social media

When judges, political commentary, and social media collide

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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When Judges, Political Commentary, and Social Media Collide

I’ve written many times about the use of social media by judges. Generally speaking, I’m in favor of judges using social media and oppose arbitrary restrictions on their social media use. For example, I believe that judges should be permitted to be “friends” on social media with attorneys who appear before them and that doing so does not somehow affect their obligation to remain impartial.

That being said, due to the unique nature of their position, judges are understandably restricted from certain types of online behavior, just as they are when it comes to offline behavior. After all, as I’ve always said, the online is simply an extension of the offline.

So when I read that a Utah judge had been suspended for 6 months as a result of his online interactions, I was concerned. Then I read the opinion of the Supreme Court of Utah in In re: Inquiry of a Judge: the Honorable Judge Michael Kwan. Given the facts of this case, I agree with the Court’s decision.

In this case, it was alleged, among other things, that Judge Kwan had made a number of statements online regarding Donald Trump, both before and after the election. Notably, Judge Kwan had already been reprimanded in the past for making improper statements regarding candidates running for political office, with two separate informal opinions being issued by the Utah State Bar Ethics Advisory Committee regarding those incidents. His statements regarding Donald Trump were made after those opinions were handed down.

In the case at hand, Judge Kwan asserted that many of his postings were protected by the First Amendment as constitutionally protected speech. The Court declined to address that argument on procedural grounds, ruling that the judge failed to raise a constitutional objection at the time that the violation occurred, and thus cannot raise it for the first time during the disciplinary proceeding. The Court explained its rationale as follows:

“(W)e have required judges who fail to abide by laws or rules to put the public on notice that their violation is based on a principled contention that the law or rule is, itself, unlawful. Without such notice, a judge may appear to violate laws or rules at will, in disregard of the legal system they are charged with administering. And when judges appear to consider themselves above the law, public confidence in the fair.”

Even though the Court declined to reach his constitutional defense, it nevertheless limited its inquiry to a single posting that the judge himself acknowledged was improper and was not constitutionally protected: a statement that he made that indicated his opposition to a presidential candidate. Specifically, he posted the following in reference to Donald Trump: “Is the fact that the IRS has audited you almost every year when your peers hardly ever or never have been, something to be proud of? What does that say . . . about your business practices?”

The Court concluded that “the single online posting regarding then–presidential candidate Donald Trump, together with the other conduct Judge Kwan admits violated the rules, viewed in light of Judge Kwan’s history of judicial discipline, amply justify the sanction the JCC ordered and we implement.”

In reaching its decision, the Court focused on the role that judges play in our society and emphasized the importance of the appearance of judicial impartiality in fulfilling that role: “Conduct that compromises or appears to compromise the independence, integrity, and impartiality of a judge undermines public confidence in the judiciary.”

The Court also explained that upon accepting the responsibility of being part of the judiciary, judges do so with the understanding that they are henceforth obligated to act in a manner that upholds public confidence in the judiciary: “Fulfillment of judicial duties does not come without personal sacrifice of some opportunities and privileges available to the public at large. And as a person the public entrusts to decide issues with utmost fairness, independence, and impartiality, a judge must at times set aside the power of his or her voice—which becomes inextricably tied to his or her position—as a tool to publicly influence the results of a local, regional, or national election.”

I’m in full agreement with the Court’s decision. Certainly judges don’t leave their right to free speech at the door when they enter the judiciary. But their speech is necessarily limited somewhat due to the unique nature of their duties. Judges often have to walk a fine line in that regard, and sometimes they may unintentionally cross it.

But in the case at hand, that line was crossed far too many times in the past, and as a result the judge should have erred on the side of caution when interacting both online and off. He failed to do so and must now face the consequences.

Certainly we’re in the midst of a uniquely turbulent political landscape, and the immediacy and reach of social media can be an enticing way to voice ones views. But even so, it’s important to think before posting. And given their position, judges in particular must tread carefully when addressing political issues, lest they impermissibly cross that line.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is 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 Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


New York court on privacy expectations in social media accounts

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Every year around this time I begin to conduct research for the annual update to the Thomson Reuters criminal law treatise, “Criminal Law in New York,” that I co-author with Brighton Town Court Judge Karen Morris. During the course of my research I often discover cases that arise from interesting overlaps of technology and criminal law.

