"Oh-pioneer!" — Privacy Interests of Customers Are Not Violated by Disclosure of Their Contact Information to Class-action Plaintiff


    A product manufacturer must produce contact information in discovery for those customers who have lodged complaints with the company, the California Supreme Court has ruled. Pioneer Electronics (USA), Inc. v The Superior Court 2007 DJDAR 1187. In its January 25, 2007 ruling, the court found that complaining customers had a reduced expectation of privacy in their personal contact information, since they provided it to the company with the expectation of being contacted with some type of relief.

    The lead plaintiff in this class-action case had purchased a DVD player he later thought was defective. In discovery, plaintiff sought the names and contact information of other consumers who had complained about their Pioneer DVD players to facilitate communication with potential class members. Pioneer objected to releasing this information and asserted the privacy rights of its customers. The trial court ordered Pioneer to send a letter to its customers who had complained and to explain that an attorney wanted to contact them and if they objected to the release of their contact information the customers had to notify Pioneer. If no objection was made by the consumer, the contact information would be released.

    California's Court of Appeal vacated the trial court's ruling and held that the complaining consumers had to affirmatively agree to the release of their contact information and could do so only by signing and returning the letter from Pioneer. If the consumer did not respond, his/her information would not be released since there was no assurance the consumer had received actual notice of the possible release of private information.

    The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal. In addition to finding a reduced expectation of privacy on the part of the complaining consumers, the court found no serious invasion of privacy would result since the information sought was not medical or financial in nature. Finally, the court found other policy interests, including discovery, weighed in favor of the plaintiff and disclosure.

    The court reasoned consumers would have an opportunity to object to the release of their information once they received notice by mail, a presumptively valid method of legal notice.

    Importantly, it appears the ruling relates to "complaining customers" only as the court did not address other possible discovery requests related to customers who returned warranty cards or customer lists in general. Now when faced with a discovery request for contact information regarding customers, companies must carefully examine the scope of the request and be prepared, if necessary, to craft a notification letter that conforms to the directions outlined in Pioneer.

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