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

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.

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