This year has proven to be no different, and last week I stumbled upon an interesting case from New City Criminal Court, which focuses on issues relating to whether the access to social media accounts by law enforcement triggers constitutional privacy interests.

In People v. Sime, 62 Misc.3d 429 (2018), one issue addressed by the Court was whether the defendant had a constitutionally protected privacy interest in the IP data and photograph metadata that she had uploaded and shared online via a public Instagram account.

In this case, the defendant was charged with, in part, unlawful disclosure of an intimate image in violation of Administrative Code of the City of New York § 10-177 [b][1]. It was alleged that the defendant, who was dating the complainant’s ex-boyfriend, posted nude photos of the complainant to two different Instagram accounts. The photos were allegedly taken by the complainant’s ex-boyfriend. One of the Instagram accounts was alleged to belong to the ex-boyfriend and the other was alleged to have been created in the complainant’s name by the defendant. As part of that prosecution, the court issued a search warrant on Instagram seeking access to the data connected with the two Instagram accounts.

The defendant challenged the search warrant, asserting that it was not supported by probable cause. She conceded that she did not have a privacy interest in the posted photos since they were shared on an account that was open to the public and had no privacy settings enabled. Accordingly, her argument was based instead upon the assertion that “there is a general right to privacy for the IP addresses associated with the person who posted the pictures and the metadata contained in the photographs public (sic.) posted pursuant to the recently decided case Carpenter v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 2206 [2018].”

As I explained in my article last week, in Carpenter the Court held that a warrant was required in order for law enforcement to access historical cell phone geolocation data. In the case at hand, the Court disagreed that the Carpenter holding was applicable on the gourds that IP data and metadata relating to an Instagram photo is not analogous to cell phone geolocation data.

The Court explained that unlike historical cell phone geolocation data, IP data does not necessarily provide information regarding the defendant’s specific location:

“Obtaining IP data does not provide the police the ability to exhaustively know a defendant's exact position — at best it might incidentally reveal what device was used to post a photograph in the general vicinity of an internet router. In other words, at most it will let the police find a building near the used cell phone or computer device on discrete dates when pictures were uploaded for the public to view, and has no bearing on the defendant's day-to-day movement…Similarly, photograph metadata might let you know what camera was used to take a particular picture, and (if it was not already obvious from the picture itself) where that picture was taken.”

Because IP data and metadata provide only a brief snapshot of the user’s location at any given time, the Court compared IP data and metadata to telephone billing records, in which customers have a lower expectation of privacy: “IP data and metadata are roughly analogous to telephone billing records, and there is no legal reason to protect this data to the same extent as long-term GPS data and cell-site information.”

Accordingly, the Court denied the defendant’s motion challenging the search warrant, concluding that “(T)here is no constitutional privacy afforded to the IP data and photograph metadata that the defendant uploaded and shared with the world, nor would a subjectively held privacy expectation be reasonable or one that society is prepared to recognize.”

Digital privacy rights are an important and evolving issue. Now that online interaction and mobile device usage are commonplace, data regarding all aspects of our daily lives is regularly collected by a host of third parties. As law enforcement increasingly seeks access to that information, courts will necessarily continue to grapple with the constitutional nuances presented by varying factual scenarios - and rest assured, I’ll continue to cover their efforts in this regard.

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is 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 Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


Pennsylvania Supreme Court on ethically mining social media evidence

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

*****

Pennsylvania Supreme Court on ethically mining social media evidence

Social media can be a gold mine for litigation attorneys. There’s a wealth of information available online that can often be used to the benefit of your client at trial. The trick is knowing how to ethically access social media evidence. Because if you don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the various social media platforms and your ethical obligations, your attempts to obtain online evidence favorable to your client’s case could have the opposite result: it could be precluded from use at trial, and you could even face disciplinary action.

The latter is what occurred when a Pennsylvania attorney’s law license was suspended by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. In Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Stacy Parks Miller, Miller’s license was suspended, in part, due to her deceptive behavior in creating a fictitious Facebook page in order to obtain evidence while serving as the Centre County District Attorney.

Specifically, it was alleged that Miller created a fictitious Facebook page in 2011, with the end goal being to curb criminal activity relating to the illegal sale of bath salts. The Facebook page was based on a fake social media persona and purported to be the social media account of a young woman who had recently dropped out of college.

