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Rediscovering Facebook: The Role of Facebook in Pennsylvania's Courts

Rediscovering Facebook: The Role of Facebook in Pennsylvania's Courts

College alumni in their mid to late twenties remember the good old days when Facebook used to be exclusive for only those with a valid college e-mail address.

Back then, Facebook consisted of a single page with just the basics:

  • Profile picture
  • Gender
  • Birthdate
  • Friend list
  • Wall of posts
  • Status log
  • Photo album

Each college was its own network and Facebook advertised itself as a networking site. As college kids got to know their classmates and dorm mates, they added these new people to their friends list. Facebook then kept everyone up-to-date with a newsfeed that provided constant status, picture, and profile updates.

Facebook Grows Beyond Its Simple Origins

Facebook proved to be a successful venture into the relatively new world of social media. It continued to grow, opening its doors to community colleges, then to corporations, and eventually to anyone with an e-mail address. It became so popular that “Facebook” became a verb. For example: “Why don’t you Facebook her to find out what she’s doing tonight?” or “Is he single? Facebook him and find out.”

When Facebook became an application on smartphones, users became even more “connected.” The Facebook application allows users to “check-in” to any place, allowing the phone’s GPS to locate these users and broadcast where they are to the world. The application can also utilize a smartphone’s camera to snap a picture and instantly upload it. Facebook has continuously upgraded its layout to accommodate so much information. “Timelines” allow a friend to search a user’s status updates, check-ins, and uploaded photographs throughout the years. Facebook is basically an open diary for anyone with the right privacy authorization to see — which can be an issue.

Evidence Discovery in the Social Media Age

Facebook has had its share of privacy problems. Because more and more people are willing to upload intimate and potentially embarrassing material onto the internet, Facebook responded by creating increasingly complicated and customized privacy settings. A user can become Facebook friends with his parents and carefully finagle the privacy settings so that Mom only sees pictures of him frantically chugging a cappuccino before an exam or posting statuses that say “got an A on my history paper!” rather than those pictures of him chugging beer through a funnel and statuses that say “woke up in jail today.”

Facebook’s popularity has turned it into a powerful discovery tool. Take, for example, the car accident case of Mary and Rob. Mary’s car was rear-ended by Rob’s in a violent crash. She now claims that she is so injured that she can no longer partake in life’s pleasures. Traditionally, Rob would send a private investigator to take pictures of Mary out and about to see if her claims could be disproved. Now, all Rob would have to do is access Mary’s Facebook page to find pictures of her exercising, running errands, and generally being unbothered by her injuries, and there goes both her claim and credibility.

The conflict arises when Rob tries to access Mary’s Facebook page and is blocked by her privacy settings. Only Mary’s Facebook friends are permitted to view her posted material. All Rob can see is her name and profile picture, which really doesn’t tell him anything. Rob files a motion in a Pennsylvania court to compel discovery of Mary’s Facebook page. What would be the outcome?

Is There Any Privacy Online?

Since the dawn of the internet era, consumers have been repeatedly reminded to never give out their passwords. Understandably, people bristle when an opposing attorney demands their username and password in order to have unfettered access to something that they thought was private. Yet, it seems as though Pennsylvania discovery rules side with disclosure. Pa.R.C.P. 4003.1 allows a party to obtain discovery regarding any unprivileged matter as long as it is somehow relevant to litigation. In McMillen v. Hummingbird Speedway, Inc., 2010 WL 4403285, an argument was made in the Jefferson County court that private Facebook material should be subject to a “social network site privilege” based upon the belief that the plaintiff’s postings were private communications between him and his friends.

The court shot this argument down by pointing out that the law disapproves of privileged information so there could be no such thing as a social network site privilege. In addition, Facebook’s own terms and privacy policies say that it cannot prevent friends from reposting information or Facebook operators from accessing that information, so it is unrealistic to expect Facebook postings to be privileged. The McMillen court ultimately ordered the plaintiff to give the defendant his Facebook username and password.

What Posts are Really Relevant?

One way to approach Facebook disclosure is to ask the court to conduct an in camera review of the private Facebook page in question. In Offenback v. L.M. Bowman, Inc., 2011 WL 2491371 (M.D. Pa. June 22, 2011), the court ordered the plaintiff to disclose his Facebook username and password then proceeded to review the plaintiff’s Facebook page in chambers. This review revealed that all of the relevant information the defendant needed had already been displayed on the public portion of the plaintiff’s page. The court concluded that the plaintiff knew his Facebook page best and could have produced the posts the defendant wanted without the court’s help.

On the other hand, the court in Zimmerman v. Weis, No. CV-09-1535 (Northumberland Cnty) determined that it would be an unfair burden on the court if it had to go through the plaintiff’s Facebook page to determine what is relevant and what is not. It ordered the plaintiff to provide his Facebook username and password to the defendant.

In Luzerne County, a court refused to compel a plaintiff to give defense counsel his username and password. The facts in Kalinowski v. Kirschenheiter and National Indemn. Co, No. 6779 of 2010, (Luzerne Cnty.) involved a plaintiff who was a bar owner with a Facebook page. When the defendant demanded access to the page, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant was only trying to embarrass him with pictures of the plaintiff in his best party attire. The court denied the defendant’s Motion to Compel without prejudice because the plaintiff’s public page did not reveal anything that impeached the plaintiff. The court did also order that the plaintiff refrain from deleting anything from his Facebook page to open the door for future social media discovery.

Facebook: For Friends & Litigants

It seems as though the trend in Pennsylvania is to allow a party access to the opposing party’s Facebook page as long as something in the public profile suggests that relevant information may be contained in the private profile. Facebook postings may not only affect your relationship with your friends and family, but it may also affect the outcome of your case. The world as a whole is still trying to sort out the role social media plays in professional settings – classes are even beginning to be taught on the topic. Although the rules on Facebook discovery are not set in stone, what parents, teachers, and employers often advise still remains true: Be careful what you post on Facebook!