A recent decision from the District of Arizona provided a refresher for litigants and judges alike in the framework under which electronically stored information (ESI) spoliation sanctions must be addressed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(e). The author of the opinion – District Judge David Campbell – expressed his frustration that Rule 37(e) continues to be ignored by some judges and litigants in the application and adjudication of motions seeking ESI spoliation sanctions. Judge Campbell’s frustration is easily understood, as he chaired the Advisory Committee on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure during the 2015 revision to Rule 37(e). In Fast v. GoDaddy.com LLC, Judge Campbell seized the opportunity to meticulously explain each requirement of Rule 37(e) and then apply those requirements to adjudicate the spoliation claims before him. In this case, involving sex and disability discrimination claims, the plaintiff claimed she was fired for lacking the technical skills required for her employment, and that male employees with lesser technical skills were retained by the defendants. At the close of discovery, the defendants asserted discovery violations against the plaintiff, seeking sanctions for the spoliation of relevant ESI under Rule 37(e) and for the failure to produce relevant information under Rule 37(c)(1). Since the 2015 amendments to Rule 37(e), there has been controversy as...
A Poor Substitute: The Eastern District of Texas Holds That Facebook Screenshots Are Not Sufficient to Avoid Sanctions Under Rule 37
In Edwards v. Junior State of America Foundation, the Eastern District of Texas determined that screenshots of social media messages are not sufficient evidentiary substitutes for spoliated native files. As a result of the plaintiffs’ discovery misconduct and spoliation of relevant electronically stored information (ESI), the court imposed sanctions under Rule 37(c) and (e) against the plaintiffs for failing to preserve Facebook messages in native format, including its metadata, which prevented the defendant from authenticating the messages. The plaintiffs filed a complaint against the defendant alleging that a student member of the defendant, a youth organization, sent “racist and homophobic Facebook messages” to one of the plaintiffs (the “Messages”). After the alleged Messages were sent, the student’s father filed a complaint with the youth organization which included .jpeg “snapshot” images of the Messages. During the litigation, the defendant served written discovery requests on the plaintiffs, seeking production of ESI from the plaintiff’s Facebook Messenger account to authenticate the alleged Messages, including the production of the Messages in HTML or JSON format. The native format of Facebook messages can typically be retrieved and produced in HTML or JSON format and contain metadata that can be used for authenticity purposes. The defendant’s request for native format would have allowed the defendant to authenticate the Messages. The plaintiffs never...
“Private” Facebook Posts Are Discoverable and Should Be Treated as Any Other Source of Discoverable Information
The New York Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in Forman v. Henkin that “private” Facebook posts (i.e., those accessible only to your Facebook “friends,” as opposed to the general public) are discoverable if they meet the common discovery standard—that they are “material and necessary to the prosecution or defense of an action.” In Forman, plaintiff alleged she was severely injured when she fell from defendant’s horse. Plaintiff alleged her injuries impaired her ability to communicate and participate in what she described as the active lifestyle she enjoyed before the accident. Plaintiff alleged she posted on Facebook many photographs that depicted her pre-accident lifestyle, but that communicating on that social media platform had become so difficult after the accident that she deactivated the account six months later. She alleged that, after her accident, it would take hours to write a message on Facebook because she would have to re-read it several times before sending it to be sure that it made sense. Defendant requested an unlimited authorization to obtain plaintiff’s “private” Facebook account postings, arguing they would be relevant to plaintiff’s claims. The Supreme Court ordered plaintiff to produce all photographs (that were not of a romantic or sexual nature) and an authorization that would allow defendant to obtain from Facebook the frequency of plaintiff’s Facebook posts,...
