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.


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.


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.”

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