"Friends" in High Places: Social Networks, Lawsuits and Friending Judges

 

"You ain't never had a friend like me." Lyric by Howard Ashman from Disney’s Aladdin,© 1992

     Wanna be friends with a judge? Well, he might end up “friending” you on Facebook as part of an in-camera review of your page, if something you post may be relevant to a lawsuit.

     Imagine that you are a middle management corporate employee who has finally (urged on by your kids) joined the 21st century and launched a personal Facebook page.  And then you friended a bunch of people, including some neighbors, family, and some of your fellow employees and supervisors. Why not?  After all, you have a pretty good relationship with them.

     Over the next few months, the following occurs:

  • You post that your supervisor is an idiot who doesn’t pay any attention to what’s going on in the office.  The next day some receivables go missing, and now the boss suspects you. How did he find out?  Perhaps you friended him and simply forgot; perhaps you friended another employee who is friends with your boss.  Or perhaps you simply forgot to change your privacy settings.
     
  • You are sued by an employee who you friended a while back.  Why? You fired him two weeks ago because the employee’s Facebook page showed him skiing on the day he called in sick.
     
  • You posted derogatory comments about your horrible neighbors.  A week later someone vandalized their house, and now they are blaming you.

     According to an article in the DRI Defense Bar by Michael Goodfried and Martha Dawson, Electronically Stored Information (“ESI”) contained on a party's social networking site can be subject to discovery if it relates to the issues in the litigation. In EEOC v. Simply Storage Mgmt., No. 1:09-cv-1223-WTL-DM, 2010 WL 3446105, at *3, (S.D. Ind. May 11, 2010), the court stated that discovery of social networking sites "requires the application of basic discovery principles in a novel context", and that the challenge is to "define appropriately broad limits . . . on the discoverability of social communications."

     Once it’s been determined that the content on the social networking site is subject to discovery, the next element is to determine which particular content is discoverable, based on the court’s consideration of the relevance of the requests within the scope of Rule 26 - or whether the requesting party is on a fishing expedition. “The court may choose to order the user to provide access to their entire profile, or it may order access to a limited portion of the content, such as wall postings available to all of the user's contacts, or messaging with particular individuals. In at least one instance, the court has offered to provide an in camera review by becoming "friends" with the user in order to review the private content for relevancy, before making a decision as to whether the other side could see it. Barnes v. CUS Nashville, No. 3:09-cv-00764, 2010 WL 2265668, at *1 (M.D. Tenn. June 3, 2010).”

    Shazzam! Instant friendship with a judge!

     Courts may also examine the privacy policies of the social networking sites themselves. Many of these sites explicitly state that they do not guarantee the privacy of user content. For example, Facebook's privacy policy, as of October 5, 2010, states that "some of the content you share and the actions you take will show up on your friends' home pages and other pages they visit" and that Facebook may "disclose information pursuant to subpoenas, court orders, or other requests (including criminal and civil matters) if we have a good faith belief that the response is required by law." See Facebook's Privacy Policy. In Romano v. Steelcase, 907 N.Y.S. 2d 650, 655 (2010), the court went so far as to state that the plaintiff has no reasonable expectation of privacy "notwithstanding her privacy settings" because Facebook and MySpace did not guarantee "complete privacy."

     So before you post that your assistant is a moron and get sued for defamation, consider whether you really want to friend a judge.

     The Social Network…coming soon to an in-camera review in a courtroom near you.

The ABCs of Electronic Storage: Archives v. Backup Tapes in the Courtroom

Now that school is in session, don’t get an education about electronic discovery the hard way by not knowing the difference between archived data and backup data, or you will find yourself banging your head on your desk . . . or being sent to the corner of the room by a court.  The key:  archiving and backup are NOT the same thing -- far from it.  Knowing the difference can cost you significant headaches, time, effort, and money, and can even impact the outcome of a case.

An easy way to compare the two methods of preservation is to consider the difference between retrieving an email that has been archived versus backed up.  Let's call it E-mail X.  If you “archive” E-mail X, you can still retrieve it easily to re-read it, move it to a folder, forward it, or otherwise use it just like the un-archived emails.  And it can be accessed from more than one computer station, meaning that someone cannot simply lose the one and only copy.  On the other hand, if you had created a “backup” of E-mail X, it would have been recorded, along with everything else that was work product that day, on a single backup tape.  There are two problems here.  First, the backup tape itself could be anywhere -- the back of a closet or a warehouse, for example.  And if that one tape got lost or was ruined in a fire, E-mail X is gone forever.  Second, even if the backup is locked in a well-secured safe, going back to actually find E-mail X would be akin to looking through a box of hundreds or even thousands of unsorted photographs for that one needle in an electronic haystack of information. 

