(CN) – Anna Nicole Smith’s former lawyer and boyfriend, Howard K. Stern, need not hand over computer hardware as evidence in the defamation case filed by the late Playboy bunny’s mother, a Texas appeals court ruled.
Smith’s mom, Virgie Arthur, accused Stern of libel after Smith claimed during an “Entertainment Tonight” interview that Arthur had physically attacked her and did nothing to defend her against family members who had sexually abused her.
Arthur claimed that he had conspired with various media outlets to defame her and had damaged her chances of winning custody of her granddaughter, Smith’s daughter, Dannielynn.
She said Stern falsely claimed that he was Dannielynn’s father and plotted “to destroy Virgie and anyone else he perceived was standing in his way of gaining custody of the [infant].”
Arthur also accused Art Harris, an “Entertainment Tonight” correspondent, of writing libelous blog posts and articles using documents received from Stern’s representatives, including Texas blogger Nelda Turner. The complaint alleged that Stern conspired with his sister, Bonnie Stern, to dig up dirt on Arthur. She also named as a defendant Larry Birkhead, Dannielynn’s real father.
During discovery, Arthur requested that Stern “produce all documentation of the identity and/or contact information” from September 2006, including 39 email contacts. The court ordered Stern to hand over his computer hard drive, foot the forensic examiner’s $250 per hour bill and pay for his airfare and hotel.
Stern argued that the court did not have jurisdiction to force him to surrender the hard drive to an examiner “located in the forum state” and that it failed to show that he “was non-complaint with responding to discovery or responded in bad faith.”
The Texas Court of Appeals for the 1st District agreed, vacating the order and ruling that the lower court had “clearly abused its discretion.”
“There is no indication … that Arthur had cause to believe that any significant number of emails from Stern to Turner existed or were necessary to establish jurisdiction,” Justice Evelyn Keyes wrote for the three-judge panel. “Nor would Stern’s emails to co-defendants Bonnie Stern, Larry Birkhead, or Art Harris-none of them Texas residents-be relevant to the establishment of the Texas courts’ jurisdiction over Stern.”
Justice Keyes also found that granting the forensic examiner “free reign to plumb Stern’s hard drive … clearly violated the longstanding prohibition against impermissible ‘fishing expeditions.'”
She added that “a hard drive should not be produced unless the party seeking production shows that data retrieval from the hard drive is feasible.”
Stern established that he used Yahoo! web-based mail, which does not save email to a hard drive, and thus the trial court “clearly erred in ordering production of” the hardware, the court concluded.
The appeals court issued a similar ruling last week allowing Harris to keep his computers and hard drives private.