After creating the page she sent an email encouraging her staff to send “friend requests” to others from the fake account in order to legitimize the fake account. Specifically she suggested that they use the Facebook account to “masquerade” and “snoop” on Facebook. While the account was being used by the District Attorney’s Office, “individuals represented in criminal proceedings either sent friend requests to the page or received friend requests from the page.”

In her defense, Miller asserted that the Facebook page represented a “proper law enforcement operation.” The Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania disagreed. The Board noted that the mere act of “having a third-person send a friend request to a represented party in order to gain access to the private portion of their profile violates RPC 8.4(c), and that the actions of Miller far exceeded that limited scope of impermissible conduct. Not only did she create a fake Facebook page, she provided her staff with access to it and actively encouraged them to use it to repeatedly interact with and connect with other individuals on Facebook who were suspected of engaging in illegal activities, some of whom were known to be represented by counsel."

Accordingly, the Board concluded that her actions were in violation of her ethical obligations. The Board explained that “(t)he Facebook page created by (Miller) and disseminated to her staff was fake and constituted fraudulent and deceptive conduct inn violation of RPC 8.4(c)…(Miller) induced her staff, both attorneys and non-attorneys alike, to engage in dishonest behavior and to imply disinterest in matters, without correcting any misapprehensions. The staff carried out (Miller’s) directives and used the page to “friend” individuals, some of whom were defendants. (Miller) enabled her staff to engage in deceptive conduct, without specific direction, for an unrestricted period of time. This conduct violated RPC 4.3(a), 4.3(c), 5.3(b), 5.3(c)(1), and 5.3(c)(2).” As such the Board recommended that her law license be suspended for one year and one day.

This is yet one more example of lawyers interacting online without fully understanding their ethical obligations. Certainly there is a wealth of information - and potential evidence - available on social media platforms, and in 2019, willfully ignoring its existence is arguably malpractice. But before attempting to access information posted online, make sure that you have full knowledge of how the platforms work and what your ethical obligations are in regard to accessing that data. Tread lightly and intelligently when mining social media for evidence, lest you face the same penalty as Ms. Miller.

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is 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 Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


How Lawyers Are Using Social Media in 2019

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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How Lawyers Are Using Social Media in 2019

I’ve been covering lawyers’ use of social media in my column for the Daily Record since 2008. Back then, most lawyers believed that social media was a passing fad, despite my ardent assertions to the contrary. Some even believed that it was both unethical and unwise for lawyers to use social media. Convincing lawyers that social media was a phenomenon that they needed to learn about was an uphill battle, to say the least.

How times have changed. I first became convinced that a dramatic shift was occurring in 2011 when a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle, Gary Craig, wrote an article entitled “Threat Alleged Via Facebook ‘Poke.’” As explained in the article, a federal judge was unable to proceed with an arraignment of a defendant who was accused of threatening a witness via a Facebook “poke.” The judge had no idea what a “poke” was, and neither did the attorneys before him, so he sought out - and obtained - the information he needed from a spectator seated in courtroom.

For me, that was a turning point. Because that’s when I knew that social media was actually impacting cases, and that lawyers were finally going to begin to take notice and want to learn about - and use -social media.

Fast forward to 2019, and these days, according to the latest Legal Technology Survey Report issued by the American Bar Association, the majority of lawyers and law firms are using social media for professional reasons in one form or another, whether it’s for business development and networking or for litigation purposes.

According to the Report, 76% of lawyers surveyed reported that their firms maintained a presence on at least once social network. And 79% of lawyers reported that they personally used social media for professional reasons. The reasons for their online interactions varied, with 70% citing career development and networking as their motivating reasons. 54% hoped to obtain clients as a result of their participation online. 48% used social media as a tool to increase their education awareness. And finally, 30% used social media to investigate their cases.

For those lawyers seeking to drum up business as a result of their online interactions, some were successful, with 35% reporting that they’d had a client retain their services directly or via a referral because of their social media use for professional purposes. 46% indicated that their online interaction never resulted in a new client, and 19% weren’t sure.

According to the Report, the most popular social media network amongst lawyers is LinkedIn. 46% of lawyers indicated that their law firms maintained a LinkedIn presence, and 65% reported that they personally maintained a LinkedIn profile for professional purposes.

