Tennessee Federal Court Denies Motion To Compel Seeking Social Media Data

As you may recall, we’ve previously noted that courts are becoming a bit more skeptical of social media discovery requests.

Well, the latest example of this trend comes from a federal court in Tennessee.

In Horsnell v. Young Men’s Christian Ass’n of Middle Tennessee, No. 3:13–1130 (M.D. Tenn. Dec. 1,2014), the Plaintiff alleged violations of FMLA and other statutes as well as a retaliation claim. The court was called upon to review certain discovery requests after the defendant filed a motion to compel. Apparently, in response to a particular discovery request, the Plaintiff produced some limited social media data. Dissatisfied with the response, the defendant filed a motion to compel, and the court found as follows:

By its motion, [Defendant] seeks an order compelling Plaintiff to provide certain nonpublic information contained on Plaintiff’s Facebook and LinkedIn accounts. Apparently, Plaintiff has produced certain limited information publically available on these two social networking sites.

This Court has previously found that an adverse party does not have a generalized right to rummage through information that a party has limited from public view on a social networking site. Rather, there must first be a threshold showing that the requested information is reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. Otherwise, a discovering party would be allowed to engage in the proverbial fishing expedition, in the hope that there might be something of relevance in Plaintiff’s Facebook account. The undersigned finds that Defendant has failed to make a sufficient threshold showing to support an order requiring Plaintiff to produce copies of nonpublic information from his Facebook and LinkedIn sites, and to that extent Defendant’s motion to compel further response to Interrogatory No. 13 is DENIED.

(quotations and citations omitted).

And that’s it. No longer a novel issue, the breadth and appropriateness of social media discovery requests is now addressed by courts in two paragraphs.

Keep this in mind, folks.

A Post-Riley Analysis: Smartphone and Social Media Discovery

As you know, we here at Abnormal Use love writing and blogging, so much so that our editor Jim Dedman is now contributing posts to other venues.  Recently, his piece, “A Post-Riley Analysis: Smartphone and Social Media Discovery,” was published in the October 2014 issue of the Defense Research Institute’s For The Defense magazine. In the piece, he explores the potential civil implications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ___ (2014),  in which the Chief Justice Roberts noted the extent to which we now utilize our smartphones and the privacy interests at stake in any search of such devices. The article recognizes that those very privacy interests may alter the way in which courts analyze social media and smartphone discovery.

Here’s the first bit of the article:

Litigants now live much of their lives online or through the prism of their smartphones. Knowing this, defense lawyers often attempt to obtain as much digital discovery as possible in an effort to impeach the claims of a plaintiff, whether it is in the form of social media discovery or information extracted from a smartphone. Despite the fact that plaintiffs’ lawyers now warn their clients of such efforts, plaintiffs still live their lives online at the risk of their recovery in their lawsuits.

With state and federal courts now routinely ruling upon the permissible scope of such discovery requests, defense counsel must be aware of the potential backlash against these efforts in light of increasing concerns about the private nature of such information, and especially those recently expressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

For the rest of the article, you’ll need to find a copy of this month’s issue of DRI’s For The Defense. For some of you, this issue is waiting in your inbox right now. Check out page 60.

Social Media Perils: Attempted Impeachment By Blog Post?

Well, it finally happened.

We have long suspected that someday it would happen, but recently, it finally did happen.

Of course, we are referring to the possibility that an opponent in litigation might cite to our blog in an effort to defeat our argument in a motion hearing.

We’ve been blogging here at Abnormal Use for more than four and a half years, and it has finally come to be.

The scene was thus: I arrived at a county courthouse relatively early, as I like to have a few moments to myself before court convenes to review my notes and any case authority once more before the hearing begins. Lawyers were beginning to enter the courtroom, although the judge had not yet arrived. I was there to argue a motion which was opposed by counsel for the plaintiff as well as other parties in the litigation. As fate might have it, the issue was being litigated that day was a relatively novel one, and there was not a wealth of authority on the particular common law issue in dispute. Counsel for one of the non-movants came into the courtroom, and as we had not previously met in person, we introduced ourselves and exchanged the customary pleasantries. We even chuckled about a few events in the case, as lawyers sometimes do before a hearing, and we then sat down – apart from each other, of course, so that we could finalize our preparations for the imminent hearing. Put another way, we had to get into character.

