Imaginary Girlfriend, Real Legal Claims

I attended Notre Dame Law School, so several folks have asked when I was going to blog about Manti Te’o. You may have heard about his recent issues, assuming you don’t live on Mars. Well, for those of you who were wondering, here goes. First, I will say that I am not as befuddled by the notion of his falling for this as a lot of other people seem to be. Manti strikes me as a guy who regularly buys in. He appears to be a devout Mormon. And it seems to me that anyone with a deep and sincere faith life necessarily accepts beliefs not necessarily grounded in fact. That is the very essence of faith. It also appears to me that Manti is eminently “coachable.” And that term suggests a person who accepts instruction unquestionably. In short, Manti demonstrates traits that may have made a little more susceptible to a scam than the average joe. But the point of the blog is not amateur psychology. I’ve been thinking about whether there are any legal claims here. I’m not sure. In some respects, this thing reminds a bit of the Lori Drew matter, where a mother participated with a bunch of high school kids to trick Megan Meier, a classmate of Drew’s daughter, into a MySpace relationship with “Josh Evans” a fictional boy. When Drew and her posse told Meier the truth, she killed herself. Drew was originally convicted under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The CFAA prohibits obtaining data through the unauthorized access to a computer. In the Drew case, the government argued that Drew’s access was unauthorized because her prank violated MySpace’s terms of use. While the jury agreed, ultimately the judge set the verdict aside, noting that the government was essentially allowing MySpace to criminalize conduct through its private contractual terms. So a CFAA case is probably not going to work here. And just lying, without more, is not a crime. That’s whythe Supreme Court invalidated the Stolen Valor Act. In short, it’s unlikely there’s a criminal case here. But Manti could have a civil suit. Most states recognize a cause of action called “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” A person who is the victim of conduct “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community” can bring a civil action for damages. I suppose it would be up to each juror to decide if Manti is telling the truth, and, if so, a prank like this goes beyond all possible bounds of decency. Assuming the jury is not made up of USC fans, I think he’d have a decent case. And the question of damages would be interesting. A lot of times in a case for infliction of emotional distress, the damages are kind of intangible – the jury is supposed to give a sum of money that will recognize the shame, humiliation, etc. But while Manti could talk about all of that, in his case, there’s speculation that his losses in prospective endorsement income could total more than a million dollars. Good luck collecting it from Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the alleged mastermind of the hoax, but the argument over who’s responsible for what would be fascinating. At least for us lawyers.