The second most popular site is Facebook, with 42% of lawyers reporting that their law firms maintained a Facebook presence. 37% of responding lawyers shared that they personally used Facebook for professional reasons, and 90% indicated that they participated on Facebook for personal, non-professional purposes.

Next was Twitter, with 14% of respondents indicating that their law firms maintained a Twitter presence, and 25% reported that they interacted on Twitter for professional reasons using personal accounts. 1% of lawyers reported that a client had retained them as a result of their use of Twitter for professional reasons.

Then there are blogs, which have been around longer than social media, but have decreased in popularity with lawyers over the last few years. According to the Report, 24% of law firms maintain a blog. And, 8% of lawyers reported that they personally maintained a blog focused on a legal topic, down from 15% last year. Finally, 36% reported that a client has retained their services because of their blogging efforts, down from 43% last year. So legal blogging is clearly on the decline, but nevertheless is still a very viable business development tool.

So there you have it: lots of statistics on how lawyers are using social media. And, yes, unlike 2008, the majority of lawyers are learning about - and using - social media in 2019. Are you one of those lawyers? Is your law firm using social media? Are you? How does your social media use compare?

 

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is 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 Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


Louisiana court: Online anonymity doesn’t shield lawyers from ethical obligations

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Louisiana court: Online anonymity doesn’t shield lawyers from ethical obligation

Office water coolers used to be gathering places where people discussed current events and caught up on office gossip. But, like many other time-honored traditions, even water cooler conversations have been affected by technology.

Certainly these in-office discussions still occur, but much of the day-to-day discourse about current events has shifted to the online realm. Whether it’s on Facebook, in online forums, or in the comments that follow news articles, there are plenty of opportunities to comment on and share opinions about recent events. Notably, many of these comments can be made anonymously, and as a result, some people are less restrained about their opinions than they would be if their personal identities were publicly attached to them.

Of course, the perceived anonymity is often an illusion, since there are many different ways to go about determining who posted a particular comment, should the need arise to do so. That’s a lesson that was learned the hard way by Salvadore R. Perricone, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Louisiana handed down an opinion, In re: Salvadore R. Perricone, No. 2018-B-1233, wherein the court considered whether Perricone violated his ethical obligations as a result of anonymous comments that he posted online between 2007-2014. Some of the comments related to trials for which he was the prosecuting attorney and others related to trials that his colleagues were prosecuting.

The anonymous postings included the following comments:

A statement that the defense attorney had “screwed his client!!!!,”and was just “as arrogant as [the allegedly bribed official] … and the jury knows it.”
During a federal civil rights trial involving the shooting of an unarmed man he wrote: “Perhaps we would be safer if the NOPD would leave next hurricane and let the National Guard assume all law enforcement duties.  GUILTY AS CHARGED.”
Regarding an indictment alleging conspiracy: “I read the indictment…there is no legitimate reason for this type of behavior in such a short period of time and for a limited purpose. GUILTY!!!”

When his comments were discovered and reported to a judge, an investigation was conducted and disciplinary charges were filed. After reviewing the findings and recommendations of the hearing committee and disciplinary board, the Supreme Court of Louisiana concluded that the appropriate sanction for Perricone’s conduct was disbarment.

The Court explained that Perricone’s actions were not innocuous: “When discovered, respondent’s actions caused serious, actual harm in the River Birch and Danziger Bridge cases and, most profoundly, to the reputation of the USAO. There was a potential for harm in the Jefferson and Gill-Pratt cases.”

According to the Court, disbarment was necessary for a number of reasons, not the least of which was to send a message to other lawyers to tread carefully when posting online about pending matters: “Respondent’s conscious decision to vent his anger by posting caustic, extrajudicial comments about pending cases strikes at the heart of the neutral dispassionate control which is the foundation of our system. Our decision today must send a strong message to respondent and to all the members of the bar that a lawyer’s ethical obligations are not diminished by the mask of anonymity provided by the Internet.”

In other words, the lesson to be learned is one that I often repeat: the online is simply an extension of the offline world. You don’t leave your ethics at the door when you enter the online realm. Think before you post - anonymously or otherwise - and refrain from commenting about any matters that you are personally involved in or about which you have inside knowledge. Your ethical obligations require it, and your law license depends on it.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is 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 Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


Supreme Court of Florida weighs in on judges using social media

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

*****

 

Supreme Court of Florida weighs in on judges using social media

Whether judges should use social media has been a contentious issue for some time now. Early on, the consensus seemed to be that it was problematic for judges to do so, but over time that’s changed.

