Category Archives: Electronic Discovery

Another court puts an end to a social media discovery fishing expedition

480px-Old_photo_of_woman_holding_a_fisherman_caught_fishPlaintiff sued a construction company and certain municipal authorities for negligence and loss of parental consortium after her toddler son was seriously injured in front of a construction site. Defendants sought broad discovery from plaintiff’s Facebook account, to which plaintiff objected in part. But the trial court required plaintiff to answer the discovery. So plaintiff sought review with the appellate court. On appeal, the court overturned the trial court.

It held that defendants’ discovery requests were overbroad and compelled the production of personal information that was not relevant to plaintiff’s claims.

Defendants had sought copies of postings on plaintiff’s Facebook account dealing with:

  • Any counseling or psychological care obtained by plaintiff before or after the accident
  • Relationships with [her injured son] or her other children, both prior to, and following, the accident
  • Relationships with all of plaintiff’s children, “boyfriends, husbands, and/or significant others,” both prior to, and following the accident
  • Mental health, stress complaints, alcohol use or other substance use, both prior to and after, the accident
  • Any lawsuits filed after the accident by plaintiff

The court observed that one of the defendants’ arguments to the trial court essentially conceded it was on a fishing expedition. The attorney stated, “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.” And the magistrate judge in the trial court (though ordering the discovery to be had) acknowledged that “95 percent, or 99 percent of this may not be relevant,” and expressed some misgivings at the possibility that large amounts of material might have to be reviewed in camera.

Finding that the trial court order departed “from the essential requirements of the law” because it was overbroad and required the production of irrelevant personal information, the court quashed the discovery requests.

Root v. Balfour Beatty Const. LLC, — So.3d —, 2014 WL 444005 (Fla.App. 2 Dist. February 5, 2014)

Bullied student did not have to hand over all of his social media content in lawsuit against school district

A student sued the school district in which he attended high school for failing to protect him against bullying. The school district served discovery requests on the student seeking electronic copies of everything he did on social media during the time period of the alleged bullying. When the student refused to produce all of his social media content, the school district moved to compel.

picardThe court held that the student did not have to produce all of his social media content, but had to produce any materials that revealed, referred, or related to any “emotion, feeling, or mental state.” The court looked to the case of E.E.O.C. v. Simply Storage Management, LLC, 270 F.R.D. 430 (S.D.Ind.2010) to find that the mere fact that the student had social communications was not probative of any mental or emotional state. Rather, the school district would be entitled to discover whatever communications were relevant to the claims or defenses in the matter.

In the social media discovery context, this meant something less than the student’s entire social media history:

To be sure, anything that a person says or does might in some theoretical sense be reflective of her emotional state. But that is hardly a justification for requiring the production of every thought she may have reduced to writing or, indeed, the deposition of everyone she may have talked to.

Despite this attempt by the court at limitation, one is left to wonder whether the scope of the court’s order — requiring production of materials that revealed, referred, or related to any “emotion, feeling, or mental state” — is so vague as to be of no real help. Scarcely anyone’s casual social media content (let alone the content of the typical teenager) contains material that is void of emotion, feeling or mental state. Tweets, comments, status updates and wall postings drip with pride, humor, loneliness, angst, and the rest of the spectrum of human sentiment.

D.O.H. ex rel. Haddad v. Lake Central School Corp., 2014 WL 174675 (N.D.Ind. January 15, 2014)

Related: Plaintiff has to turn over emotional social media content in employment lawsuit

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping businesses and individuals identify and manage issues dealing with technology development, copyright, trademarks, software licensing and many other matters involving the internet and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237 or email ebrown@internetcases.com

Court allows expedited discovery to identify website hijackers

Indigital Solutions, LLC v. Mohammed, 2012 WL 5825824 (S.D.Tex. November 15, 2012)

Plaintiffs alleged that one or more unknown defendants used malware to gain access to plaintiffs’ email account, web hosting account and domain registration account. From a message in plaintiffs’ email account, the defendants acquired an image of one of the plaintiff’s signature, which defendants used to forge a domain name transfer agreement. Plaintiffs sued under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and other theories. They sought leave to take expedited discovery to learn the identity of the unknown defendants. The court granted the motion.

