Tag Archives: social media

MySpace evidence was inadmissible hearsay

Musgrove v. Helms, 2011 WL 1225672 (Ohio App. 2 Dist. April 1, 2011)

An Ohio domestic relations court ordered an ex-wife to pay her ex-husband child support. Based on evidence that the ex-wife’s income had increased, the court increased the amount of support she had to pay. One of the pieces of evidence the court relied on was information from the ex-wife’s MySpace page where she had stated her income was “less than $30,000.” (This comported with other evidence suggesting her income was around $29,000).

The ex-wife sought review of the order increasing child support with the appellate court. On appeal, the court found the MySpace page to be inadmissible hearsay, and vacated that portion of the order.

The finding turned on a nuance of the rules of evidence pertaining to hearsay. Generally, hearsay is inadmissible as evidence, but there are exceptions. One of the exceptions is statements made by the declarant that are against her interest. The court found that although the MySpace information was used in a way adverse to the ex-wife’s interest (i.e., to increase her support obligation), as a declaration it was not adverse to her interest because it was not an assertion of fact which was by its nature contrary to her interest.

So this case is a reminder that notwithstanding any increased interest in the discoverability of social media evidence, the rules in place may serve to render the information discovered ultimately useless later in the litigation.

Court: Mark Zuckerberg lives in California

Ceglia v. Zuckerberg, — F.Supp.2d —, 2011 WL 1108607 (W.D.N.Y. March 28, 2011)

Well, maybe that title is a bit of an oversimplification. Technically the court said that Facebook’s founder is domiciled in California. The issue came up in a breach of contract case against Zuckerberg and Facebook in federal court in New York.

Last year, one Paul Ceglia sued in New York state court, claiming he owns 84 percent of Facebook. Zuckerberg and Facebook removed the case to federal court. Defendants can do that if the court would have subject matter jurisdiction over the case. Since a breach of contract case arises under state law, there needed to be diversity jurisdiction in the case — that is, the parties must be domiciled in different states. (The amount in controversy must also be above $75,000. An 84 percent cut of a multibillion dollar company would seem to meet that criterion.)

Zuckerberg claimed that California had become his domicile since 2004. Ceglia challenged that assertion. In the ConnectU v. Facebook litigation, Zuckerberg had claimed New York as his domicile. And Zuckerberg had the burden of proving his change in domicile by clear and convincing evidence. The court found that such evidence existed, including the following biographical tidbits:

  • He currently resides in California and has done so continuously since the summer of 2004.
  • He has no other residences.
  • He does not own real property in New York, California or elsewhere.
  • In 2007, he purchased and registered a vehicle in California.
  • He does not own or lease any other vehicles.
  • Zuckerberg has paid California resident income taxes since 2004.
  • He lists his California residence on his federal income tax returns.
  • He has not filed taxes in any state other than California since 2004.
  • Since at least 2007, he has been registered to vote in California and has voted in California.
  • He possess a valid California driver’s license issued in 2006.
  • His bank and brokerage accounts list his California residence and his investment advisors are located in California.
  • Zuckerberg receives his mail at a California post office box and at his Facebook office.
  • Most significantly, however, he is the owner, founder and CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation with over 1,600 employees and a principal place of business within walking distance to his current residence in Palo Alto, California.

The court found that these facts overwhelmingly showed that as of June 2010 (when Ceglia filed the lawsuit), Zuckerberg had changed his domicile to California and intended to remain there indefinitely. Since diversity jurisdiction existed, the court ordered the case to remain in federal court.

Court says you don’t need a person’s permission to tag them in a Facebook photo

Lalonde v. Lalonde, — S.W.3d —, 2011 WL 832465 (Ky. App., February 25, 2011)

Mother sought appellate review of the lower court’s order that awarded primary physical custody of her daughter to the child’s father. The mother argued, among other things, that the court improperly considered Facebook photos showing her drinking. This was not good because her psychologist had testified that alcohol would have an adverse effect on the medication she was taking for bipolar disorder. (Seems like there’s no shortage of cases involving drinkin’ photos on social media.)

The court rejected the mother’s assertion that the photos should not be considered as evidence. She argued that because Facebook allows anyone to post pictures and then “tag” or identify the people in the pictures, she never gave permission for the photographs to be published in this manner. The court held that “[t]here is nothing within the law that requires [one's] permission when someone takes a picture and posts it on a Facebook page. There is nothing that requires [one's] permission when she [is] “tagged” or identified as a person in those pictures.”

It might be easy to overstate the court’s conclusion here. Some instances of tagging might be part of something actionable. For example, the posting and tagging of photos in the right context might constitute harassment, infliction of emotional distress, or invasion of privacy. Use of another’s photo on the web without permission for commercial purposes might violate that person’s right of publicity. And of course there is the question of copyright as to the uploading of the photo in the first place — if the person appearing in the photo owns the copyright (e.g., it’s a self-portrait) there is the risk of infringement. But it’s interesting to see the court appear to validate ordinary tagging.

Judge uses Facebook to research litigant

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.

Facebook user had standing to challenge subpoena seeking his profile information

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.

College must reinstate nursing student who posted placenta picture on Facebook

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.