So, for example in 2012, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal addressed this issue in Pierre Domville v. State of Florida, No. 4D12-556 and disqualified a judge from overseeing a case because the judge was Facebook “friends” with the prosecuting attorney. But then in August of this year, the Third District Court of Appeal in Florida in in Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. United States Automobile Association, No. 3D17-1421 addressed the very same issue and reached a different conclusion. The court determined that it was departing from the holding in Domville and was declining to disqualify a judge as a result of his Facebook connnection with an attorney appearing in his court, since online friends are “not necessarily (friends) in the traditional sense of the word” and thus the fact that a judge is Facebook ‘friends’ with a lawyer for a potential party or witness does not necessarily mean that the judge cannot be impartial.

Just last week, the Supreme Court of Florida considered this case on appeal in Herssein and Herssein v. United States Automobile Association, No. SC17-1848. At issue was whether the lower court correctly determined that a Facebook friendship between a judge and an attorney appearing for the judge was not, in and of itself, a sufficient basis for disqualification of the judge.

In reaching its decision, the court first examined the concept of a “friendship,” explaining that simply being friends with someone does not indicate the level of closeness of the friendship: “It is commonly understood that friendship exists on a broad spectrum: some friendships are close and others are not...Thus the mere existence of a friendship, in and of itself, does not inherently reveal the degree or intensity of the friendship.”

Next, the Court applied this understanding to the concept of a Facebook “friendship” and concluded that not all Facebook friendships between a judge and an attorney appearing in their court require disqualification. The court examined the nature of Facebook connections, explaining that “(t)he establishment of a Facebook ‘friendship’ does not objectively signal the existence of the affection and esteem involved in a traditional ‘friendship’...(and) it is regularly the case that Facebook “friendships” are more casual and less permanent than traditional friendships.”

Accordingly, the Court reached the same conclusion as the majority of other jurisdictions that have recently addressed this issue and held that a Facebook friendship, in and of itself, was insufficient to warrant disqualification: “(T)he mere existence of a Facebook ‘friendship’ between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship. No reasonably prudent person would fear that she could not receive a fair and impartial trial based solely on the fact that a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge are Facebook ‘friends’ with a relationship of an indeterminate nature.”

This is, I believe, the correct decision. As I’ve opined in the past, judges are simply people and have lives outside the courtroom which include friendships with attorney colleagues that pre-date their appointment to the bench. It flies in the face of common sense to issue decisions that prevent judges from interacting on social media with the very same lawyers with whom they are already connected and with whom they regularly interact in public. It’s heartening to see that the Florida Supreme Court agrees with this position and has issued a ruling that aligns with the realities of living in the 21st century.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is 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 Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com. 


Pennsylvania court on social media evidence authentication

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

*****

Pennsylvania court on social media evidence authentication

Social media use is pervasive. People communicate online many times everyday. Importantly, those online interactions create digital footprints that can prove to be invaluable - and sometimes detrimental to - litigation.

Of course, the somewhat transient and unverifiable nature of online engagement can present problems for lawyers seeking to use social media evidence during litigation. Because it’s so easy for people to interact anonymously or to impersonate others online, lawyers sometimes encounter difficulties when attempting to authenticate social media evidence at trial.

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently provided some guidance in this regard in Commonwealth v. Mangel, 2018 PA Super 57 (2018). In this case, the court was tasked with determining what proof was required to authenticate “social media evidence, such as Facebook postings and communications.”

In reaching its decision, the Court reviewed Pennsylvania appellate court cases that addressed the level of proof needed to authenticate other types of electronic evidence, such as text messages and emails. The Court acknowledged that although social media information is similar to other electronic evidence, it also poses unique challenges “because of the great ease with which a social media account may be falsified, or a legitimate account may be accessed by an imposter.” For that reason, the authentication process for social media evidence must necessarily address those issues and provide a level of certainty regarding account ownership and authorship issues.

Of course the issue then becomes: What level of certainty is required to sufficiently eradicate any doubts regarding those issues? The prosecution asserted that the trial court applied the incorrect standard in this regard when it considered whether there was a “reasonable degree of certainty, reliability, scientific, technological certainty” that the Commonwealth had satisfied the requirements for authentication of the Facebook records.”