The court found that plaintiffs had made a prima facie showing of harm by setting forth a valid claim under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The discovery request was specific, in that they sought third party subpoenas to specified recipients seeking particular information. All alternative means of discovering the defendants had been exhausted, and the case could not move forward without the information. And the court found no privacy interest on the part of the defendants to be at stake, especially given the evidence that the defendants were not U.S. citizens, thus not subject to any First Amendment interest in anonymity.

Trial court erred in ordering defendant to turn over his iPhone in ediscovery dispute

AllianceBernstein L.P. v. Atha, — N.Y.S.2d —, 2012 WL 5519060 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept., November 15, 2012)

Plaintiff sued its former employee for breach of contract alleging he took client contact information on his iPhone when he left the job. The trial court ordered defendant to turn the iPhone over to plaintiff’s counsel so plaintiff could obtain the allegedly retained information.

Defendant sought review of the discovery order. On appeal, the court reversed and remanded.

The appellate court found that the lower court’s order that defendant turn over his iPhone was beyond the scope of plaintiff’s request and was too broad for the needs of the case. Ordering production of defendant’s iPhone (which, the court observed, has built-in applications and internet access) “was tantamount to ordering the production of his computer.” The iPhone would disclose irrelevant information that might include privileged communications or confidential information.

So the court ordered that the phone and a record of the device’s contents be delivered to the court for an in camera review to determine what, if any information contained on the phone was responsive to plaintiff’s discovery request.

Court orders in camera review of injured plaintiff’s Facebook content

Richards v. Hertz Corp., — N.Y.S.2d —, 2012 WL 5503841 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept. November 14, 2012)

Plaintiff sued defendant for personal injury. Defendant saw a photo plaintiff had publicly posted on Facebook of herself skiing. When defendant requested plaintiff to turn over the rest of her Facebook content (presumably to find other like-pictures which would undermine plaintiff’s case), plaintiff sought a protective order. The trial court granted the motion for protective order, but required plaintiff to turn over every photo she had posted to Facebook of herself engaged in a “sporting activity”.

woman skiing

Defendants appealed the entry of the protective order. On review, the appellate court reversed and remanded, finding that defendants had made a showing that at least some of the discovery sought would result in the disclosure of relevant or potentially relevant evidence.

But due to the “likely presence” of private and irrelevant information in plaintiff’s account, the court ordered the information be turned over to the judge for an in camera review prior to disclosure to defendants.

Whether the plaintiff effectively preserved her Facebook account information may be an issue here. The facts go back to 2009. One is left to wonder whether and to what extent plaintiff has not gone back and deleted information from her account which would bear on the nature and extent of her injuries. It goes to show that social media discovery disputes can take on a number of nuances.

Photo courtesy Flickr user decafinata under this Creative Commons license.

Plaintiff has to turn over emotional social media content in employment lawsuit

Court holds that Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace postings relating to plaintiff’s emotional state must be produced in discovery.

Robinson v. Jones Lang LaSalle Americas, Inc., 2012 WL 3763545 (D.Or. August 29, 2012)

Plaintiff sued her former employer for discrimination and emotional distress. In discovery, defendant employer sought from plaintiff all of her social media content that revealed her “emotion, feeling, or mental state,” or related to “events that could be reasonably expected to produce a significant emotion, feeling, or mental state.”

emotional on social media

When plaintiff did not turn over the requested content, defendant filed a motion to compel. The court granted the motion.

The court relied heavily on the case of E.E.O.C. v. Simply Storage Mgmt., LLC, 270 F.R.D. 430 (S.D.Ind. 2010) in ordering plaintiff to produce the requested social media content. The Simply Storage court found that:

It is reasonable to expect severe emotional or mental injury to manifest itself in some [social media] content, and an examination of that content might reveal whether onset occurred, when, and the degree of distress. Further, information that evidences other stressors that could have produced the alleged emotional distress is also relevant.

