be less.
This amount covers the cost of:
- Securing local counsel,
- Drafting and filing the complaint,
- Preparing and issuing subpoenas to multiple platforms and ISPs, and
- Filing motions with the court to authorize discovery.
Depending on how your case evolves, these estimated fees can be higher. For example, if the defendant chooses to fight your efforts to discover their identity, this will add additional costs.
The second phase costs of a John Doe lawsuit will depend on several factors. In most cases we handle, once a defendant is identified, they usually promptly agree to settle by removing the damaging content, ceasing their harassing behavior, and to pay some sort damages.
However, if the defendant chooses to fight the lawsuit, the case will likely then follow the pricing we estimate for all litigation and defamation lawsuit costs. You also have the option though to simply just discontinue the case at that time and not pursue
In the event we don’t identify a defendant, we can still obtain a court order to remove content. In that case, the cost to finish out a lawsuit to do this can vary considerably but typically averages an additional $7500 of cost (give or take $2500 in any given case) to do this.
Of course, in any case, you will always have the ability to discontinue your claims and cease the litigation for any reason. Meaning you have the ability to cut things off at any time if you are reaching your budget. Invoices and case status updates are sent monthly to be able to assess progress and do this.
How Do You Know When Filing a John Doe Lawsuit is the Right Course of Action?
False accusations, defamatory online attacks, and internet harassment can have devastating effects on an individual or business’s personal and professional life. Understandably, you want to do whatever you can to put an end to online abuse and remove damaging online content as soon as possible.
This is where we at Minc Law can help. We will review your case and help you explore the legal options and remedies available. In cases where we have multiple data points on an anonymous online perpetrator, the information is “fresh” (and not outdated), and they are not a high-level hacker, we can generally identify anonymous individuals 9 times out of 10.
In cases where we are unable to identify the anonymous perpetrator, we may still be able to obtain a default judgment to have search engines de-index damaging content, web-pages, and URLs.
Work With Minc Law to Protect Your Online Reputation
As with any type of litigation, numerous factors determine the cost of a John Doe lawsuit. It takes a thorough analysis to estimate how much a case will cost, which can be challenging to do until the case is underway.
If you want to put an end to online harassment or remove fake online reviews and damaging content, the internet defamation attorneys of Minc Law are here to help. We will provide you with a rough estimate of the cost, and we will help you decide the best course of action in your case.
Ready to learn more? You can contact us online or give us a call at 216-373-7706.
Many of our clients and potential clients come to us with similar questions when they first reach out. For more information on the role of our seasoned internet defamation attorneys, check out our article ‘Top 8 Frequently Asked Questions About Internet Defamation Lawyers‘.