Notably, the Court disagreed with the prosecution, concluding that the trial court applied the correct standard: “(I)t is clear that the trial court…applied the proper standard in determining whether the Commonwealth had presented sufficient direct or circumstantial evidence that Mangel had authored the Facebook messages in question.”

Next, the court clarified how to apply that standard to social media evidence, and provided guidance for lawyers seeking to authenticate social media postings: “Initially, authentication…(of) social media evidence is to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not there has been an adequate foundational showing of its relevance and authenticity…Additionally, the proponent of social media evidence must present direct or circumstantial evidence that tends to corroborate the identity of the author of the communication in question, such as testimony from the person who sent or received the communication, or contextual clues in the communication tending to reveal the identity of the sender.”

Finally, the Court applied that standard to the case at hand, upholding the trial court’s determination that the prosecution failed to properly authenticate the social media evidence at issue: “(T)he Commonwealth presented no evidence, direct or circumstantial, tending to substantiate that Mangel created the Facebook account in question, authored the chat messages, or posted the photograph of bloody hands. The mere fact that the Facebook account in question bore Mangel’s name, hometown and high school was insufficient to authenticate the online and mobile device chat messages as having been authored by Mangel. Moreover, there were no contextual clues in the chat messages that identified Mangel as the sender of the messages.”

So, whether you practice in Pennsylvania or elsewhere, the guidance provided by the Court in this case is instructive. If your client’s case hinges on a particular piece of evidence obtained online, the more proof you can offer to establish the identity of the person responsible for creating the online posting, the better. A multi-faceted approach to establishing authorship is advisable rather than relying on forensic or contextual evidence alone. Certainly forensic evidence alone will be enough in some cases, but not all - and as I always say, better safe than sorry.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software. She is 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 Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She can be reached at niki.black@mycase.com.


Maine Bar on use of social media evidence for litigation

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Maine Bar on use of social media evidence for litigation

The phenomenon of social media has infiltrated all aspects of our lives, so it’s not surprise that social media evidence is now a pivotal tool in litigation. Juror use of social media has resulted in mistrials across the country for more than a decade now. And trial attorneys are increasingly mining social media for evidence and researching jurors online.

Not surprisingly, the rising practice of using social media information during litigation caught the attention of ethics committees some years ago, and the first opinion on this issue was handed down in 2009. Since then, I’ve regularly covered these opinions in this column, and recently realized that I’d overlooked one that was issued by the Maine Bar’s Professional Ethics Commission last November: Opinion 217 

In the opinion, the Commission addressed both the ethics of mining social media for evidence and researching jurors online. Another issue covered was whether lawyers may connect with judges or quasi-judicial officers on social media sites.

At the outset, the Commission acknowledged that defining social media is a difficult task, since “(t)he functionality, technology and content available on the platforms that make up “social media” likely will continue to evolve dramatically in the future.” Even so, it attempted to offer a rather broad definition, defining social media networks as sites that “are used primarily for connecting socially with multiple ‘friends’ and for sharing a wide range of personal, professional and editorial information using text, links, photographs and video,” while specifically excluding sites that “lack the type of sharing of non-public information with ‘friends’ selected by the profile holder, which characterizes social media platforms.”

Next the Commission turned to using social media to obtain evidence for a pending case. The Commission sided with the majority of other jurisdictions in concluding that all publicly viewable social media information is fair game and may be viewed without issue. But for unrepresented parties, data found behind a privacy wall may only be accessed if attorneys or their agents, when making the connection request, “affirmatively disclose the purpose of the contact.” Represented parties were a different story, and all private information found behind the privacy wall was found to be off limits since any attempt to connect in order to access that information constitute impermissible communications with a represented party.