Consistent with the principles of Simply Storage the court in this case ordered production from plaintiff all social media communications:

that reveal, refer, or relate to any significant emotion, feeling, or mental state allegedly caused by defendant’s conduct;

The production of this category of communications was meant to elicit information establishing the onset, intensity, and cause of emotional distress allegedly suffered by plaintiff because of defendant during the relevant time period.

The court also ordered plaintif to produce all social media materials concerning:

events or communications that could reasonably be expected to produce a significant emotion, feeling, or mental state allegedly caused by defendant’s conduct.

This second category was meant to elicit information establishing the absence of plaintiff’s alleged emotional distress where it reasonably should have been evident (i.e., under the rubric of Simply Storage, on her social media accounts).

The court observed how counsel for the parties plays an important role in the discovery of social media. As the court in Simply Storage recognized, it is an “impossible” job for the court to define the limits of social media discovery with enough precision to satisfy the producing party. To address this impossible situation, it falls to the lawyers to act in good faith to produce required materials, inquire about what has and has not been produced, make the appropriate challenges, and seek revision of the discovery order as appropriate.

Photo courtesy Flickr user xdxd_vs_xdxd under this Creative Commons license.

Employer not allowed to search for porn on employee’s home computer

In re Jordan, — S.W.3d —, 2012 WL 1098275 (Texas App., April 3, 2012)

Former employee sued her old company for subjecting her to a sexually hostile workplace and for firing her after she reported it. She claimed that she had never looked at pornography before she saw some on the computers at work. During discovery in the lawsuit, the company requested that employee turn over her home computer so that the company’s “forensic computer examiner” could inspect them.

The trial court compelled employee to produce her computer so that the forensic examiner could look for pornography in her web browsing history and email attachments. The employee sought mandamus review with the court of appeals (i.e., she asked the appellate court to order the lower court not to require the production of the hardware). The appellate held that she was entitled to relief, and that she did not have to hand over her computer.

The appellate court found that the lower court failed to consider an appropriate protective order that would limit inspection to uncover specifically-sought information in a particular form of production. In this case, the company had merely asked for the hardware without informing employee of the exact nature of the information sought. And the company provided no information about the qualifications of its forensic examiner. Though the trial court tried to limit the scope of the inspection with carefully chosen wording, the appellate court found that was not sufficient to protect the employee from the risks associated with a highly intrusive search.

Photo credit: Jakob Montrasio (CC BY 2.0)

There is no “generalized right to rummage” through an adversary’s Facebook account

Tompkins v. Detroit Metro. Airport, 2012 WL 179320 (E.D. Mich. January 18, 2012)

Plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against defendants claiming she was impaired in her ability to work and enjoy life. One of the defendants filed a motion with the court asking it to order plaintiff to authorize access to her entire Facebook account. The court denied the motion. Finding that defendant had not made a “sufficient predicate” showing that the sought-after information was relevant, and that the request was overly broad, the court held that defendant “[did] not have a generalized right to rummage at will through information that [plaintiff had] limited from public view.”

The court distinguished two other well-known social media discovery cases, Romano v. Steelcase and McMillen v. Hummingbird Speedway. In those cases, the Facebook users had posted photos of themselves engaged in activities that were inconsistent with their claimed injuries (e.g., going fishing and traveling to Florida). The publicly-visible photos that plaintiff in this case posted, which defendant argued made the rest of her account relevant, were of her holding a 2-pound dog, and standing with friends at a birthday party. “If [her] public Facebook page contained pictures of her playing golf or riding horseback,” the court noted, “[defendant] might have a stronger argument for delving into the nonpublic section of her account.”