Both ways maintain a record of the information, but which would you rather use if responding to a request?  Which would save cost, time and peace of mind? 

THE BASICS:  According to Matthew Lodge, writing in The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel,  “Active archiving…is a way of centrally managing the storage, retention and hold of information while ensuring ‘live’ (or active) access to any item. Active archives are indexed so that information can be rapidly retrieved for business, regulatory or e-discovery purposes.”    He goes on to say that “Once in the archive, an item can be controlled according to an information management policy.”  By contrast, it makes more sense to use backup tapes exclusively for the recovery of information in the event of a disaster, since using backup tapes for retrieval of information during discovery is extremely burdensome.  Such tapes are not "live" data that is currently on the system, neatly categorized and easily accessible.  Rather, picture them picking up dust in a virtual warehouse (and in some cases, actual warehouses), like the unorganized, over-stuffed filing cabinets of the pre-computer era.  The natural result:  a costly and time-consuming process.

 

THE COURTS:  The courts in Coleman v. Morgan Stanley, 2005 WL 679071 (Fla. Cir. Ct. Mar. 1, 2005), Toussie v. County of Suffolk, 2007 WL 4565160 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 21, 2007), and Adams & Associates v. Dell Inc., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26964 (D. Utah Mar. 27, 2009), have exposed the inefficiency of using backup tapes as a principle method for retrieving information, instead of archiving.   In Toussie, for example, the County of Suffolk failed to archive data and was required to restore backup tapes in order to provide information responsive to a discovery request.  Despite a reduction of the search request to 35 search terms, the County of Suffolk incurred costs in the range of $600,000 to $900,000.  It could have averted an overwhelming amount of this cost had it archived information. 

 

THE LESSON Take a long, hard look at how your company is storing information -- notably, whether the reliance is more on archiving or backup tapes.  Unfortunately, if a company relies too heavily on backup tapes rather than archiving, a court may have no choice but to order the expensive and time-consuming retrieval and production of backup tapes, or major portions thereof.  A cry of "too burdensome!" and "too time-consuming!" may not work to excuse production.  If this sneaky strategy could work, everyone would keep their electronic information on backup tapes in order to skirt discovery in litigation. 

 

Thus, a company that relies heavily on backup tapes for preservation purposes may be wise to subject its retention policy to an overhaul going forward.  While this may seem like a pain in both the neck and the pocketbook, the savings will multiply astronomically once litigation comes down the pike and stored information needs to be gathered and produced.  So when considering how to best prepare for possible future litigation, remember your ABCs -Archiving beats Backup in the Courtroom - and you’ll stay at the head of the class.

Making Sense of Third-Party Discovery

It would be so nice if something made sense for a change!

- Alice, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll
 

What happens when, out of nowhere, the “other side” in a litigation matter wants electronic information during discovery not from you, but from a third-party who has worked directly with your company? Yikes! What about all that confidential information you provided them, never imagining that anyone else would have access to such electronic information? Alternatively, what if those third parties have purged their files and no longer have the requested information? Is there a duty to maintain electronic documentation which is out of your immediate control? 

The issue was addressed by United States Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm in his decision Goodman v. Praxair Servs., Inc., 2009 WL 1955805 (D. Md. July 7, 2009), where the Plaintiff asked that consultants to Praxair Services turn over their electronic documents in discovery.  The Plaintiff alleged that the Defendants violated their duty to preserve evidence when they failed to implement a litigation hold on the third party, resulting in a significant loss of data, including the contents of hard drives and emails relevant to the dispute at issue.

The Court found there was no duty to preserve third party evidence.  Although Fed. R. Civ. P. 34(a) does provide that documents are considered to be under a party's control when that party has “the right, authority, or practical ability to obtain the documents from a non-party to the action,”  the Court determined that Praxair did not have “the sufficient legal authority or the practical ability” to ensure the preservation of documents prepared by its third-party consultants or "any legal control" over those documents.  Accordingly, the Court held that Praxair had no duty to preserve any of the documents prepared by the third-party consultants.  Absent any duty to preserve evidence under a party’s control, there could be no finding that spoliation of evidence had occurred. 

