Tag Archives: social networking

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.

Employee’s Facebook status update was protected by the First Amendment

Mattingly v. Milligan, 2011 WL 5184283 (E.D.Ark. November 1, 2011)

Plaintiff worked in the county clerk’s office. Her old boss, whom she had supported in the election, lost. Her new boss (the newly-elected county clerk) began cleaning house and laid off some of the staff. Plaintiff survived that round of cuts, but lamented those terminations in a Facebook status update. Empathetic comments from county residents ensued.

The new boss found out about the status update and the comments. So he fired plaintiff. She sued, alleging that the termination violated her right to free speech. The boss moved for summary judgment, but the court denied the motion, sending the case to trial.

Here is some of the relevant Facebook content:

Plaintiff’s status update: So this week not going so good bad stuff all around.

Friend’s comment: Will be praying. Speak over those bad things positively.

Plaintiff’s comment: I am trying my heart goes out to the ladies in my office that were told by letter they were no longer needed…. It’s sad.

* * *

Friend’s comment: He’s making a mistake, but I knew he would, too bad….

* * *

Friend’s comment: I can’t believe a letter would be the manner of delivering such a message! I’m with the others…they will find some thing better and tell them this is an opportunity and not a closed door. Prayers for you and friends.

* * *

Friend’s comment: How could you expect anything else from [defendant], he was an…well nevermind.

Courts addressing claims by public employees who contend that they have been discharged for exercising their right to free speech must employ a two-step inquiry: First, the court must determine whether the speech may be described as “speech on a matter of public concern.” If so, the second step involves balancing the employee’s right to free speech against the interests of the public employer.

In this case, the court found the speech to be on a matter of public concern because:

  • the statements were made in a “public domain”
  • those who saw the statements (many of whom were residents of the county) understood them to be about terminations in the clerk’s office
  • some of the comments contained criticism of the termination decision
  • six constituents of the new clerk called his office to complain
  • the press and media had covered the situation

As for the second step in the analysis, namely, balancing the employee’s right to free speech against the interests of the public employer, the court did not even undertake a balancing test, as there simply was no evidence that the status update and the comments disrupted the operations of the clerk’s office.

Court dismisses unfair competition claim against Facebook over alleged privacy violation

This is a post by Sierra Falter.  Sierra is a third-year law student at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago focusing on intellectual property law.  You can reach her by email at sierrafalter [at] gmail dot com or follow her on Twitter (@lawsierra).  Bio: www.sierrafalter.com.

In re Facebook Privacy Litigation, 2011 WL 2039995 (N.D.Cal. May 12, 2011)

Plaintiff Facebook users sued defendant Facebook for violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200, et seq., alleging that Facebook intentionally and knowingly transmitted personal information about plaintiffs to third-party advertisers without plaintiffs’ consent.  Facebook moved to dismiss the UCL claim.  The court granted the motion.

Defendant argued that plaintiffs failed to state a claim because they lacked standing under the UCL, since they did not allege they lost money or property.  Defendant asserted there was no such loss because plaintiffs’ “personal information” did not constitute property under the UCL.

Instead, the plaintiffs had alleged that defendant unlawfully shared their “personally identifiable information” with third-party advertisers.  However, the court distinguished the plaintiffs’ claim from Doe 1 v. AOL, LLC, 719 F.Supp.2d 1102 (N.D. Cal. 2010).  In that case, the plaintiffs’ personal and financial information had been distributed to the public after the plaintiffs therein signed up and paid fees for AOL’s service.  The court dismissed plaintiff’s claim in this case under the holding of Doe v. AOL — since plaintiffs alleged they received defendant’s services for free, they could not state a UCL claim.

Court throws out Facebook’s lawsuit against Teachbook.com

Case dismissed because federal court in California did not have personal jurisdiction over Illinois resident.

Facebook, Inc. v. Teachbook.com, LLC, 2011 WL 1672464 (N.D.Cal. May 3, 2011)

Last year Facebook made us wonder if it had gone off its meds when it filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Illinois-based Teachbook.com. More than one commentator thought Facebook was being overzealous in its efforts to claim exclusivity in the term “book” for social networking services.

However one contenances the action, the court has shut the cover on the first chapter. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (where Facebook is located) held that it lacked personal jursidction over the Illinois defendant. So it dismissed the case.

Applying the well-known “effects test” from Calder v. Jones, the court found that Teachbook had not expressly aimed its conduct into California:

Teachbook does not register users in California. Thus, even if Teachbook intended to compete with a California company, it intended to compete for users who were not in California. The fact that an essentially passive Internet advertisement may be accessible in the plaintiff’s home state without “something more” is not enough to support personal jurisdiction in a trademark infringement suit brought in the plaintiff’s home state.

So if the fight continues, it won’t take place in Facebook’s back yard.

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 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.

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.

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.”

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.

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]