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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Court: privacy on social networking sites is wishful thinking

Defendant is permitted access to plaintiff’s social networking accounts as part of discovery in personal injury case.

Romano v. Steelcase Inc., — N.Y.S.2d —, 2010 WL 3703242 (N.Y.Sup. September 21, 2010)

Plaintiff sued defendant for personal injury that allegedly caused her to lose her enjoyment of life. During discovery, plaintiff refused to voluntarily turn over the contents of her Myspace and Facebook accounts. So defendant filed a motion to compel plaintiff to consent to having Facebook and MySpace turn over all current and deleted content from the accounts. (That consent was necessary because without it, the sites would violate the Stored Communications Act.) The court granted the motion to compel.

The court found that the information contained in the profiles was “material and necessary” to the case. In drawing its conclusion, the court dispensed with any notion that a user’s privacy settings should affect the analysis. Denying defendant access to the information, the court found, would not only go against New York’s policy favoring liberal discovery, but “would condone Plaintiff’s attempt to hide relevant information behind self-regulated privacy settings.” Plaintiff had put her physical condition at issue, so it was fair for defendant to get evidence that may contradict the assertions of injury.

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that disclosure of the information would violate her right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. Fatal to any assertion of privacy was the fact that plaintiff had voluntarily made her information available on the sites. The court looked to earlier New York cases dealing with email to find that plaintiff had no expectation of privacy in the social networking data.

And the court made a sweeping declaration about the state of online privacy that is worth noting. Quoting from a law review article, the court observed that in the social media environment, “privacy is no longer grounded in reasonable expectations, but rather in some theoretical protocol better known as wishful thinking.”

YouTube video maker who threatened judge must stay jailed awaiting trial

U.S. v. Jeffries, No. 10-CR-100, 2010 WL 3619946 (E.D. Tenn. September 13, 2010)

Defendant created and posted a video to YouTube in which he allegedly sang a song that threatened to bomb the car of a judge scheduled to hear his child custody case. Though he did not mention the judge by name, he said the song was “for you judge” and said “do not tell me I cannot curse.” (The judge had previously admonished defendant for swearing in the courtroom.)

The feds charged defendant with one count of transmitting in interstate commerce a threat to injure and kill.

Recognizing that defendant was a danger to society, the government filed a motion asking the court to order he stay in custody until trial. The court granted the motion.

The court weighed four factors in making this determination. First, the charged offense was a crime of violence (18 U.S.C. 16 defines a crime of violence as one containing an element of threatened use of force against another). Second, the evidence as to defendant’s dangerousness was great — the YouTube video was about killing and car-bombing, after all. Third, the defendant’s character (especially in the past few months) made him a risk — he had attacked a doctor, had alcohol problems, and got kicked out of military housing for firing a weapon during a dispute. Fourth, defendant was a danger to the community and to his family — he was living with his wife and children when he had fired the gun into the air.

Plaintiff failed to show that Facebook pics supported hostile workplace claim

Jabbar v. Travel Services, Inc., 2010 WL 3563112, (D.Puerto Rico September 10, 2010)

Plaintiff sued her former employer for racial discrimination. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, finding there was not enough evidence to go to trial on plaintiff’s claim. Plaintiff asked the court to reconsider the judgment against her. The court held its ground.

One of the assertions that plaintiff made was that someone from work had posted a discriminatory comment on a Facebook photo taken at a company outing.

The court found there was no evidence apart from plaintiff’s own deposition testimony that the company’s official policy was to upload photos to Facebook. And there was no evidence as to who owned the Facebook account in question.

So the court found no basis to overturn its earlier determination that plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination.

Court refuses to keep train wreck video confidential

Maldonado v. UPRR, No. 09-1187, 2010 WL 1980318 (D.Kan. May 18, 2010)

Even the fear of social media won’t keep some things under wraps.

The video camera onboard a locomotive captured the moments before the train struck a car at a railroad crossing, killing one of the occupants. In the inevitable lawsuit against the railroad following the accident, the plaintiffs’ lawyers demanded that the video of the accident be produced in discovery.

The railroad objected to the production of the video absent a court order keeping it confidential, arguing that the presence of services like YouTube would permit the video to be widely distributed to the public. To keep the video from serving as “entertainment for gawkers looking to satisfy their morbid curiosity,” the railroad wanted only the parties, lawyers, staff and experts to be able to see the video.

The court rejected the arguments and found that nothing in the video depicted gruesome images of death or injury. It denied the railroad’s motion for protective order. So if you’re into this kind of content, keep an eye on YouTube. Though from what I gather from the court’s description of this video, there’s plenty of gorier stuff out there.

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Nefarious LinkedIn use finally makes it to the courts

TEKsystems, Inc. v. Hammernick, No. 10-99819 (D. Minn., Filed 3/16/2010). [Link to Complaint (PDF)]

Here is an interesting lawsuit that is bound to convince some employers that social media is causing the sky to fall (to the extent they’re not thinking that already).

Minnesota, showing roads and major bodies of water
Image via Wikipedia

An IT headhunting company that does business in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota has filed suit against a former recruiter-employee for breach of her noncompetition agreement. The complaint says that she violated that agreement when she connected on LinkedIn with 20 of the candidates her old firm was working with.

One thing that’s missing from the allegations is when the defendant made these allegedly improper LinkedIn connections. Did she already have them as connections when she left the plaintiff’s employment or did she invite them to connect after she left? The distinction seems like it would be relevant.

No doubt this case should get some attention due to the novelty of the allegations, namely, that the defendant used a social networking site to break the law. But as thinking persons, we should be careful not to sensationalize these facts. When you stop and think about it, how does the fact that the defendant may have used LinkedIn really differentiate the case from one in which she would have used a more conventional form of communication to solicit?

[Thanks to Paul Cherner at the HR Counsel blog for alerting me to this case. More coverage at the Delaware Employment Law Blog and Portfolio.com]

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