Facing a legal loss of 'love' via Facebook

By Paula Horton, Tri-City HeraldJuly 10, 2011 

KENNEWICK - Can you sue someone for a broken heart?

A Michigan woman is seeking $8,386.88 from a Kennewick man because of a relationship gone bad via Facebook.

Cheryl Gray says Wylie Iwan led her on, caused her to spend money on gifts and a trip to the Tri-Cities, then humiliated her when he posted vulgar comments on her Facebook wall.

The 50-year-old unemployed paralegal admits she was "devastated" and angry when a week before her planned trip, he said he met someone else at a Kennewick bar.

Now, "I feel foolish," Gray said. "I'm not so much mad or angry. I feel foolish. I am disillusioned."

Iwan says he and Gray were just Facebook friends who played Mafia Wars together, but the friendship developed into an online relationship. Still, he said, he told her she was welcome to visit during spring break as "my friend."

When he met someone new, he said he was upfront with Gray about it and initially she was OK with it. But then, the 35-year-old who works at Applebee's, said, Gray started a hate group about him on Facebook and called him an online predator.

"I want this lady to move on and leave me alone," said Iwan, who had to find an attorney in Michigan to represent him in the civil suit. "... It's a completely frivolous lawsuit."

Kennewick civil attorney Jay Flynn of Flynn Merriman McKennon was stumped after hearing a brief summary of the lawsuit.

"I have never heard anything similar to that," he said, adding that he doubted a judge in the Tri-Cities would find any merit in the case.

There have been lawsuits about jilted online friends who spent money on gifts or other things that they want to recover, said Eric Goldman, an associate professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law in California. Whether a judge would hear a case often depends on whether it was a good-faith relationship or outright fraud.

"Courts get reluctant to regulate matters of the heart," Goldman said. "Judges don't really want to be in the middle of a lover's quarrel."

Goldman, who also is the director of the law school's High Tech Law Institute, writes a blog about internet law.

The ease of communicating online with someone across the state or in another country can set up situations in which a scammer can meet someone online -- on Facebook, playing an online game such as World of Warcraft or even through Craigslist -- and build a relationship solely for the purpose of trying to obtain cash and gifts, Goldman said.

If a whole scheme is fraudulent, a plaintiff's odds are good, he said. But it's a harder sell when the case involves a good-faith relationship.

Jurisdictional issues also arise, Goldman said. In this case, can Iwan be sued in Michigan court when he never has been to the state?

"Jurisdictional questions are a mess, and they remain a mess," he said. "Courts are very confused about how to sort through all the ways people interact with each other to determine which geography matters win."

Gray, a single mother living in Livonia, Mich., with her 13-year-old daughter, said she played Mafia Wars on Facebook and met Iwan through the game because they were part of the same "clan," or family.

They became Facebook friends in September and had about 300 friends in common, she said. During the next couple of months, they began talking through Facebook messages, and Gray said Iwan wanted to exchange personal information and get to know her.

They also talked on the phone, through text messages and via email, she said.

By late November or early December, Iwan created a special group page and invited her to join it, she said. The page was accessible only to people in the group, so she said it essentially was a secret page the two could use to talk.

"Most of the communications were on that page," Gray said. "We spent an hour plus in the morning online and three, four, five, eight hours at night every day."

Gray said Iwan used the word "friend" or "best friend," while at the same time saying, "I love you," or, "I'm falling in love with you," and making plans for the future.

"He led me to believe for a number of months that our meeting was to explore a potential relationship between the two of us," she said.

She sent him and his sons gifts for Christmas, his birthday and flowers on Valentine's Day. She bought airplane tickets and reserved a rental car for a trip to Kennewick from April 6-11 and reserved a hotel room in Seattle and got tickets to the Mariners' opening home game.

On March 30, Gray said Iwan told her he had met someone else four days earlier.

"I was just really devastated ... and I guess I was angry. I had done some very nice things for him," she said. "He supposedly met this person on Saturday, but I don't believe that. I believe he was already involved in a relationship. ... I felt like this guy is taking me on a ride."

Iwan doesn't dispute that he and Gray met and became friends through Mafia Wars, but said he made the private group page so they could share information about whom they would target within the game.