The court made clear that its decision did not address the question of whether a Facebook user has a reasonable expectation of privacy in so-called private pages. (And there’s nothing in the decision to suggest that inquiry should be answered in the affirmative.) The court also noted that it was not answering the question of whether one could challenge a subpoena to Facebook under the Stored Communications Act (18 U.S.C. 2701 et seq.) as contemplated by Crispin v. Christian Audigier, 717 F.Supp.2d 965 (S.D. Cal. 2010).

Other coverage from Eric B. Meyer.

No deposition of account holder allowed until he is named as defendant in BitTorrent copyright case

Hard Drive Productions, Inc. v. Doe, 2012 WL 90412 (E.D. Cal. July 11, 2012)

In a mass copyright infringement suit, plaintiff served a subpoena on an internet service provider and got the identifying information for the account holder suspected of trading a copy of a movie via BitTorrent. The account holder was uncooperative with plaintiff’s offers to settle, and denied downloading the file.

Instead of simply naming the identified account holder as a defendant in the case and proceeding with ordinary discovery, plaintiff asked the court for leave to take “expedited discovery,” namely, to depose the account holder to learn about:

  • the account holder’s involvement with the alleged distribution
  • his computers and network setup
  • his technical savvy
  • other users who may have had access to the computers or network

The court denied plaintiff’s request for leave to engage in the expedited discovery. It found that unlike other copyright cases in which anonymous infringers were identified, the efforts in this case “went far beyond seeking to identify a Doe defendant.” Instead, the court observed, it would be “a full-on deposition during which [the account holder] who plaintiff admits is likely not represented by counsel, may unwarily incriminate himself on the record before he has even been named as a defendant and served with process.”

Court deals blow to anonymous Bittorrent defendants’ efforts to challenge subpoenas

West Coast Productions v. Does 1 – 5,829, — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 2292239 (D.D.C. June 10, 2011)

The judge in one of the well-known mass copyright cases filed by Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver a/k/a U.S. Copyright Group (West Coast Productions v. Does 1 – 5,829) has issued an order denying motions to quash filed by several of the unnamed defendants. Plaintiff had served subpoenas on the ISPs associated with the IP addresses allegedly involved in Bittorrent activity, seeking to learn the identity of those account holders.

The ruling is potentially troubling because the court refused to even consider the arguments presented by those anonymous parties who did not reveal their identity in connection with the motion to quash. Such an approach undermines, and indeed comes close to refusing altogether to recognize any privacy interest that a person may have concerning his or her ISP account information.

The court observed that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a party must identify himself or herself in the papers filed with the court. In some situations, however, a court may grant a “rare dispensation” of anonymity after taking into account the risk of unfairness to the party seeking anonymity as well as the general presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.

In this case, the court noted that other courts had “uniformly held that the privacy interest in [ISP account] information is minimal and not significant enough to warrant the special dispensation of anonymous filing.”

Absent from the court’s analysis was the potential for harm to defendants who were the subject of these subpoenas but might have the ability to demonstrate (anonymously) that they were not involved. In cases involving adult content, in particular, the harm of being publicly associated with that content — even if the association turns out to be in error — is one that should not be disregarded in this way. Moreover, taking away the ability of an anonymous defendant to challenge his unmasking will encourage extortionate-like behavior on the part of copyright plaintiffs hoping to extract a settlement early in the case. If writing a check is the only way to keep from having to turn one’s name over (and this case pretty much establishes that rule), then more settlements should be expected.

The court went on to reject the arguments in favor of motions to quash filed by John Does who had provided their contact information to the court. The court found that it was premature to rule on any objections based on a lack of personal jurisdiction because the defendants filing the motions had not actually been named as a party. And the court rejected the arguments that the defendants were improperly joined into the action, noting the allegations in the complaint that the IP addresses were involved in a single Bittorrent swarm.

Evan Brown is a Chicago-based attorney practicing technology and intellectual property law. Send email to ebrown@internetcases.com, call (630) 362-7237, follow on Twitter at @internetcases, and be sure to like Internet Cases on Facebook.