Minor Appeals Decision in Salesforce-Backpage.com Sex Trafficking Suit

Late last week, a minor and her guardian appealed a decision in favor of Salesforce Inc. to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The plaintiffs asserted that Salesforce provided software and support to Backpage while knowing that the advertising business was running an illegal trafficking operation that the minor plaintiff was swept up in.

Judge Andrea R. Wood’s mid-May opinion recalled that in 2016, when the minor plaintiff was 13, she ran away from home and fell into the hands of a sex trafficker, who posted sex advertisements on the classified ad website run by Backpage.com. Salesforce comes into the picture for its role, beginning in 2013, of providing customer relationship management (CRM) business software and support to Backpage.

“That relationship allegedly helped grow Backpage’s operations, including promoting the business of sex traffickers,” the opinion explained.

As reported in a similar suit against Salesforce, Backpage was eventually taken down by federal authorities. Alongside money laundering charges, Backpage admitted to having operated as a site for the sale of illegal sex work and to receiving benefits from the sex trafficking of minors. 

The minor and her mother sued, alleging that through its contracts with Backpage, Salesforce violated the federal anti-trafficking laws by knowingly benefiting from and participating in an illegal venture. Salesforce moved to dismiss, raising the affirmative defense of Section 230 and on failure to state a claim grounds.

As to the CDA defense, Judge Wood found that the claims fell within Section 230’s protective scope, and specifically that Salesforce was “an interactive computer service for third-party content that was published on an online platform.”

The opinion also considered the application of Congress’s 2018 Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) amendments to Section 230, adding several exemptions for sex trafficking claims, with the relevant one asking if Salesforce’s own actions constituted a sex trafficking violation. The court answered in the negative, citing the limited nature of the exception per the amendments’ legislative history and subsequent judicial interpretation.

Secondarily, the court found that the plaintiffs did not state a claim for sex trafficking. “Specifically, Plaintiffs have failed to allege plausibly that Salesforce knew, or should have known, about G.G.’s specific trafficking or any of the advertisements trafficking her on Backpage,” Judge Wood summarized.

The Seventh Circuit appeal comes after the trial court denied the plaintiffs’ motion to alter or amend the judgment in mid-August. They are represented by Fibich, Leebron, Copeland, Briggs, Meyers and Flowers LLC, and Bracewell LLP

Salesforce is represented by  Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP.