We’ve all heard the stories about lawyers using social media to research jurors and to gather evidence about opponents. But here’s a new twist: even judges look to Facebook to find information about the parties appearing before them.
In Purvis v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 2011 WL 741234 (D.N.J., Feb. 23, 2011), the question before federal judge Susan Davis Wigenton was whether the plaintiff had been wrongfully denied Social Security benefits. Ultimately the judge determined that the question of whether plaintiff’s asthma made her disabled needed to go back to the Social Security office for further proceedings. But the judge had some pretty severe skepticism about the merits of the plaintiff’s claim, expressed in this footnote:
Although the Court remands the ALJ’s decision for a more detailed finding, it notes that in the course of its own research, it discovered one profile picture on what is believed to be Plaintiff’s Facebook page where she appears to be smoking. Profile Pictures by Theresa Purvis, Facebook, [link omitted because it's broken] (last visited Feb. 16, 2011). If accurately depicted, Plaintiff’s credibility is justifiably suspect.
I guess the moral of the story is to hide your smokes when someone pulls out a camera. Or maybe there’s an even bigger lesson. What do you think? Leave your comments.
Lewton v. Divingnzzo, 2011 WL 692292 (D.Neb. Feb. 18, 2011)
Defendant thought her ex-husband was abusing their daughter during visitations. To prove these allegations in the custody case, defendant sewed an electronic recording device into the little girl’s favorite teddy bear. After the daughter returned from visiting with her father, the mom would unstitch the teddy bear and download the recorded conversations onto her computer.
She tried using the transcribed recordings as evidence in the state court custody proceeding. But the judge would not let them into evidence because they violated Nebraska law. The father and others whose conversations were recorded via the teddy bear sued the mom under the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
Both sides moved for summary judgment. The court ruled in favor of the father, finding that the surreptitious recording did not fit into any exception of the ECPA.
The ECPA provides a private right of action to any person whose wire, oral or electronic communication is intercepted, disclosed or intentionally used in violation of the ECPA. Looking to Eighth Circuit authority, the court observed that the ECPA prohibits all wiretapping that is not specifically exempted by the statute.
No doubt this was a tough case – a parent fearing for the safety of his or her child might have strong reasons to resort to eavesdropping to protect the child. But the court was hamstrung – “[w]hile the notion that a parent or guardian should be able to listen to a child’s conversations to protect the child from harm may have merit as a matter of policy, it is for Congress, not the courts, to alter the provisions of the statute.”
The court ordered the defendant and her father (who had transcribed the recordings) to pay $10,000 to each of the offended plaintiffs. The defendant’s lawyer who had distributed the recordings to the guardian ad litem and others was found to have violated the ECPA but was not ordered to pay any money damages.
Mancuso v. Florida Metropolitan University, Inc., 2011 WL 310726 (S.D. Fla. January 28, 2011 )
Plaintiff sued his former employer seeking back overtime wages. In preparing its defense of the case, the employer sent supboenas to Facebook and Myspace seeking information about plaintiff’s use of those platforms. (The employer probably wanted to subtract the amount of time plaintiff spent messing around online from his claim of back pay.) Plaintiff moved to quash the subpoenas, claiming that his accounts contained confidential and privileged information. The court denied the motion as to these social networking accounts, but did so kind of on a technicality. The subpoenas were issued out of federal district courts in California, and since this court (in Florida) did not have jurisdiction over the issuance of those subpoenas, it had to deny the motion to quash.
But there was some interesting discussion that took place in getting to this analysis that is worth noting. Generally, a party does not have standing to challenge a subpoena served on a non-party, unless that party has a personal right or privilege with respect to the subject matter of the materials subpoenaed. The employer argued that plaintiff did not have standing to challenge the subpoenas in the first place.
The court disagreed, looking to the case of Crispin v. Christian Audiger, Inc. 717 F.Supp.2d 965 (C.D. Cal. 2010), in which that court explained:
[A]n individual has a personal right in information in his or her profile and inbox on a social networking site and his or her webmail inbox in the same way that an individual has a personal right in employment and banking records. As with bank and employment records, this personal right is sufficient to confer standing to move to quash a subpoena seeking such information.
This almost sounds like an individual has a privacy right in his or her social media information. But the p-word is absent from this analysis. So from this case we know there is a right to challenge subpoenas directed at intermediaries with information. We’re just not given much to go on as to why such a subpoena should be quashed.
Byrnes v. Johnson County Community College, 2011 WL 166715 (D. Kan., January 19, 2011)
Plaintiff nursing student and some of her classmates attended a clinical OB/GYN course at the local hospital in Olathe, Kansas last November. They got permission from their instructor to photograph themselves with a placenta. Plaintiff posted the photo on Facebook. She got expelled from school. Yes, I know you want to see the photo. Here it is.
So she sued the college for violation of her due process rights and sought an injunction ordering that she be reinstated. The court granted the motion.
The court found that the appeal process that the college provided to plaintiff was in no way a fair and unbiased opportunity for her to fully present her case before a neutral and unbiased arbitrator.
The instructor had granted permission for plaintiff to take the picture — and may have consented to its publication on Facebook — but plaintiff did not get an adequate chance to make that argument. The court observed that “photos are taken to be viewed,” and that “by giving the students permission to take the photos, which [the instructor] admitted, it was reasonable to anticipate that the photos would be shown to others.”
Also relevant in the analysis was the absence of any apparent privacy right implicated by showing the placenta. Nothing in the photo showed any patient identification, nor were any of the nursing students able to testify that they knew the patient’s identity. The court found it irrelevant that the placenta appeared to be “fresh,” rejecting the defendants’ implications that that would somehow indicate who the patient was.
Because plaintiff had shown a likelihood of success on her due process argument, and had met the other requirements for the injunction (such as a showing of irreparable harm if not reinstated), the court granted the order that plaintiff be permitted to take last semester’s final exams and permitted to go back to class.
Doe v. Fankhauser, 2010 WL 4702295 (N.D. Ohio, November 30, 2010)
County clerk immune from law suit over posting court document on government website.
Plaintiff Jane Doe was the victim of physical and sexual abuse when she was a minor. In the criminal case against the perpetrator, Doe’s name was redacted, and she and her family were allegedly assured that her name would not be publicly disclosed. But someone in the county clerk’s website scanned some documents from the criminal case that had Doe’s name in them and posted those electronic documents on the county’s website, making them publicly available.
So Doe sued the county clerk for violation of Doe’s constitutional due process rights and for common law invasion of privacy. The clerk moved to dismiss. The court granted the motion.
The court found that the clerk was protected by judicial immunity. Judges and court personnel who perform judicial and quasi-judicial functions are absolutely immune from suits for damages arising out of the performance of official judicial acts. In this case, the court found that the clerk’s actions in permitting the documents to be scanned and posted required a type of judgment closely related to the judicial process and therefore deserving of immunity.
Interestingly, the court held that the clerk was entitled to immunity from suit regardless of how careless she may have been. There was no loss of immunity merely because a mistake was made and the original document, without redaction, was made available to the public. “Where there is immunity, it applies even in the face of allegations of bad faith, malice, or reckless indifference.”
Makes you feel confident that the government is watching out for your privacy, doesn’t it?
Caro v. Weintraub, 2010 WL 4514273 (D. Conn. November 2, 2010)
Stepson who used iPhone to record conversation about dying mother’s will may be liable for invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress.
This past summer the case against a man accused of using his iPhone to surreptitiously record a family conversation about his dying mother’s will got some attention when the court dismissed the stepfather-widower’s claim for violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
But the dismissal of that case was not the end of the story. Plaintiff had filed a separate lawsuit, claiming, among other things, invasion of privacy (by intrusion upon seclusion) and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendants (the allegedly eavesdropping iPhone user and his brother) moved to dismiss the invasion of privacy and emotional distress claims. The court denied the motion.
Plaintiff alleged that four days before his wife (defendants’ mother) died, defendants and some other family members came over to the house to discuss the mother’s will. Unbeknown to plaintiff, one of the defendant brothers allegedly used his iPhone to secretly record the conversation. In the subsequent litigation over the mother’s estate, the stepsons attempted to use an allegedly altered version of the recording as evidence.
The court found that the act of secretly recording the conversation could constitute invasion of privacy. Whether it actually happened the way plaintiff claimed will be decided later by a jury. But the judge found that a jury was entitled to make that determination. Plaintiff’s claims that defendants surreptitiously recorded an intimate conversation about a family member’s will qualified as an offensive intentional intrusion in private affairs that could be highly offensive to a reasonable person.
As for the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, the court found that defendants’ alleged conduct “exceed[ed] all bounds usually tolerated by decent society.” As with the invasion of privacy claim, the question of liability will go to a jury (unless the case settles, of course.)