A few moments later, counsel for the non-movant looked back and raised a packet of notes in the air. Atop the stack was a color printout of a blog post from this website.

The conversation began.

“I guess I am supposed to show you this,” counsel for the non-movant said.

“What’s that?” I replied, not yet seeing what my opponent held before me.

“My associate found this for me. It’s from your blog.”

“Oh?” I asked, now realizing that what the opposing lawyer held was a printout from our blog and seeing several highlighted paragraphs from the post in question.

She read me the title of the post, and I immediately realized that it was not one that I myself had written. Getting a closer look, I saw that the post had run in our blog’s very early days – 2010! – and that the post in question was more in the form of a case summary than an argument on behalf of a legal principle.

“I’ve never had anyone cite my blog against me,” I said. “However, I don’t think that’s one of my posts.”

Looking disappointed, counsel for the non-movant gave the printout a closer look and realized that the author was another attorney.

“Oh, you’re the editor of the blog.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

Counsel for the non-movement seemed a bit crestfallen, as if this particular arrow in the quiver was suddenly less effective or appealing.

Ultimately, the blog post was not used during the hearing.

So, in the end, we suppose that we dodged this particular social media peril. But we knew something like this would happen someday.

The Rise and Fall of Orkut

You may recall that we recently expressed some surprise when a defense firm’s social media discovery at issue in a recent Kansas case referenced Orkut, Google’s social media network.

The request for production at issue in that case read as follows:

Request No. 15: All documents constituting or relating in any way to any posting, blog, or other statement you made on or through any social networking website, including but not limited to Facebook .com, MySpace.com, Twitter.com, Orkut.com, that references or mentions in any way [The Defendant] and/or the matters referenced in your Complaint.

At the time, we quipped: “How curious to see a reference to Orkut in a social media discovery case! We wonder if the defendants had specific knowledge that the Plaintiff used Orkut or if that social media platform simply appears in all of their discovery requests.” As you might suspect from our comment, Orkut has always been a bit of an obscure network, never reaching the popularity of Facebook or Twitter.

Well, on July 5, 2014, just a few weeks after our posts referencing the social network, Orkut sent out an email (entitled “A Farewell To Orkut”) to its users. It read:

After ten years of sparking conversations and forging connections, we have decided it’s time for us to start saying goodbye to Orkut. Over the past decade, YouTube, Blogger and Google+ have taken off, with communities springing up in every corner of the world. Because the growth of these communities has outpaced Orkut’s growth, we’ve decided to focus our energy and resources on making these other social platforms as amazing as possible for everyone who uses them.

We will shut down Orkut on September 30, 2014. Until then, there will be no impact on you, so you may have time to manage the transition. You can export your profile data, community posts and photos using Google Takeout (available until September 2016). We are preserving an archive of all public communities, which will be available online starting September 30, 2014. If you don’t want your posts or name to be included in the community archive, you can remove Orkut permanently from your Google account. Please visit our Help Center for any further details.

It’s been a great 10 years, and we apologize to those of you still actively using the service. We hope you will find other online communities to spark more conversations and build even more connections for the next decade and beyond.

With respect to litigation, this development suggests that lawyers should investigate claimants’ Orkut usage, if any, with all deliberate speed before the service ends later this year. Additionally, lawyers referencing Orkut in their discovery requests may want to update their forms in the coming months. Goodbye, Orkut.

Oh, and by the way, we referenced Orkut in our 2013 April Fool’s Day post.

ABA Releases Ethics Opinion On Juror Social Media Research

As you know, we here at Abnormal Use love writing and blogging, so much so that our editor Jim Dedman is now contributing posts to other online venues.  Recently, his piece, “ABA Releases Ethics Opinion On Juror Social Media Research,” was published in the Defense Research Institute’s Trials and Tribulations Newsletter. In the piece, he surveys and comments upon the recent ABA rulings and notes its broader implications.