This is a holding that makes perfectly good sense.  Alice would be delighted.

Ode to E-Discovery in 2008

Flooding the internet, they consistently accrue:
Blawgs offering e-discovery 'Year in Review's;
But these go on about facts and case histories too,
Before getting to the point of what you can and can't do.

Why not cut to the chase? Why not give it up straight?
Stripped below are the basics of two thousand and eight.
We'll start off with the general dos and the don'ts;
The haven'ts, the shouldn'ts, the emphatically won'ts.

Quite instructive are Canon's and Keithley's examples
Of "lackadaisical attitude" of defendants. As samples:
Do not find that hard drive behind the client's home door,
When discovery has been ongoing for a year or for more.

Do not stumble on computer reports you said "did not exist"
In an e-folder marked "Reports" that you for some reason missed.
And periodically remind clients and their IT personnel
Of the need to preserve the source code that was written on that Dell.

When you don't produce e-mails, the court said in Peskoff
Explain your search method and why, at production, you scoffed.
But if you contributed to information deletion or loss
And the court orders recovery, you won't get your costs!

Do not say you've e-searched when it's just a tall tale:
This was sanctioned under Rule 26 in R&R Sails.
There were costs sanctions also in Ajaxo, among a larger plethora.
And sanction of termination in Arteria and also Pandora.

In Keithley sanctions were imposed even on a party pro se
And in Schwarzenegger for "foot dragging" and a "litany of delays."
But take heed, warned O'Keefe -- don't request termination on whim.
Do not "strike at a king" unless you're sure you'll "kill him."

O'Keefe (plus Equity, Victor) gave lawyers heart attacks.
For saying that search term effectiveness is for experts to crack;
And that if lawyers pick and evaluate the key words instead
They are moving toward places "where angels fear to tread."

The courts warned that when using a method of searching
Learn first of its weaknesses through prior researching.
This was why D'Onofrio rejected what both experts said
And created a brand new search protocol method instead.

Rule 502 on preventing waiver through "reasonable steps"
Saw decisions pronouncing judgment on various missteps.
Alcon acknowledged that the Rule's very recent debut
Was designed to avoid "expensive, painstaking review."

Despite this pronouncement, some courts have cried "waived"
As to attempts made in hindsight to have privilege saved.
Rhoads found possible waiver for documents mistakenly produced
If they were not in the privilege log – there could be no excuse.

And failure to take measures that could prevent waiver
Like claw-back agreements, or Sedona-type saviors
Led to Victor’s conclusion, which uncommonly held
That the attorney-based privilege at issue was quelled.

Moving on, Mancia addressed the Rule 26 obligation
To meet early on regarding e-preservation,
Proclaiming "adversarial conduct" in e-discovery condemned
As a "burden to the American judicial system."

Some courts dove in early to prevent such discord,
Ordering forensic exams to preserve evidentiary records.
To conserve ephemeral info in Xpel, it was fair;
And when defendants were evading service, it was ordered in Allcare.

Other examples included when a party was unable
or unwilling (in Canon) to preserve/produce on the table.
Just remember: as emphasized in Sterle and Square D
Do not interfere with a court-ordered forensic decree.

Rodman, Reinhard and Younessi addressed nonparty subpoenas
And the protection of confidential, trade secret arenas.
Where nonparties are concerned and offer up much resistance
In-house searches are fine, or neutral expert assistance.

The debates continue on metadata versus non-native tracks
And Aquilar labeled metadata as being "the new black."
That court ordered re-production of non-natives with meta
Though the recipient was required to pay costs, as pro rata.

But not all courts required conversion to a metadata mode.
Extra burden led D'Onofrio to an "only if necessary" ode.
And Autotech said doc requests must actually require "native" --
You can't ask for it in hindsight by getting creative.

Yet if e-documents already exist in original native form
And the requests do not contain any language that informs,
White condemned the conversion to non-native in litigation
Since this is done just to increase the opponent's frustration.

Finally, social networks are making an appearance in law
And becoming a most popular e-discovery draw.
The field is wide open on the extent to which these
Are discoverable and admissible, or cannot be seized.

Flagg required defendants to give ISPs consent
And to produce ISP-retrieved records of texts that it sent.
And in Australia a court made clients even more nervous
By allowing Facebook to be used as a method of service!

