Can duped lover sue for social media fraud?

By Pat Murphy

The Daily Record Newswire

When we first met Paula Bonhomme last year, she was getting a second chance to sue an Illinois woman for posing as a man in an online romantic relationship that took a definitely creepy turn. Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court had the final say as to whether Bonhomme had a viable legal claim.

The news was not good.

"As regrettable as the alleged facts are, we hold that they are not the types of facts upon which a claim for fraudulent misrepresentation may be pled," wrote Justice Robert R. Thomas in the Illinois Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Bonhomme v. St. James.

Bonhomme claims that she suffered severe emotional damage after becoming romantically involved with a man through a social networking website. The man turned out to be the fictional creation of another woman, allegedly Janna St. James.

The Bonhomme-St. James saga began in April 2005. Bonhomme is a resident of Los Angeles, Calif., and a big fan of the HBO series Deadwood. In April 2005, Bonhomme began online conversations with St. James in an Internet chat room dedicated to the TV series.

St. James is a resident of Batavia, Illinois. Although initially registered under the name "Ms. Magnolia," St. James also allegedly posed as a man named Jesse James in the Deadwood chat room. St. James allegedly hooked Bonhomme up with "Jesse" over the Internet and an online romantic relationship blossomed that lasted until July 2006.

Adding depth to the relationship, "Jesse" and Bonhomme exchanged personal photos, handwritten letters and gifts, in addition to exchanging e-mails.

According to Bonhomme, St. James even managed to pull off regular phone calls with "Jesse," using a device to disguise her female voice. Taking the fiction to another level altogether, St. James allegedly created a universe of approximately 20 online characters involved with "Jesse," including an ex-wife, son and therapist.

Bonhomme claims that she was completely taken in by St. James and ended up sending gifts worth over $10,000 to "Jesse," other fictional characters created by St. James, and St. James herself.

Of course, Bonhomme and "Jesse" would have to meet some day, so she and "Jesse" planned to meet in Denver, Colo., in Sept. 2005.

However, that trip had to be cancelled when "Jesse" unfortunately attempted suicide. Bonhomme was naturally distraught by her lover's attempted self-destruction. She claimed that she suffered severe emotional distress and incurred $5,000 in therapy costs as a result.

Happily, "Jesse" rebounded from his suicide attempt and he and Bonhomme began planning to move in together in his fictional Colorado home. Bonhomme made concrete plans for the move, allegedly spending upwards of $700.

But it all came to an end in July 2006 when "Jesse's" sister "Alice" contacted Bonhomme and told the unlucky lover that "Jesse" had died of liver cancer. This sent Bonhomme into a deep depression which allegedly so weakened her immune system that she contracted a MRSA infection.

The soap opera continued.

Bonhomme alleged that St. James continued to act the puppet master after "Jesse's" death, posing as other fictional characters to send her letters of condolences. Through all this, St. James allegedly also kept in touch with Bonhomme under her own name. After the death of "Jesse," Bonhomme and St. James even got together in Colorado and took a road trip through that state and through New Mexico in a tour of "Jesse's" favorite places.

That must have been some trip.

The fiction came to a crashing end in Feb. 2007 when Bonhomme's California friends did some investigating and learned the truth that "Jesse" never existed in the first place.

Outraged, Bonhomme sued St. James in Illinois court for fraudulent misrepresentation, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, defamation and false light.

The trial court dismissed all of Bonhomme's claims, but in March 2011 the Illinois Appellate Court revived her claim for fraudulent misrepresentation.

St. James had argued that there could be no justifiable reliance on the part of Bonhomme because it is a "reality of the Internet age" that an online individual is not always who they purport to be.

But the state appeals court concluded that Bonhomme's complaint sufficiently alleged justifiable reliance for the purpose of proceeding with her fraud claim.

"Viewing the allegations in the light most favorable to [Bonhomme], we cannot say that she merely closed her eyes and allowed herself to be deceived," the appeals court said. "The allegations show an extensive masquerade to deceive, and reliance on the many-faceted and corroborative characters and misrepresentations can be found to be justified."

So it looked like Bonhomme would get her day in court after all. But the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to hear St. James' appeal and last Thursday the state high court concluded that Bonhomme did not have a valid cause of action.

In the opinion of the court, Justice Thomas rejected Bonhomme's argument that the tort of fraudulent misrepresentation in Illinois had been expanded outside the commercial setting to encompass disputes of a purely personal nature. Thomas made clear that the tort still required some commercial component.

Accordingly, Thomas said that the key issue in Bonhomme's was "whether the facts at issue are purely personal in nature, or whether there exists some commercial, transactional, or regulatory component that moves them beyond the purely personal."

The justice said that Bonhomme's complaint clearly failed on this count:

When all is said and done, what lies beneath this case is two private persons engaged in a long-distance personal relationship. To be sure, it was a personal relationship built wholly on one party's relentless deceit, but it was a purely personal relationship nonetheless. Indeed, all of the hallmarks of ordinary human relationship are present: correspondence, conversation, intimacy, trust, mutual beneficence, emotional support, affection, disappointment, and even grief.

Thomas pointed out that it was just as important that there was absolutely nothing of a commercial, transactional or regulatory nature at work in the parties' relationship.

"Plaintiff and defendant were not engaged in any kind of business dealings or bargaining, and the veracity of representations made in the context of purely private personal relationships is simply not something the state regulates or in which the state possesses any kind of valid public policy interest," the justice said.

So the court reinstated the dismissal of Bonhomme's lawsuit in a decision that squarely places the burden on the individual to regulate their online personal relationships. The law isn't supposed to protect the gullible in matters of the heart. And it truly is a simple "reality of the Internet age" that an online individual is not always who they purport to be.

Those who reach out through social media without keeping this simple truth in mind are being foolish.

Published: Mon, Jun 18, 2012

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