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How Social Media Are Transforming Litigation

By Andy Radhakant and Matthew Diskin

 

Few transformations have affected litigation and litigators as swiftly and as profoundly as social media. In five short years, we’ve seen a sea change in the way people live, connect, and do business across the Internet. “Web 2.0,” a term referring to Internet use that goes beyond merely retrieving information from websites, includes entirely new ways to create content and share information through online social networking. In addition to pervading most of our lives, the social media phenomenon is having a profound effect on every stage of litigation and in virtually every area of practice.


Social media have become a big part of the way litigators do business, and they pose problems in the litigation process from the first time lawyers meet with their clients until after judgment is rendered. They affect criminal, civil, and family law litigators alike. They are brimming with potential and fraught with danger for both the unwary lawyer and client.


We read about a New England Patriots cheerleader fired for being seen in a Facebook photo posing with an unconscious man covered in offensive graffiti; a Canadian sportscaster whose contract was terminated after he tweeted his opposition to changing the definition of marriage; and British flight attendants who were sacked for posting unflattering comments about passengers on their blog. We have heard about employers demanding that interviewees surrender their Facebook login names and passwords—and their private lives. The reality of being fired for something you’ve posted, blogged, or tweeted has entered the popular consciousness to such an extent that there’s now a word for it: getting “dooced.” We have read news reports about rights holders, especially trademark owners, whose policing and enforcement activities have backfired badly when their tactics were picked up on social media and went viral.


Social media can offer both powerful and risky tools for litigators. We provide some vignettes based on our experience, the news, and reported cases that we hope will give litigators some guidance as they try to navigate the uncharted and potentially treacherous waters that social media present.


The rise of Web 2.0 saw the explosion of social networking via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr, and other platforms. Facebook, for example, reached one billion users in 2012. Our profession, many of whose members were just becoming familiar with e-discovery and metadata, now faces what we call “Litigation 2.0.” Before we explore how social media can play a role during trial, we ask: What role do social media play even before there is litigation?


Troves of Personal Information
Many social media users publish vast amounts of personal information (often apparently without much reflection beforehand). As a result, online profiles often provide treasure troves of information about parties, lawyers, witnesses, experts, and even judges. The openness of social media—and users’ willingness to tweet and post things they would never dream of saying in a letter or an email—means that social networks offer rich repositories of potential pre-litigation intelligence and fodder for cross-examination.


Marcus and his former common-law spouse, Maria, were locked in a custody battle over their son, Mitchell. The key issue in the litigation was whether it is in Mitchell’s best interests to live with his mother or father. Although Maria was well advised before the start of litigation that she should check her privacy settings, she made a blunder in reviewing her list of contacts and failed to restrict access by Marcus’s sister, Agnes, to her Facebook page. Mistakenly believing that she had secured her social media presence, Maria was less guarded with her posts than she should have been. Upon being retained, Marcus’s attorney learned that Agnes still had access to Maria’s Facebook page and asked her to print all of Maria’s online posts since her split with Marcus, which he then used to demonstrate that Maria “hated kids,” was actively using illegal drugs, had been kicked out of a nightclub for her intoxicated behavior, and was planning a move out of state in the near future that she had not disclosed to Marcus or the court. Marcus succeeded at trial and won full custody of Mitchell.


We believe that running a social media search of clients, opponents, and witnesses is now part of the minimum level of due diligence expected of a competent litigator. Indeed, some courts have questioned whether lawyers who have not run Google searches on a defendant but are asserting that the person cannot be found have in fact made reasonable efforts to locate the defendant. In our view, it’s just a matter of time before malpractice claims begin to surface based on a failure to use information publicly available on the Internet.


Attorney George is a senior and highly respected member of the defense bar and has been in practice for more than 40 years. He was retained by one of his large insurance clients to defend an action brought by Rhonda, who alleged a series of injuries and substantial damages from what appeared to be a minor fender bender. The action followed the normal course, and despite George’s skillful advocacy, the jury delivered a substantial verdict in favor of Rhonda, based on conflicting expert reports. Of course, George had warned his client, a sophisticated litigant, of this possible outcome. However, in the course of the insurer’s review of the file after the verdict, a young insurance adjuster decided to look into Rhonda’s Internet presence. He discovered that Rhonda had posted a number of photos of herself on MySpace making it clear that she was in far better condition than she alleged at trial. George was removed from the insurance company’s list of preferred counsel and is now facing a possible malpractice claim for his failure to perform an adequate investigation of Rhonda.


Ethical Minefields
Social media sites are ethical minefields that many lawyers are only now beginning to grapple with. We are probably on safe ground when we access information that users have knowingly made available to the public. Unsurprisingly, courts have accepted that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in that kind of information. However, it is ethically problematic for lawyers to “friend” people just to get access to information in their social media profiles.


Attorney David represented the famous musician Baby La-La in a case about alleged cyber-defamation against her former musical collaborator and producer, Dr. Mae. Before the litigation started but after a flurry of correspondence by both parties’ lawyers, David created a false Facebook identity to “friend” Dr. Mae on Facebook and follow his Facebook posts. Although this effort bore some fruit and additional defamatory comments about Baby La-La were discovered, after the trial Dr. Mae contacted the state bar and filed a professional misconduct complaint against David. He alleged David had made false statements, communicated with a represented person, misrepresented his role in the litigation process, and engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation. The complaint was upheld, and David’s law license was suspended for two months. During that time, he defaulted on his mortgage, became depressed, and developed a drinking problem.


We have a duty to warn our own clients about the risks of social media. Clients can jeopardize privilege and, in some cases, have been held to have waived it by tweeting, blogging, or posting information about their cases. Some lawyers in areas like family, employment, criminal, and personal injury litigation have made it part of their client intake practice to sit down with each new client and conduct a social media audit that covers explaining the importance of maintaining the lawyer-client privilege and changing all passwords, advising against certain types of new online activity (especially if an employee-client is using an employer’s network or device to do it), and giving advice about whether any past activity can be safely deleted. Giving advice on the removal of information carries with it the very real risk of a spoliation allegation.


Attorney Myron represented a young widow, Wendy, in a wrongful death lawsuit brought against her late husband’s employer, a municipal waste disposal company. In a tragic accident, Wendy’s husband, Andrew, was fatally injured by an improperly maintained hydraulic lift on his garbage truck. Wendy retained Myron to represent her in court. During their preparations for discovery, Myron asked Wendy if she had any social media pages. When Myron reviewed the pages, he discovered that a number of posts did not fit with the grieving widow image. For example, within a week of Andrew’s death, Wendy changed her status to “single” and was tagged in various photographs showing her to be attending wild parties. Myron did not want the jury to see this side of his client, so he directed Wendy to “tidy up” her social media accounts to remove these types of posts. Unfortunately for Wendy, defense counsel was able to find cached versions of her posts containing some, but not all, of the materials that Myron wanted removed. Although Wendy won a verdict at trial, the judge reduced it substantially because of Wendy’s and Myron’s spoliation of evidence. Wendy has now commenced litigation against Myron claiming damages equal to the reduction in the verdict.


The Role of Social Media During Litigation
Social media are fundamentally tools for communication. In the world of Litigation 2.0, even the mundane task of service of process has social media dimensions. Information from social media can assist lawyers in tracking down individuals to be served. Orders for substituted service have long been available where counsel satisfies the court that the traditional means of service cannot be used or have failed. Courts in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia have now validated service of originating documents through Facebook and Twitter. However, a New York court recently rejected service through social media, in part because of the risk that profiles can be faked. This is likely to be an area of significant development in the very near future. The key issue will be satisfying a court that service through these electronic means will provide effective notice to the party being served.


Paul is a washed-up musician whose 1970s band, the Gutter Cats, was moderately successful before he faded into obscurity. Paul was introduced to television producer Michael and convinced him to fund a 12-episode television show called The Rebound featuring Paul and his former band mates as they interview celebrity musicians from the 1970s. Unfortunately, however, Paul simply pocketed the $150,000 advance for making the show and now cannot be found despite Michael’s best efforts. All investigations of Paul come up short; however, Michael’s tech-savvy attorney has discovered Paul’s Twitter account. With information gleaned in real-time from Twitter, Michael’s lawyer was able to serve Paul 20 minutes after he raved about the Kobe beef and lobster tacos he was having for lunch—a quick Google search revealed only one restaurant in town serving the dish.


Although the utility of social media as a source of information is fairly obvious, lawyers must remember that the rules of evidence still apply. Litigators are all familiar with the routine for proving documents at trial, but social media raise certain evidentiary difficulties. Valuable and relevant evidence may be unusable if counsel cannot meet the requisite foundational elements of authentication. The rules of evidence give little guidance on how such information should be tendered. It is important for counsel to consider carefully how social media evidence will be proved. Is it sufficient to tender such evidence through an individual who accessed the information? Is it necessary for the service provider to become involved? Is the identity of the account holder admitted? These issues are not yet settled, and litigators ignore them at their peril. For a recent helpful consideration of the evidentiary issues posed by social media, see B. M. Democko, “Social Media and the Rules on Authentication,” 43 U. Tol. L. Rev. 367 (2012), and Josh Gilliland, “The Admissibility of Social Media Evidence,” Litigation, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Winter 2013), at 20.


Defense attorney Annette has been preparing for her big cross-examination for weeks. Today is her shot at the prosecution’s main witness, Johnny Muscles, in the gang-related murder trial in which she is representing the defendant, Frankie Dillon. Annette’s careful investigations have identified a Twitter account under the name @imjohnnymuscles52. Annette is convinced that this is Johnny Muscles’s account based on the posts that describe his date of birth, his love of a certain sushi restaurant in his gang’s territory, and a posted picture of his motorbike. Given @imjohnnymuscles52’s tweets about “Frankie taking the fall,” Annette is also convinced that her client is innocent. During her cross-examination of Johnny during the trial, with great drama and panache, Annette confronts him with the tweets, but Johnny denies even having a Twitter account. The prosecutor immediately calls for a voir dire and moves to have the tweets excluded. The judge concludes that anybody could have created the Twitter account, and, given the prejudicial nature of the tweets in question, grants the motion. Annette’s cross-examination falls flat on its face, and her client is convicted.


Every development in communication, from telephones to fax machines to email, has presented litigators with new challenges and new opportunities as we follow and guide the evolution of the law. In time, just as we did with phones, faxes, and email, we will no doubt integrate social media into our practices as we adapt to the world of Litigation 2.0 and as we prepare for the challenges posed by the next version. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.


Keywords: social media, internet, web 2.0, privacy, e-discovery


Andy Radhakant and Matthew Diskin are with Heenan Blaikie, Toronto.


This article was adapted from a longer one that was published in the Spring 2013 issue of Litigation.


 

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