We hope you've enjoyed this short "Year in Review"
And that all of this knowledge is useful to you.
We await more developments in two thousand and nine;
And wonder whether and where courts will draw any lines.

 

**For a complete list of the cases discussed above, please contact the author.
 

What U Txt Can Hurt U OMG!

It would appear that Detroit public officials have a real problem with text messages.  In addition to the current indictment against mayor Kwame Kilpatrick involving his alleged cover-up of text messages linking him romantically with his former chief of staff, text messages play a central role in another current case with Kilpatrick ties, and were the subject of a recent court decision that outlined how they would be disclosed.

The problems began with allegations of a 2002 party at the Kilpatrick's mansion involving exotic dancers.  When one of the dancers who claimed that she was at the party was shot to death in 2003, her family filed a $150 million lawsuit against the city.  The family claimed that the shooting was an attempt to cover up the dancer's role in the party, and further claimed that a Detroit police officer was the shooter.  The family issued two subpoenas to SkyTel, which supplied the city's text messaging devices.  The subpoenas sought text messages to and from all city officials and employees on the night of the shooting and text messages from a list of 34 city officials for certain periods between 2002 and 2007.  The court allowed discovery of the text messages from the night of the shooting, but narrowed the second request.

The court issued an order on March 20, 2008 setting forth a procedure for discovery of the text messages.  The procedure seems well-reasoned, and strikes a sensible balance between the family's right to access information relevant to its claim, as well as the city's interest in maintaining evidentiary privileges and protecting confidentiality in what is, obviously, a very sensitive matter.

The court's order sets forth the following steps:

1.  The city must provide Skytel with the PIN number used by every city employee so that Skytel can access the accounts.

2.  Next, the text messages will be turned over to magistrate judges (on CDs, not in paper format, the court is careful to note) for review and an initial determination as to discoverability under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1).  The magistrate judges will also have the authority to set reasonable limits on the scope of discovery sought.

3.  After the magistrate judges issue their initial determination as to discoverability, the city will have a chance to make any objections, which will be ruled upon by the district court judge.

4.  Any text messages that the court orders produced will be maintained subject to a stipulated protective order, and returned to Skytel at the conclusion of the case.

This sounds simple, but is sure to lead to many squabbles given the high stakes of the proceeding.  We will keep track of developments to see how the judge's procedure plays out.

Sanctions Imposed for "Monumental Discovery Violation"

A California federal court judge sanctioned wireless chip developer Qualcomm Inc. and six of its outside lawyers on January 7, 2008 for what the judge labeled a "monumental discovery violation" in connection with Qualcomm's failure to turn over electronically-stored information.  One of Qualcomm's central arguments in patent litigation against Broadcom Corp. rested on Qualcomm's position that prior to September 2003 it had not been involved in working on a committee tasked with creating a video coding standard. 

The fly in the ointment was 46,000 emails (totaling over 300,000 pages) showing that Qualcomm had, in fact, been involved with the committee as early as August, 2002.  What to do? 

Qualcomm apparently decided not to produce the emails even though Broadcom had requested them in discovery.  At the same time, Qualcomm produced lots of emails evidencing its involvement in the committee after September 2003.  Despite knowing about some of the emails, Qualcomm's outside lawyers repeatedly asserted that there was no evidence of Qualcomm's earlier involvement in the committee.  Everybody was up the creek.

The court sanctioned Qualcomm to the tune of $8.5 million in attorneys fees and costs, noting that "Qualcomm's claim that it inadvertently failed to find and produce these documents also is negated by the massive volume and direct relevance of the hidden documents. . . .  [I]t is inexplicable that Qualcomm was able to locate the post-September 2003 [ ] documents that either supported, or did not harm Qualcomm's arguments but were unable to locate the pre-September 2003 [ ] documents that hurt its arguments."

As for the lawyers, the court found that they had "assisted Qualcomm in committing this incredible discovery violation by intentionally hiding and recklessly ignoring relevant documents, ignoring or rejecting numerous warning signs that Qualcomm's document search was inadequate, and blindly accepting Qualcomm's unsupported assurances that its document search was adequate."  The court continued to note that the attorneys "then used the lack of evidence to repeatedly and forcefully make false statements and arguments to the court and jury."  The court referred the attorneys to the California Bar for investigation and possible imposition of sanctions.  We will keep you posted as to the punishment handed down.

A copy of the decision is here.