Court enters injunction against use of Twitter accounts in trademark case

Black Sheep Television, Ltd. v. Town of Islip, 2010 WL 4961669 (E.D.N.Y., December 6, 2010)

The Long Island Macarthur Airport is in a dispute with a company over that company’s alleged cybersquatting and the creation of websites that apparently a number of people have confused with the airport’s official marketing efforts. That company has also registered some Twitter accounts with usernames that incorporate the airport’s trademarks.

The airport has alleged trademark infringement and other similar claims against the company, and moved for a preliminary injunction. The court granted the motion, ordering (among other things) the Twitter accounts to remain in the ownership, custody, and control of the airport throughout the pendency of the litigation.

[Download the opinion]

Facebook account protected from disclosure in discovery, for now

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.

Facebook victorious in lawsuit brought by kicked-off user

Young v. Facebook, 2010 WL 4269304 (N.D. Cal. October 25, 2010)

Plaintiff took offense to a certain Facebook page critical of Barack Obama and spoke out on Facebook in opposition. In response, many other Facebook users allegedly poked fun at plaintiff, sometimes using offensive Photoshopped versions of her profile picture. She felt harassed.

But maybe that harassment went both ways. Plaintiff eventually got kicked off of Facebook because she allegedly harassed other users, doing things like sending friend requests to people she did not know.

When Facebook refused to reactivate plaintiff’s account (even after she drove from her home in Maryland to Facebook’s California offices twice), she sued.

Facebook moved to dismiss the lawsuit. The court granted the motion.

Constitutional claims

Plaintiff claimed that Facebook violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The court dismissed this claim because plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the complained-of conduct on Facebook’s part (kicking her off) “was fairly attributable to the government.” Plaintiff attempted to get around the problem of Facebook-as-private-actor by pointing to the various federal agencies that have Facebook pages. But the court was unmoved, finding that the termination of her account had nothing to do with these government-created pages.

Breach of contract

Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim was based on other users harassing her when she voiced her disapproval of the Facebook page critical of the president. She claimed that in failing to take action against this harassment, Facebook violated its own Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

The court rejected this argument, finding that although the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities may place restrictions on users’ behavior, it does not create affirmative obligations on the part of Facebook. Moreover, Facebook expressly disclaims any responsibility in the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities for policing the safety of the network.

Good faith and fair dealing

Every contract (under California law and under the laws of most other states) has an implied duty of good faith and fair dealing, which means that there is an implied “covenant by each party not to do anything which will deprive the other parties . . . of the benefits of the contract.” Plaintiff claimed Facebook violated this implied duty in two ways: by failing to provide the safety services it advertised and violating the spirit of the terms of service by terminating her account.

Neither of these arguments worked. As for failing to provide the safety services, the court looked again to how Facebook disclaimed responsibility for such actions.

The court gave more intriguing treatment to plaintiff’s claim that Facebook violated the spirit of its terms of service. It looked to the contractual nature of the terms of service, and Facebook’s assertions that users’ accounts should not be terminated other than for reasons described in the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. The court found that “it is at least conceivable that arbitrary or bad faith termination of user accounts, or even termination . . . with no explanation at all, could implicate the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”

But plaintiff’s claim failed anyway, because of the way she had articulated her claim. She asserted that Facebook violated the implied duty by treating her coldly in the termination process, namely, by depriving her of human interaction. The court said that termination process was okay, given that the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities said that it would simply notify users by email in the event their accounts are terminated. There was no implied obligation to provide a more touchy-feely way to terminate.

Negligence

Among other things, to be successful in a negligence claim, a plaintiff has to allege a duty on the part of the defendant. Plaintiff’s negligence claim failed in this case because she failed to establish that Facebook had any duty to “condemn all acts or statements that inspire, imply, incite, or directly threaten violence against anyone.” Finding that plaintiff provided no basis for such a broad duty, the court also looked to the policy behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. 230) which immunizes website providers from content provided by third parties that may be lewd or harassing.

Fraud

The court dismissed plaintiff’s fraud claim, essentially finding that plaintiff’s allegations that Facebook’s “terms of agreement [were] deceptive in the sense of misrepresentation and false representation of company standards,” simply were not specific enough to give Facebook notice of the claim alleged.

Debt collector broke the law by using MySpace photo to intimidate consumer

Sohns v. Bramacint, 2010 WL 3926264 (D.Minn. October 1, 2010)

Plaintiff fell behind on her car payments. The lender turned the debt over to a collection agency that used technology and some remarkably poor judgment in an attempt to get paid.

The first bad decision was to use a caller-ID spoofer to make it look like the collection call was coming from plaintiff’s mother in law. The next not-smart use of technology was to access plaintiff’s MySpace page, learn that plaintiff had a daughter, and to use that fact to intimidate plaintiff. There was evidence in the record to suggest that the collection agency’s “investigator” said to plaintiff, after mentioning plaintiff’s “beautiful daughter,” something to the effect of “wouldn’t it be terrible if something happened to your kids while the sheriff’s department was taking you away?”

Plaintiff sued the debt collection agency under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The FDCPA sets some restrictions on how debt collectors can go about their business. Plaintiff moved for summary judgment. The court granted the motion.

It held that the collection agency engaged in conduct the natural consequence of which was to harass, oppress, or abuse in connection with the collection of the debt; used false, deceptive, or misleading representations or means in connection with the collection of the debt; and used unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect the debt.

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