Here’s the first two paragraphs of the article:

In 2014, we, as practicing defense lawyers, find ourselves more than a decade into the age of social media in litigation. These days, without fail, nearly every legal publication and trade journal of note features an article about the value of social media in litigation. Over the years, we’ve learned the benefits of an online investigation of Plaintiffs (and the potential for splendid impeachment material which can arise from such queries), efforts to explore the backgrounds of Plaintiffs’ retained testifying experts , and of course, the general perils of lawyers using social media. We all know that prospective and sitting jurors use – and occasionally abuse – social media. In fact, these days, when preparing for trial, litigators rely upon social media data in determining which prospective jurors to consider or strike from the venire panel. Recently, on April 24, 2014, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued Formal Opinion 466, entitled “Lawyer Reviewing Jurors’ Internet Presence.” Generally, this comprehensive nine page ethical opinion offers guidance to litigators using social media to investigate potential and sitting jurors. Interpreting pre-Internet principles and applying them to the ever growing social media landscape, the new ABA opinion, as persuasive authority, offers guidance on these issues. The bottom line: When preparing for trial and investigating jurors, be mindful of the potential ethical issues at hand.

First and foremost, yes, litigators can investigate and review publicly available social media profiles of sitting and prospective jurors. The ABA opinion provides that “a lawyer may passively review a juror’s public presence on the Internet.” Like many, jurors have profiles on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn (and countless other sites), and lawyers can input the juror’s name into their search engine of choice and review the results without fear of ethical implications. This conclusion makes perfect sense, as there is no reason to deprive lawyers of the ability to access information that the juror has published online for the world to see. In the opinion, the ABA committee likens this “passive review” of such public information to a lawyer “driving down the street where the prospective juror lives to observe the environs in order to glean publically available information that could inform the lawyer’s jury-selection decisions.”

For the rest of the article, please click here.

Kansas Federal Court Rebuffs Overly Broad Social Media Discovery Requests

Here we go again. Just as we’ve discussed before, the courts are limiting overly broad social media discovery requests served by defense counsel. The latest example:  Smith v. Hillshire Brands, No. 13–2605–CM (D. Kan. June 20, 2014). At its essence, Smith is an employment discrimination case in which the pro se Plaintiff alleged violations of both Title VII and FMLA. The specifics of the dispute need not be spelled out in detail as you’ve heard it all before.

Now, there were a number of components to the discovery dispute in this matter, but the social media discovery requests at issue were these:

Request No. 15: All documents constituting or relating in any way to any posting, blog, or other statement you made on or through any social networking website, including but not limited to Facebook .com, MySpace.com, Twitter.com, Orkut.com, that references or mentions in any way Hillshire and/or the matters referenced in your Complaint.

Request No. 18: Electronic copies of your complete profile on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (including all updates, changes, or modifications to your profile) and all status updates, messages, wall comments, causes joined, groups joined, activity streams, blog entries, details, blurbs, and comments for the period from January 1, 2013, to present. To the extent electronic copies are not available, please provide these documents in hard copy form.

How curious to see a reference to Orkut in a social media discovery case! We wonder if the defendants had specific knowledge that the Plaintiff used Orkut or if that social media platform simply appears in all of their discovery requests.

Now, as you might imagine, Request No. 15 is legitimate and narrowly tailored, as it limits itself to social media postings relating to the employer or the events being litigated.

In fact, Plaintiff didn’t object to either of the requests, opting instead to produce – or claim to produce – all relevant documents. The dispute arose, however, when the employer defendant doubted that all documents had been produced.

Yes, the employer took the position that it could discover all of the Plaintiff’s social media activity as a result of his claims in the lawsuit. Skeptical of this argument, the Court noted:

Request No. 18 raises a more complex issue, as it seeks documentation of all of plaintiff’s activity on the named social networks since January 1, 2013, regardless of whether the activity has anything at all to do with this case or the allegations made in plaintiff’s complaint. Defendant asserts that this broad swath of information is relevant for at least two reasons. First, it “provide[s] a contemporary diary of Plaintiff’s activities, thoughts, mental/emotional condition, and actions,” which relate to plaintiff’s claim for damages arising from emotional distress. Second, it may support defendant’s “defense that Plaintiff abused his FMLA leave, which is the true reason for Plaintiff’s termination .” Defendant contends that the protective order governing this case adequately addresses plaintiff’s privacy concerns.