Don’t Ask For Too Much: Court Strikes Balance in Addressing Dispute Over Discoverability of Social Media
In a recent case, Magistrate Judge Mark L. Carman of the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming reminds practitioners that requests for social media data still must be relevant and proportional to the dispute. In this auto accident case, the Court found a balance between the need for defendants to determine whether a plaintiff is lying or exaggerating and the possibility that allowing defendants too much leeway in seeking social media could dissuade injured plaintiffs from pursuing legitimate claims for fear of humiliation and embarrassment. Plaintiff alleged she sustained physical injuries, traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. In an extraordinarily broad discovery request, defendant requested that plaintiff produce “an electronic copy of your Facebook account history.” Plaintiff downloaded and produced information from her Facebook accounts gathered by using several keyword search terms. However, plaintiff refused to produce her entire Facebook archive, and defendant moved to compel. The Court explained that “[s]ocial media presents some unique challenges to courts” in determining the proper scope of discovery. In particular, Judge Carman explained: “People have always shared thoughts and feelings, but typically not in such a permanent and easily retrievable format. No court would have allowed unlimited depositions of every friend, social acquaintance, co-employee or relative of a plaintiff to inquire as...
On May 11, 2017, the Commercial and Federal Litigation Section of the New York State Bar Association issued its third iteration of Social Media Ethics Guidelines. As the authors of the Guidelines aptly recognize: “As use of social media by lawyers and clients continues to grow and as social media networks proliferate and become more sophisticated, so too do the ethics issues facing lawyers.” This recent update adds principles regarding professional competence and attorney use of social media, and addresses ethical considerations regarding maintaining client confidences, handling potential conflicts of interests related to social media, following clients’ social media, and communicating with judges via social media. Issued in 2014 and updated in June 2015, the Guidelines aim to provide “guiding principles” as opposed to “best practices” for the modern lawyer’s evolving use of social media. The authors acknowledge the guidelines’ inherent inability to define universal principles in the face of varying ethics codes, which “may differ due to different social mores, the priorities of different demographic populations, and the historical approaches to ethics rules and opinions in different localities.” The Guidelines are based upon the New York Rules of Professional Conduct and New York bar associates’ interpretation of those rules. The Guidelines do, however, cite ethics opinions where there is a difference of opinion or...
Every now and then, a court issues a decision that is as interesting for its facts as it is for the import of its legal holding. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued such a decision involving application of the respective statutes of limitation for private claims made under the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”).
On February 3, 2015, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court affirmed the dismissal of a complaint two attorneys filed against the Office of Attorney Ethics and its Director (collectively “OAE”) claiming OAE lacked authority to investigate and prosecute ethics grievances against them for “friending” a party to a litigation on Facebook. The Appellate Division’s decision is significant – it affirms OAE’s power to investigate and prosecute alleged ethical violations and demonstrates the potential consequences for attorneys’ improper use of social media in litigation.
Florida is the Latest State to Allow Attorneys to Advise Clients About the Removal of Social Media Posts and Pictures
On January 23, 2015, the Professional Ethics Committee of the Florida Bar issued an advisory opinion holding that before litigation commences, and absent any other preservation obligation, an attorney may advise a client to: (1) remove information from social media pages and (2) change privacy settings from public to private, as long as the client retains a record of any deleted information or data. In so holding, the Florida ethics committee joined panels from New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina that have issued similar guidance.
Second Circuit Vacates Defendant’s Conviction Due to Government’s Failure to Authenticate Social Media Evidence
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a conviction for unlawful transfer of a false identification document (a forged birth certificate) because the district court abused its discretion and committed error in admitting a Russian social media page — akin to Facebook — that the government failed to authenticate as required by Federal Rule of Evidence 901.
ABA Says that Attorneys May Investigate Jurors’ Social Media Presence, Even if Automatic Notifications are Generated
The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility recently weighed in on the ethical parameters of attorneys’ investigation of jurors’ social media presence. In ABA Formal Opinion 466, the Committee concluded that an attorney may review a juror’s social media presence; an attorney may undertake that review even if the social media website issues a notice to the juror that the attorney viewed his social media profile; and an attorney may not request private access to a juror’s social media profile.