New York Court of Appeals on discoverability of Facebook messages
For litigators, social media platforms have increasingly become an invaluable source of evidence. So it’s not surprising that discovery disputes often arise regarding the scope of requests for social media-related information.
Last month, one of those discovery disputes reached the New York Court of Appeals in a negligence case relating to injuries that the plaintiff suffered after a fall from a horse. In Forman v. Henkin, the plaintiff alleged that the injuries were caused by the negligence of the defendant and owner of the horse. During the course of discovery, the defendant sought access to the plaintiff’s entire Facebook account - including information that was located behind the privacy wall that could be seen only be the plaintiff’s “friends” and, presumably, private Facebook messages as well - after she’d made reference to the Facebook data during a deposition. At issue was whether the information behind the Facebook privacy wall was relevant to the issues at hand and thus discoverable.
At the outset, the Court wisely acknowledged that that the online was no different than the offline when it came to the application of the standards governing discovery requests: “While Facebook – and sites like it – offer relatively new means of sharing information with others, there is nothing so novel about Facebook materials that precludes application of New York’s long-standing disclosure rules to resolve this dispute.”
Next, the Court clarified that the appropriate determination to be made when a party seeks evidence found on social media platforms is whether the information is relevant to the issues in the case. The court explained, “New York discovery rules do not condition a party’s receipt of disclosure on a showing that the items the party seeks actually exist; rather, the request need only be appropriately tailored and reasonably calculated to yield relevant information…In many if not most instances, a party seeking disclosure will not be able to demonstrate that items it has not yet obtained contain material evidence. Thus, we reject the notion that the account holder’s so-called ‘privacy’ settings govern the scope of disclosure of social media materials.”
The Court cautioned, however, that a discovery request for social media-related information does not trigger mandatory disclosure of all posts. The Court then turned to an offline equivalent to make its point: “Directing disclosure of a party’s entire Facebook account is comparable to ordering discovery of every photograph or communication that party shared with any person on any topic prior to or since the incident giving rise to litigation – such an order would be likely to yield far more nonrelevant than relevant information.”
The Court then explained that a 2-prong inquiry should be made by courts considering motions relating to discovery requests for social media data: “Courts should first consider the nature of the event giving rise to the litigation and the injuries claimed, as well as any other information specific to the case, to assess whether relevant material is likely to be found on the Facebook account. Second, balancing the potential utility of the information sought against any specific ‘privacy’ or other concerns raised by the account holder, the court should issue an order tailored to the particular controversy that identifies the types of materials that must be disclosed while avoiding disclosure of nonrelevant materials…Temporal limitations may also be appropriate – for example, the court should consider whether photographs or messages posted years before an accident are likely to be germane to the litigation.”
Unlike some other New York courts that have addressed these types of issues, the court did not differentiate between social media posts behind a privacy wall that are viewable by all of the person’s “friends” versus private messages sent only to one person. Instead, the court put the onus on the plaintiff to take measures to prevent disclosure of “sensitive or embarrassing” information explaining that “the account holder can seek protection from the court (see CPLR 3103[a]). Here, for example, Supreme Court exempted from disclosure any photographs of plaintiff depicting nudity or romantic encounters.”
Overall, this was an instructive opinion that provides necessary guidance to New York litigators seeking to use social media evidence in their cases. That being said, I do wish that a distinction had been made regarding the different types of posts on Facebook, rather than grouping all non-public posts made behind the privacy wall together. Private messages between two people are, as one Appellate Court judge has noted in the past, more akin to diary entries and thus may not be discoverable absent a greater showing of relevancy. Nevertheless, the highest court in New York has spoken. New York litigators, take note.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for solo and small law firms. She is also the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.