The Commission also sided with the majority of jurisdictions on the issue of whether passive notifications (like those sent by LinkedIn when someone views a user’s profile) sent by social networks to jurors constituted an impermissible communication. Like the American Bar Association Committee and the DC Bar Committee (and in contrast to the position taken by the New York State Bar Committee), the Commission concluded that only publicly viewable information could be accessed and that passive notifications to jurors sent by social media sites did not constitute impermissible ex parte communications since “any other approach would be unworkable as a practical matter and would subject attorneys to potential ethics violations based upon the happenstance of user settings or new technologies that generate automated messages outside of the attorney’s reasonable knowledge or control.” However, the Commission cautioned that “where an attorney knows or reasonably should know that accessing any social media of a juror will result in such juror becoming aware of the attorney’s access, the attorney should refrain from accessing that social media, (and) (i)f the attorney learns that any juror…has become aware of (it), the attorney must notify the Court…(which) may find it advisable to provide a cautionary instruction…”

Finally the Commission weighed in on lawyers connecting with judges online: “Attorneys are permitted to connect with judges and other judicial officers through social media, but they are precluded from having ex parte communications with, or from attempting to impermissibly influence, such judges or judicial officers through social media.” Once again, this was in line with the position taking by most other jurisdictions on this issue.

As more jurisdictions address these issues, commonalities arise in the analysis and conclusions reached. In this case, the Commission wisely acknowledged the rapid pace of technological advancement and incorporated that concept into the context of its determinations. Hopefully committees in jurisdictions that have not yet addressed these issues will follow suit, since guidelines on ethical use of technology that have flexibility built in are more likely to withstand the test of time.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software. She is 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 Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She can be reached at niki.black@mycase.com.


New York Court of Appeals on discoverability of Facebook messages

Stacked3Here is this week's Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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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 niki@mycase.com.


ABA on Client Confidentiality in the 21st Century

Stacked3Here is this week's Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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ABA on Client Confidentiality in the 21st Century

These days, news is shared in many ways, with online news outlets and social media sites contributing to the rapid - and sometimes viral - dissemination of information. Not surprisingly, details distributed online can sometimes trigger client confidentiality issues. For that reason, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility (“Committee”) recently addressed the duty of client confidentiality owed to former clients when information about a client becomes “generally known” after being shared online and through other news channels.

In Opinion 479, the Committee considered an exception to the client confidentiality relating to former clients. Specifically the Committee examined the exception found in Model Rule 1.9(c)(1) that permits lawyers to use information that is “generally known” to a former client’s disadvantage despite lack of consent from the former client.

As the Committee explained, Model Rule 1.9(c)(1) provides that a lawyer shall not use information relating to a former client’s representation ‘to the disadvantage of the former client except as [the Model] Rules would permit or require with respect to a [current] client, or when the information has become generally known.”

The primary issue considered in this opinion revolved around defining the concept “generally known.” At the outset, the Committee explained that there was a distinction between “publicly available” and “generally known”: “Unless information has become widely recognized by the public (for example by having achieved public notoriety), or within the former client’s industry, profession, or trade, the fact that the information may have been discussed in open court, or may be available in court records, in public libraries, or in other public repositories does not, standing alone, mean that the information is generally known for Model Rule 1.9(c)(1) purposes.”

Next, the Committee acknowledged that modern technology has made its mark on this concept, explaining that information “may become widely recognized and thus generally known as a result of publicity through traditional media sources, such as newspapers, magazines, radio, or television; through publication on internet web sites; or through social media.”

Next the Committee provided insight into how information becomes generally known in the context of a client’s chosen career: “(I)nformation should be treated as generally known if it is announced, discussed, or identified in what reasonable members of the industry, profession, or trade would consider a leading print or online publication or other resource in the particular field. Information may be widely recognized within a former client’s industry, profession, or trade without being widely recognized by the public.”

The Committee explained that in that context, knowledge of the matter by the general public is irrelevant. The Committee offered the insurance industry as an example and indicated that what truly mattered was whether the information had been broadly disseminated in that industry: “For example, if a former client is in the insurance industry, information about the former client that is widely recognized by others in the insurance industry should be considered generally known within the meaning of Model Rule 1.9(c)(1) even if the public at large is unaware of the information.”

The Committee then summarized its analysis and conclusions as follows: “(I)nformation is generally known within the meaning of Model Rule 1.9(c)(1) if (a) it is widely recognized by members of the public in the relevant geographic area; or (b) it is widely recognized in the former client’s industry, profession, or trade.”

This opinion offers much-needed clarification for lawyers regarding client confidentiality issues in the digital age. The times are undoubtedly changing as the online world speeds up and amplifies the dissemination of information. Certainly the end result is that the internet may muddy the waters a bit when it comes to lawyers’ ethical obligations. But as this opinion shows, despite the rapid pace of change, lawyers’ ethical obligations nevertheless remain constant, whether applied online or offline.

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 niki@mycase.com.