As it currently stands, the record does not support defendant’s extremely broad discovery request for all-inclusive access to plaintiff’s social media accounts. As plaintiff notes, such access could reveal highly personal information—such as plaintiff’s private sexual conduct—that is unlikely to lead to admissible evidence in this case. Information on social networking sites is not entitled to special protection, but a discovery request seeking it nevertheless must meet Fed.R.Civ.P. 26′s requirement that it be tailored “so that it ‘appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.’ “ “Otherwise, the Defendant would be allowed to engage in the proverbial fishing expedition, in the hope that there might be something of relevance in Plaintiff’s [social networking] account[s].” The court agrees with courts that have recognized that a discovery request for unfettered access to social networking accounts—even when temporally limited—would permit the defendant “to cast too wide a net” for relevant information.

As some defendants do, the employer in this case attempted to justify the breadth of the requests by pointing to the emotional distress damages alleged by the Plaintiff. This works, sometimes, and it’s not a bad argument. As social media profiles often showcase our daily lives and the emotions we experience in our lives, what better evidence can there be to support or rebut claims of emotional distress than such things? On this point, the court was cautious:

Based on the limited record before it, the court finds it prudent to follow what appears to be the intermediate approach taken by courts addressing this issue—to allow defendant to discover not the contents of plaintiff’s entire social networking activity, but any content that reveals plaintiff’s emotions or mental state, or content that refers to events that could reasonably be expected to produce in plaintiff a significant emotion or mental state. The court concludes that this approach will permit defendant to discover information relevant to plaintiff’s emotional state, which he has put at issue, while protecting plaintiff from a fishing expedition into every thought he reduced to writing on the internet since January 1, 2013.

But it was one remark by the court that caught our eye and forced us to recognize once again the potential perils of overly broad discovery requests. Behold, the court’s suggestion that such things could be turned around on defendants:

Indeed, if the court were to accept defendant’s position on the scope of relevant discovery, defendant would likely be unhappy with the ramifications. For example, every Facebook post of every Hillshire manager and supervisor involved in the decision to terminate plaintiff could be deemed relevant because it might show discriminatory pretext.

No one wants that. Let’s be careful out there, okay?

Court of Appeals Puts Unnecessary Quotation Marks Around “Facebook”

Okay, so we don’t usually write about family law cases here at Abnormal Use, and it’s been a while since we wrote about events from the state of Nebraska. Yesterday, while perusing cases mentioning Facebook, we stumbled across In re Interest of A.W. & L.W., No. A-13-540 (Neb. Ct. App. Feb. 25, 2014), a recent case in which the court of appeals found “that the evidence clearly and convincingly established that termination of [the father’s] parental rights was warranted pursuant to [the relevant statute] and that termination was in [the children’s] best interests.” Yes, this is a case involving a father’s appeal of the trial court’s termination of his parental rights and the appellate court that affirmed that decision.

Chiefly, the case concerns the frequency of the father’s contacts with his children – or the lack thereof. This being the modern age, some of those contacts occurred via social media. Here’s some excerpts from the opinion itself:

After moving to Las Vegas, [the father] claimed that he attempted to maintain contact with his children through his uncle’s “Facebook” account. However, according to [the father], 2 weeks after he moved, [the mother] learned that [the father] had been using the uncle’s “Facebook” account and blocked the uncle from her and the children’s “Facebook” accounts. [The father] made no other attempts to contact his children during the time that he resided in Las Vegas until he moved to Larchwood, Iowa, in 2012, at which point he had two visits with his children: a 2–hour supervised visit on March 31, 2012, and a 1 1/2–hour therapeutic visit on January 4, 2013, supervised by [another adult]. [The father] did not see his children after the January 4 visit, despite his requests to have visits.

