Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Discovery of Social Media Information: Privacy, Authentication, and Practice Tips

Last week’s blog post briefly discussed the evolution of FRCP 34 as it relates to the admissibility of electronic compilations of data for discovery purposes, and how social media, with its cache of potentially discoverable electronic information, has impacted the e-discovery process.  Generally speaking, the courts treat social media information the same as other electronic data obtained for discovery purposes.  However, social networking sites represent a new frontier for electronic discovery and bring with them a novel set of issues to be explored. 

Not only is the admissibility of ESI from social networking sites subject to application of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, evidentiary criteria for electronic data are further defined by the Federal Rules of Evidence (addressing such matters as relevance, authenticity, prohibition on hearsay, reliability, probative value, etc.). Case law provides a significant repository of information related to the discoverability of social media, including decisions related to privacy; First Amendment issues; Fourth Amendment issues; application of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Federal Rules of Evidence; duty to preserve/spoliation of evidence; and authentication.  Two of these issues are frequently litigated: user privacy rights and authentication of data.

Privacy issues are complex, and discovery of social media raises not only First and Fourth Amendment issues, but may also involve the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”), 18 U.S.C. § 2701 (1986) (also referred to as the “Stored Communications Act” (“SCA”)). Courts are grappling with the role of traditional privacy rights as they relate to discovery of social media and have found that individuals generally do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to information they provide on social networking sites.

In Ledbetter v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126859, No. 06-1958 (D. Colo. Apr. 21, 2009), plaintiffs filed a personal injury action against defendant Wal-Mart, alleging physical injury, mental trauma, and loss of consortium.  Defendant subpoenaed Facebook, MySpace, and Meetup.com to obtain Plaintiff’s personal information, and plaintiff filed a motion for protective order claiming physician-patient and spousal privilege. Magistrate  Judge Watanabe denied plaintiff’s order, finding that the information requested in the subpoena was relevant and reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.

With regard to authentication of ESI from social networking sites, some courts have suggested that the ease with which social media data can be manipulated creates the need for a higher standard of authentication.  So, while ESI from social networking sites can be discoverable, it is not considered to be self-authenticating. In Griffin v. Maryland, No. 74, 2011 WL 1586683, at *1-10, *4 (Md. Apr. 28, 2011), the Maryland Supreme Court found that the State failed to provide extrinsic evidence to properly attribute a MySpace profile and postings to the purported author, and remanded the case for a new trial.  The court stated that "anyone can create a fictitious account and masquerade under another person's name or can gain access to another's account by obtaining the user's username and password."

E-discovery cases continue to grow in number and complexity, and federal e-discovery decisions are sometimes inconsistent. Internet usage should be given a high priority when advising clients as the potential for a client to damage their own case is very real. Alternately, social media provides fertile ground for the discovery of useful information about adverse parties.

Some practice tips to consider:

1.         Before issuing a subpoena to a social networking site, seek discovery of social networking information from the opposing party first.

2.         Public searches yield a surprising amount of information about which social networking sites a user participates in, what their user profile includes, and what type of information they are posting.

3.         Be cautious of hiring a private investigator to “friend” the opposing party on any social media sites.  And certainly don’t attempt to contact the opposing party yourself via any SNS.  Such approaches are likely to backfire, may constitute impermissible communication with a represented party, and are likely unethical if they involve deceit.

4.         Take care to avoid spoliation of evidence—as soon as claims are reasonably known to exist, prepare a plan with your client to preserve any social networking information that may be relevant.  It’s likely insufficient to assume that the social networking provider is maintaining an archive of posts and information—you or your client should preserve and maintain an archive of this information on a regular interval.

5.         When a claim does arise, notify the opposing party with the specifics of what social networking information you anticipate will be relevant in this case and instruct them to ensure this information is properly preserved.

6.         Remember – just because something is available electronically doesn’t mean that it can or should be produced instantly.  It may not even be subject to search.

7.         If your case is very complex, consider “unbundling” discovery tasks. Consider assembling a litigation management team to tackle electronic data discovery tasks.

8.         Maintain at least a general familiarity with developments in social networking in order to properly advise clients about how recent changes and developments may alter these recommendations.

9.         Plan in advance for proper authentication of electronic information obtained from social networking sites.  Consider whether it is appropriate to authenticate this information at an individual or 30(b)(6) deposition.

I will be posting more about the unique challenges posed by discovery of electronic information from social media networking sites, including ways to authenticate electronic data.  I’ll also address issues related to the preservation and spoliation of electronic evidence (including Tweets and text messages, to name just a few of the many sources of electronic evidence).

Jeff Vail is a business litigation attorney in Denver, Colorado.  Visit www.vail-law.com for more information.

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