A hospital has won court permission to subpoena Verizon for the identity of website hackers who emailed hospital employees’ links to a YouTube video comparing their CEO to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein.

The hospital will also get to find out who hacked in and sent a second round of emails accusing the CEO and other top hospital administrators of sexual acts with other hospital personnel.

The Appellate Division, in a precedential April 5 ruling, Warren Hospital v. Does, A-4119-11, overturned a lower court that quashed the subpoenas.

The panel gave Warren Hospital in Phillipsburg a way around Dendrite International v. Doe No. 3, 342 N.J. Super. 134 (App. Div. 2001), a landmark decision that set criteria for the discovery of information about anonymous online critics, which has been followed by courts around the country.

The panel distinguished Dendrite on the ground that it involved messages posted on a public message board in contrast to the hacking involved here, which "calls for a less rigorous application of Dendrite‘s general principles."

The plaintiffs in this case "presented sufficient facts from which we may assume that what John Does One and Two did electronically was no different than if they had broken into the hospital and spray painted their message on the hospital’s walls," wrote Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr., joined by Judges Alexander Waugh Jr. and Jerome St. John.

"We reject the argument that those who engage in this type of conduct are entitled to cling to their anonymity through a strict or overly-formulaic application of the Dendrite test."

Dendrite‘s four-part test requires: notice to the Does, typically by a posting in the same forum as the anonymous messages; specification of the allegedly defamatory statements; a prima facie case sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss; and a judicial finding that the need for the disclosure outweighs the First Amendment interest in anonymity.

The panel here found it was enough that the plaintiffs had demonstrated "(1) the speakers’ unlawful or impermissible mode of communication, and (2) that the allegedly defamatory statements would survive a motion to dismiss."

Fisher acknowledged that the nearly 90-page complaint asserted claims concerning numerous other statements that did not involve hacking — comments posted on the nj.com website and videos uploaded to YouTube — and might "bring a future application for discovery closer to the circumstances in Dendrite."

Brad Russo, the lawyer fighting the subpoenas on behalf of one or more of the Does, had argued against them on the basis that the information obtained by the plaintiffs might help them determine the identity of those who made some of those other statements.

That possibility was "of little concern" to Fisher.

"If the discovery we now permit reveals that John Does One and Two also uttered other statements in less wrongful or even completely innocent ways — or the revelation of their true identities may lead to a discovery of the identities of other anonymous speakers — then that is a consequence of John Doe One and John Doe Two’s alleged wrongdoing," he wrote. "Having made a showing we find sufficient for the discovery in question, plaintiffs should not be thwarted by the speculative consequence that other identities may be revealed.

The holding allows the hospital and other plaintiffs to enforce subpoenas against Verizon for information about three IP addresses used in the hacking, which occurred on Aug. 17 and Oct. 19, 2009.

The Aug. 17 email stated "Extra! Scumbag’s all about it!!!! Heil! Litzler!" and linked to the YouTube video that had images of then-CEO Thomas Litz and likened him to Hitler and other infamous tyrants.

The hacking took place after Litz was hired to turn around the financially ailing hospital and began cutting costs by reducing employee compensation and eliminating some operations.

Litz, who retired last June, was the prime target of the anonymous critics, along with board chairman Robert Rumfield, administrative director Theodore Ruhf and Assistant Vice-President of Patent Care Gail Newton, among others, who are also plaintiffs.

The Oct. 19 email referred to supposed sexual activities by the plaintiffs and described management as "racist bigots."

The complaint, filed in Warren County Superior Court in September 2010, has not yet been answered because the judge, Amy O’Connor, relying on Dendrite, quashed every subpoena seeking to identify the Does.

Joseph Manfredi, of Manfredi & Pellechio in Hoboken, who represents the plaintiffs, says "the Appellate Division said hackers cannot turn a private corporation’s intranet system into a First Amendment forum."

The court put limits on Dendrite, articulating a new test for when hacking or some other unlawful or impermissible means is used, says Manfredi.

He also points out that it was impossible for his clients to comply with Dendrite‘s notice requirement with regard to the hacked messages because all they have are the IP addresses.

Brad Russo, the Phillipsburg lawyer who represents one or more Does — he declines to say how many — notes that the plaintiffs have shirked their First Amendment obligations by not providing any notice, even though the vast majority of the comments are covered by Dendrite and notice could be provided via nj.com or YouTube.

He says his position is that with Dendrite applicable to 98 percent or so of the comments, the plaintiffs should not be allowed to go forward with identification as to the other two percent.

Because of the selective focus on the hacking, the appeals court considered the issue in isolation rather than in the broader context, he says.

Paul Levy, a lawyer with Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., an amicus in Dendrite, calls the decision "doctrinally unfortunate’ to the extent it carves out an exception to that ruling and also unnecessary because the plaintiffs could apparently have satisfied the Dendrite standard.

"What the court seems to have said is that the way of making the statement was tortious on the face of it," he says.

Warren Hospital changed its name to St. Luke’s Warren Hospital in 2011 after it became part of St. Luke’s Hospital Group, which is based in Bethlehem, Penn.; and has four other Pennsylvania locations.

Dendrite involved comments made on a Yahoo! message board about Dendrite International, a Morristown company that produced pharmaceutical software.

Mary Pat Gallagher is a reporter for the New Jersey Law Journal, a Legal affiliate.