He said he confided in her in December about his roommates moving out without notice and how he didn't have money for Christmas gifts for his kids. She then sent some gifts, which Iwan said he didn't ask for. That was "thoughtful," he said.

Around the new year, Gray told him how much she enjoyed being his friend and wanted to get to know him better, Iwan said. He said he thought she was a great person and wanted to get to know her too.

"We decided -- it wasn't all me -- but we decided we wanted to meet each other. After that, things started toward a relationship and we started sharing more information," Iwan said. "For Valentine's Day, she said she wanted to tell me she loved me as a friend. I told her I love her too. I was meaning it as a friend."

Iwan said he had some intentions that Gray could be someone he could end up with. But, because they hadn't met yet, he said he kept saying he didn't want any expectations.

He also said when they first began talking, Gray said she was 42. After they got more personal and made plans to meet, she admitted she was 50. She also went back and forth a couple of times about whether she would make the trip to Kennewick, even after she bought the plane tickets, Iwan said.

He said he did meet someone new when he was at a bar with friends March 26, but said they just had a couple of drinks and he didn't know if anything would come of it.

Three days later, he ran into her again and they hung out, he said. He said he told the woman about Gray and that she was going to visit the following week, and he said he told Gray the next day about the other woman because he wanted to be upfront about everything.

"I was like, 'If you want to come down here as my friend, come down as my friend,'" he said.

Iwan, who still has copies of some of the messages, said Gray responded: "I think that's great :) I think you should pursue it :)" Then she said that because he already had time off the next week, it would be a great time for him to get to know her.

Gray's attitude changed, however, later that day, Iwan said. She took screen shots of posts on the page they used, then started deleting everything, he said. She also posted comments on her wall and his wall about how he led her on for three months, Iwan said.

He admits posting a comment about her being a "psycho bitch," but he said that was after she created the hate group about him. A couple of weeks later, however, she sent him a Facebook message saying things got out of hand, asking if he wanted to talk and saying she missed playing Mafia Wars with him.

"... i'm not going to chase this around and obvious no response means you don't want to talk. in that case, i will let it rest and say i hope all is well with you," Gray wrote April 16.

Iwan said he wanted nothing to do with Gray "after she had done all her crazy stuff, after she created a hate group about me." He said he even disabled his Facebook account and stopped playing Mafia Wars because "she took all the fun away from that game."

On April 22, Iwan got an email from an attorney friend of Gray's seeking $956.88 for repayment of expenses related to the trip she didn't take, and gifts and flowers she sent him.

A week later, Iwan got a second email that said Gray no longer was interested in pursuing a claim against him.

Then on May 18, Gray filed a civil suit in Michigan seeking $8,368.88 for misrepresentation, promissory estoppel, defamation of character and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

She said she was "shocked, humiliated and embarrassed" by Iwan's characterization of her in posts that their shared friends could see and said her reputation was injured, according to court documents Gray filed.

Iwan has had to get an attorney in Michigan to represent him, but said he feels confident that her lawsuit will get tossed out. A hearing in the case is set for Aug. 1. Iwan's attorney is seeking to have the suit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

"She's making it all out to be like I'm some kind of monster. I'm not," Iwan said. "It was an online relationship. ... I did nothing wrong."

Gray said she loved the man she thought Iwan was and there was no way she misinterpreted anything "when someone tells you, 'I'm falling in love with you,' " but she is using her situation as a warning to others.

"I like to think I'm a rational, cautious person, but ... I can be kind of cynical and have trust issues. Never in my wildest dreams have I thought this could happen to me," Gray said. "Guess what? It can."

Goldman, the law professor, said sometimes there are good warning signs in online relationships, but people often find ways to rationalize them because love is blind.

He's not knocking online romances though -- he met his wife in person in 1994 but said they fell in love through email -- but said it's important for people to know the person they're dealing with.

"After that we're back to affairs of the heart," Goldman said. "Falling in love necessarily involves taking some risks, and most people will have one or more major heartbreaks in your lives. There's no clear ground rules to prevent a possible heartache when the person ... is online or in another state."

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