McCann v. Harleysville Insurance, — N.Y.S.2d —, 2010 WL 4540599 (November 12, 2010)
Unlike some recent cases such as Romano v. Steelcase, which seem to give the impression that the information in a person’s social networking account is always fair game for discovery in litigation, one New York court has come down on the side of protecting the privacy of a Facebook user’s content.
Plaintiff was injured in an automobile accident and filed a lawsuit over her injuries. In the course of discovery, defendant sought photographs from plaintiff’s Facebook account and “an authorization” to access the account. Defendant claimed the sought-after discovery related to whether plaintiff sustained a serious injury.
After plaintiff did not respond to the discovery requests, defendant moved to compel. The trial court denied the motion, finding the discovery to be overly broad, and finding that defendant had failed to show the relevancy of the information to be discovered. Defendant sought review with the appellate court. On appeal, the court affirmed.
The court held that the discovery sought was too broad and that defendant had failed to show the relevancy of the information. It affirmed the denial of the motion as to avoid a “fishing expedition.”
But the holding is anything but reassuring from the plaintiff’s perspective. It affirmed the denial without prejudice to serving additional discovery requests. So it sounds as if defendant tailors its discovery a bit more closely, and shows how accessing plaintiff’s Facebook account will provide relevant evidence, it may see some success.
Chasten v. Franklin, 2010 WL 4065606 (N.D.Cal. October 14, 2010)
Plaintiff sued some corrections officers at the prison where her inmate son was killed. She learned in a deposition that one of the defendants had a Yahoo email account. So she sent a subpoena to Yahoo seeking all the email messages sent from that account during a period of more than two years.
Defendant moved to quash the subpoena, arguing that disclosure of the email messages would violate his rights under the Stored Communications Act (SCA). The court granted the motion to quash.
Subject to certain specifically-enumerated exceptions, the SCA (at 18 U.S.C. 2702(a) and (b)) essentially prohibits providers of electronic communication or remote computing services to the public from knowingly divulging the contents of their customers’ electronic communications or the records relating to their customers. The court found that no such exception applied in this case. Citing to Theofel v. Farey-Jones, it held that compliance with the subpoena would be an invasion of the specific interests that the SCA seeks to protect.
Thompson v. Ross, 2010 WL 3896533 (W.D. Pa. September 30, 2010)
Messages from Yahoo and AOL email accounts saved on laptop computer were not in “electronic storage” as defined by Stored Communications Act.
Plaintiff’s ex-girlfriend kept his laptop computer after the two of them broke up. The ex-girlfriend let two of her co-workers access some email messages stored on the computer. Plaintiff filed suit under the Stored Communications Act. Defendants moved to dismiss. The court granted the motion.
Under the Stored Communications Act (at 18 U.S.C. 2701), one is liable if he or she accesses without authorization a facility through which an electronic communication service is provided and thereby obtains, alters, or prevents authorized access to a wire or electronic communication while it is in electronic storage in such system.
The court held that the Stored Communications Act did not cover the email messages because they were not in “electronic storage” as defined at 18 U.S.C. 2510(17)(B). In relevant part, that section defines “electronic storage” as “any storage of such communication by an electronic communication service for purposes of backup protection of such communication.”
The court looked to the plain language of the statute, finding that the definition was not met because the messages were not stored by an electronic communication service. It rejected plaintiff’s arguments that the fact the messages were in “backup storage” extended the scope of the definition.
U.S. v. Kernell, No. 08-CR-142 (E.D. Tenn. September 23, 2010)
A federal jury convicted defendant for a number of crimes related to his hacking into Sarah Palin’s Yahoo email account in September 2008. One of the crimes the jury convicted him of was the “destruction or alteration of a record or document with the intent to obstruct an investigation” (a violation of 18 USC 1519).
After hacking into Palin’s account, but before the formal FBI investigation began, defendant deleted some Palin family pictures he had downloaded from the account, uninstalled his web browser, and defragmented his hard drive.
Defendant moved for a “judgment of acquittal”, arguing that the evidence was insufficent to support his convictions. The court denied the motion.
The court found that the Government offered sufficient proof to support the conviction. Even though defendant preserved (did not destroy) his computer, spoke with an FBI agent investigating the matter and advised his friends to be truthful in what they said about the case, the court looked to the totality of the evidence as supporting defendant’s guilt.
Given that defendant deleted images from his computer that he had downloaded from Palin’s account, and had run web searches on “legalities email” and “soppenaing [sic.] ip addresses”, a rational jury could find him guilty. So the jury verdit stood.