[The father] claimed that he did not contact his children while he was in Las Vegas after [the mother] blocked his uncle’s “Facebook” account because he thought that [the mother] had a protection order against him and he would have to contact his children through her. During the time that [the father] was in Las Vegas, [the mother] did not receive any communications from [the father], his friends, or relatives regarding arranging visitation with the children, even though [the father] had [the mother's] e-mail address which was known to [the father] prior to his move to Las Vegas and remained the same. Further, [the father] did not send the children any letters, cards, or presents during that timeframe.

[The father] first contends that the county court erred in finding that he had abandoned his children pursuant to § 43–292(1). He contends that he did not abandon his children for the relevant 6 months immediately prior to [the mother's] filing of the complaint for modification, which requested termination of his parental rights, because he continued to pay child support and attempted to contact his children through “Facebook” during that 6–month time period.

[The father] admits his efforts at maintaining contact with his children from November 2010 until March 2012 were minimal. He testified that he attempted to contact [the children] through his uncle’s “Facebook” account for about 2 weeks after moving to Las Vegas, but then he claimed that [the mother] discovered he was using the “Facebook” account and blocked his uncle from her account and the children’s accounts. [The father] admits that after the initial 2 weeks that he was in Las Vegas, he did not contact the children but claimed that he did not make additional attempts to contact his children for 1 year because he believed that [the mother] had a protection order filed against him.

Nothing extraordinary there, right? Certainly, it’s not unusual for references to Facebook to make their way into litigation, particularly family law cases, where the parent’s everyday decisions and lifestyle may be at issue. Most of us communicate using the Internet generally, or social media specifically, and a case analyzing one’s communications will likely stray into Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

But here’s the thing: It’s 2014. Why is the court of appeals placing scare quotes around the word Facebook? Isn’t Facebook such a prevalent and prominent website that we can now refer to it without quotation marks? By our count, the court mentions Facebook seven times in the opinion, and each time it does so, it places unnecessary quotation marks around the company name. Why?

Florida Court Rebuffs Request For Social Media Discovery

We knew it was coming, and we’ve seen evidence of it already. Courts are beginning to limit the nature of social media discovery, chiefly in light of the fact that we live so much of our lives online that not every post or status update can be discoverable in a lawsuit. Yesterday, in Root v. Balfour Beatty Const. LLC— So.3d —-, (Fla. Ct. App. Feb. 05, 2014), the Florida Court of Appeals overturned a magistrate’s order in a negligence case that had required the Plaintiff to produce a host of materials from her Facebook account. The Plaintiff was suing on behalf of her young son who was injured in an automobile accident near a construction site (the safety of which was at issue in the proceeding). It does not appear that the Plaintiff was present at the scene of the accident, and at that time, Plaintiff’s son was being supervised by his 17 year old aunt (which led to a negligent entrustment affirmative defense).

Here’s what the defendant’s asked for:

(o.) Any and all postings, statuses, photos, “likes” or videos related to [Plaintiff's]‘s
i. Relationships with [the injured child] or her other children, both prior to, and following, the accident;
ii. Relationships with other family members, boyfriends, husbands, and/or significant others, both prior to, and following the accident;
iii. Mental health, stress complaints, alcohol use or other substance use, both prior to and after, the accident;

….

v. Facebook account postings relating to any lawsuit filed after the accident by [Plaintiff] or others[.]

Not surprisingly, the Plaintiff object to the discovery requests on the grounds that they were overbroad. The Court of Appeals bought this argument, noting:

[Plaintiff's] complaint contains claims on behalf of [the injured child] for negligence as to each defendant and Root’s derivative claims for loss of parental consortium. Defendants responded with several affirmative defenses including negligent entrustment of [the injured child] by [Plaintiff], the aunt’s failure to supervise, and the driver’s negligence. As to [the injured child's] claims for negligence, none of the objected-to discovery pertains to the accident itself. Similarly, none of the objected-to discovery pertains to Defendants’ affirmative defenses. Instead, the discovery relates to [Plaintiff's] past and present personal relationships with all her children, other family members, and significant others; [Plaintiff's] past and present mental health, stress complaints, and use of alcohol or other substances; and lawsuits of any nature filed by [Plaintiff] or others after the accident.

