Lester v. Allied Part 2: “Clean Up” of Compromising Social Media Evidence Can Result in Severe Sanctions
Though some practitioners might be in denial, the follow-up sanctions orders in Lester v. Allied Concrete Co. et al. dated May 27, 2011 and September 23, 2011 should leave no room for doubt that preservation of social media is as important as any other electronic data or discovery. Similarly, the penalty for intentionally destroying such evidence may reach beyond the purse strings.
As reported late last year in a blog posting regarding Lester Part I, defense counsel moved for sanctions against plaintiff Isaiah Lester and his attorney, Matthew B. Murray, for spoliation of Facebook evidence. Ultimately, although defense counsel’s request for a new trial was denied after the jury had reached a $10.6 million verdict related to the tragic death of Lester’s wife in an automobile accident, Lester and Murray were ordered to pay defense counsel respectively, $180,000 and $542,000. But the sanctions did not end there; Murray’s misconduct was referred to the Virginia State Bar and allegations of Lester’s perjury were referred to the local prosecutor.
During discovery, defendants sought production of the contents of Lester’s account because they believed it would help their case on the issue of damages. Defendants were inspired to pursue this evidence after discovering a photo on Facebook depicting “Lester clutching a beer can, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘I [heart] hot moms.’” Specifically, they served discovery requests that sought information relating to Lester’s Facebook account including screen-prints and attached the compromising picture.
After reviewing Lester’s Facebook page in conjunction with the discovery requests, Murray’s paralegal (at Murray’s direction) advised Lester via e-mail to “clean up” the Facebook page because “we do NOT want blow ups of other pics at trial so please, please clean up your facebook and myspace.” She also advised there were “other pics that should be deleted.” Thereafter, Murray concocted a scheme to deactivate Lester’s Facebook account and to advise defense counsel that on the date the answer to the discovery was signed that Lester had no Facebook page.
Shortly thereafter, Lester deleted 16 photos (which were ultimately available at trial) to ensure he complied with Murray’s initial “clean up” request, although Murray denied knowledge of deletion of these photos in discovery responses. Thereafter, Murray and Lester attempted — unsuccessfully — to cover up these communications and related acts. (Defendants’ internet technology expert was ultimately able to confirm deletion of the photos).
The amount and scope of sanctions in Lester make clear that social media evidence is as important as other electronic discovery, and that the penalties for its spoliation can be as severe as those for destroying other evidence. While the egregious malfeasance of Lester and Murray (and Murray’s paralegal, who was under his supervision) did not result in an overturned verdict (though it was reduced by around $4 million for other reasons), both counsel and client paid a high price for their cavalier treatment and destruction of Facebook evidence.