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Social Media and Discovery

Social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, have become repositories of large amount of personal data. Increasingly this data is being viewed as relevant to all manner of litigation proceedings, and as such is increasingly being sought during discovery in civil litigation. Business and individuals that use social networking services should be aware of what data they put on social networking sites, as it could end up in court.

By Adam Elewa

In litigation, businesses or individuals must routinely comply with a process known as discovery, where both parties are compelled by the court to produce relevant documents concerning the issues in dispute to the opposing party. There are only a few areas that are off-limits to opposing counsel in discovery, such as privileged conversations between a lawyer and his client. With the proliferation of social networking, and the large amount of personal information being shared and stored in the cloud, lawyers now routinely attempt to compel disclosure of social networking profiles during discovery.

In general, courts have declined to find a general right of privacy in the information stored on social networking websites. Constitutional protections of privacy do not apply to private parties, only agents of the government. The current trend, reinforced by a recent federal court case in Montana, is to let the rules of civil procedure concerning discovery dictate how much and what kind of data posted to social networking sites must be turned over to the adversarial party. See, e.g., Keller v. National Farmers Union Property & Cas. Co., 2013 WL 27731 (January 2, 2013). Although judges have discretion in applying the rules of discovery, a consensus seems to be forming.

Courts have been clear that adversarial parties cannot compel the disclosure of social networking profiles without some reasonable belief that such information is relevant to the case at issue. In other words, lawyers cannot go on “fishing expeditions” by demanding the maximum amount of data be disclosed, in the hopes that something interesting will turn up.

However, courts have shown a willingness to disregard privacy settings and/or subjective expectations of privacy held by users of social networking websites when deciding whether to compel disclosure. In such instances, courts often rely on publicly shared information to determine whether private information is likely to be relevant. A public photo that is relevant to the litigated issue can be taken as an indication that more relevant information is likely to be lurking on the hidden portions of the user’s profile. Of course, making data unviewable by the public may make it more difficult for an adversarial party to demonstrate that a profile contains relevant information, and thus should be subject to discovery. Regardless, it is important to keep in mind the limits of privacy on Facebook and other social media sites.

Cases where lawyers have been successful demonstrating that information contained on social networking sites was likely to be relevant tend to share similar characteristics. Many of such cases concern private matters that would likely be shared, as a matter of social practice, on social networking sites. For example, the plaintiff in Keller alleged that the defendant’s actions had caused major disruptions to her social life. Lawyers for the defense successfully argued that the women’s social networking profile likely contained information that could demonstrate whether her life was in fact severely disrupted by the defendant’s alleged negligence.

Additionally, lawyers were able to support the contention that private aspects of an individual’s profile likely contained relevant information by reference to non-hidden or publicly viewable aspects of that individual’s profile. For example, in Keller, the contention that the plaintiff’s private profile contained information relevant to her quality of life was bolstered by publicly viewable images showing recent physical activity of a kind claimed by the plaintiff to be impossible.

Businesses seeking to communicate via social networking platforms or reach clients should be aware that such communications and business activities are likely discoverable in litigation. Individual and businesses should be mindful that:

  • Although social networking sites have “privacy” settings, these settings can be deemed legally irrelevant if the information contained on such platforms can be shown to be relevant to pending litigation.
  • Information that is publicly viewable can be used for any purpose by an opposing party. Public indications that a profile is used for business related communications might allow that profile to be subject to discovery where such communications are at issue. Thus, business and individuals should always be mindful of the evolving privacy polices of sites they transact business.

Finally, litigants should bear in mind that while social media evidence may be relevant to litigation, it is important not to make discovery requests overbroad. For the best likelihood of success, social media discovery requests should be narrowly tailored to produce evidence directly pertinent to the issues, rather than engaging in a fishing expedition.