At the hearing before the magistrate, the party seeking discovery didn’t help itself by noting that “These are all things that we would like to look under the hood, so to speak, and figure out whether that’s even a theory worth exploring.” Well, we as defense lawyers probably need to articulate the basis for our social media discovery requests a bit more artfully (although the magistrate judge, who apparently remarked at the hearing that “95 percent, or 99 percent of this may not be relevant,” did require production of the materials requested). The lesson: tailor social media discovery requests to require production of materials related as closely as can be to the claims and defenses in the case.

Blogs: A New Age of Credible Media (Sometimes)

Saying that the Internet changed media is an understatement worthy of a Nobel Prize. The days of reading the daily newspaper over a cup of coffee have been replaced with scrolling through RSS news feeds on a smart phone in between meetings. While the Internet has made news more accessible, many argue that accessibility doesn’t necessarily make for better news. After all, as the saying goes, “With the Internet, everybody becomes a journalist.” For every well-respected CNN or New York Times website, there is a Wikipedia or some other source of user-generated content which draws the ire of establishment critics. News is only as good as those that create it.

So, where should legal blogs fall into the mix? While none of us here at Abnormal Use are professional journalists, we take great pride in bringing you accurate legal news (with a touch of our own commentary, of course). At the end of the day, however, to many, we are still just a “blog” with whatever connotation that title brings. But, in this new age of media, shouldn’t some blogs be considered something more? We would never suggest that every blog carries the same weight of authority. Nor would we posit that a blog be viewed in the same light as a primary source. Nonetheless, when a blog such as SCOTUSblog, one of the preeminent news sources covering the Supreme Court, lacks official credentials to the Marble Palace, something seems wrong.

As the way we receive our media changes, so, too should the way that we perceive that media. Why shouldn’t a scholarly blog post be afforded the same level of scrutiny as a magazine article? We can verify sources and explore the credibility of the author from either form of media. The only difference between the two being the form in which the material is presented. A news source should be considered a news source regardless of the mechanism of delivery. Again, we would never suggest that Joe Schmo’s personal blog of drunken observations be afforded the same level of credibility as an article published in The New York Times. Nor are we suggesting that you view Abnormal Use in the same light as either. We only encourage you not to discount blogs because they are, well, “blogs.” News is only as good as those that write it. Check your sources. Check your authors. Make your own decision.

Juror’s Facebook Comments “Not Prejudicial” To Defendant in Washington Med Mal Action

Another trial, another juror posting comments about same on Facebook.

This time, it’s Figueroa v. High Line Medical Center, No. 68272-5-I (Wash. Ct. App. Oct. 14, 2013), a medical malpractice case (the basic facts of which are not important to the Facebook issue). Whatever the facts, the jury found for the plaintiff, and the doctor appealed on a number of issues.

One of his points of error was jury misconduct.  The relevant portion of the opinion reads:

Dr. Ryan argues that the court erred in not granting a new trial because of alleged juror and attorney misconduct. Dr. Ryan further argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied his motion for a new trial after a juror posted comments regarding the case on Facebook. A juror’s communication with a third party about a case constitutes misconduct.The trial court may grant a new trial only where such juror misconduct has prejudiced the defendant.

Here, no such prejudice was shown. The juror’s comments were limited and innocuous. They were nothing more than a description of the juror’s day interspersed with the following related comments on her jury duty:

• Spent the day in Superior Court doing my civic duty. On jury duty for next 2 weeks.

• Day 3 of jury duty. Very difficult to listen to a translator during the questioning. I can pick out some words.

• Day 4 of jury duty, off on Friday, and back to the jury on Monday. Hope to finish by noon on Thursday. It’s been interesting. Love the 1 1/2 hour lunches.

• My civic duty, jury duty ended today with a negligent claim on the doctor. This was tough to decided $s to the plaintiffs. Mentally exhausting!

While it was inappropriate for the juror to post anything on Facebook regarding the case, these comments were not prejudicial to Dr. Ryan.

(Citations and quotations omitted).

Sure, the status updates were probably harmless, and his only substantive remark referred to the verdict itself, after it had been rendered. However, it seems that the jury’s conduct was almost certainly violative of whatever instructions the judge may have given to the jurors prior to the institution of the trial. Oh, well.