Until very recently, the only state high court decisions (from VA and DE) on our ediscovery for defendants cheat sheet involved sanctions against plaintiffs for destroying social media evidence.

No longer.

In Forman v. Henkin, ___ N.E.3d ___, 2018 WL 828101 (N.Y. Feb. 13, 2018), the New York Court of Appeals reaffirmed that discovery of plaintiff social media is available to defendants on the same basis as any other discovery, and put the kibosh on plaintiff-friendly discovery restrictions that had lower New York courts had developed to hamstring defendants seeking access to plaintiffs’ social media.

Forman was about as far from prescription medical product liability as one can get and still involve personal injury.  The plaintiff fell off a horse, was badly injured, and sued the owner of the horse. Forman, 2018 WL 828101, at *1.  Plaintiff, who claimed to have become “reclusive” following the accident, was a heavy social media user:

At her deposition, plaintiff stated that she previously had a Facebook account on which she posted “a lot” of photographs showing her pre-accident active lifestyle but that she deactivated the account about six months after the accident and could not recall whether any post-accident photographs were posted.

Id.  She also claimed to “ha[ve] difficulty using a computer and composing coherent messages” after her accident.  Id.  Thus, the relevance of plaintiff’s social media activities was as plain as the nose on that horse’s face.  After plaintiff testified to these facts, social media information confirming or refuting them, at minimum, bears on credibility, and goes to damages, as well – right?

Well…. Not as the Appellate Division saw the issue (note: only plaintiff appealed, so the issues being considered are somewhat narrow).  It limited disclosure only “to photographs posted on Facebook that plaintiff intended to introduce at trial” and “eliminate[ed] the authorization permitting defendant to obtain data relating to post-accident messages.”  Forman, 2018 WL 828101, at *2.  Why?   The Appellate Division held that unless the defendant could find something in plaintiff’s public social media suggesting a specific basis for additional discovery, the defendant had no right to any discovery from the plaintiff’s private social media:

[T]he Appellate Division . . . employ[ed] a heightened threshold for production of social media records that depends on what the account holder has chosen to share on the public portion of the account. . . .  Several courts applying this rule appear to have conditioned discovery of material on the “private” portion of a [social media] account on whether the party seeking disclosure demonstrated there was material in the “public” portion that tended to contradict the injured party’s allegations in some respect.

Id. at *4 (citations omitted).

The defendant argued that its right to discover relevant evidence under the control of an opposing party is not predicated on the legal equivalent of a snipe hunt.  Id.  Thankfully, the Court of Appeals “agree[d],” id., and threw out the Appellate Division’s made up impediment to ediscovery for defendants.  First, discovery is discovery, no matter who seeks it:

Disclosure in civil actions is generally governed by CPLR 3101(a), which directs: “[t]here shall be full disclosure of all matter material and necessary to the prosecution or defense of an action, regardless of the burden of proof.”  We have emphasized that the words material and necessary are to be interpreted liberally to require disclosure, upon request, of any facts bearing on the controversy.

Id. at *2 (citation and quotation marks omitted).  New York recognizes only “three categories of protected materials” – “privileged matter,” “attorney[] work product,” and “trial preparation materials.”  Id.  A plaintiff’s (or defendant’s, for that matter) social media doesn’t fit in any of these categories.

Beyond the three categories, discovery may be limited if unduly “onerous.”  Id. at *3.  Discovery of photos actually posted by the plaintiff (with an exception for “nudity or romantic encounters” specified by the trial court) wasn’t “onerous” either, and plaintiff did not argue otherwise.  Id.

The Court of Appeals in Forman flatly rejected the plaintiff’s supposed precondition to social media discovery, recognizing that it would let plaintiffs hide the ball:

[A] threshold rule requiring that party [seeking discovery] to “identify relevant information in [the social media] account” effectively permits disclosure only in limited circumstances, allowing the account holder to unilaterally obstruct disclosure merely by manipulating “privacy” settings or curating the materials on the public portion of the account.  Under such an approach, disclosure turns on the extent to which some of the information sought is already accessible − and not, as it should, on whether it is “material and necessary to the prosecution or defense of an action.”

Forman, 2018 WL 828101, at *4 (citation, quotation marks and footnote omitted) (emphasis added).  Hear, hear.

Rather, the principle circumscribing social media discovery is the same as for all discovery – relevance to the theories and defenses of the particular case.  While blanket discovery of everything in every case, whether social media or otherwise, would be “onerous,” id., discovery tailored to the plaintiff’s claims and the defendant’s defenses is normal and proper:

[T]here is no need for a specialized or heightened factual predicate to avoid improper “fishing expeditions.”  In the event that judicial intervention becomes necessary, 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 [social media] account.

Id. at *5.  Plaintiffs would have a chance to assert “any specific ‘privacy’ or other concerns” about the social media discovery being sought.  Id.  In “a personal injury case . . . it is appropriate to consider the nature of the underlying incident and the injuries claimed.”  “Temporal limitations may also be appropriate” so that social media “posted years before an accident” may not “be germane.”  Id.

The Court of Appeals also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that social media discovery “necessarily constitutes an unjustified invasion of privacy.”  No it doesn’t.  A plaintiff who brings a lawsuit necessarily waives privacy with respect to evidence relevant to that action.

We assume . . . that some materials on a [social media] account may fairly be characterized as private.  But even private materials may be subject to discovery if they are relevant.  For example, medical records enjoy protection in many contexts under the physician-patient privilege.  But when a party commences an action, affirmatively placing a mental or physical condition in issue, certain privacy interests relating to relevant medical records − including the physician-patient privilege − are waived.  For purposes of disclosure, the threshold inquiry is not whether the materials sought are private but whether they are reasonably calculated to contain relevant information.

Forman, 2018 WL 828101, at *5 (citation omitted) (emphasis added).  We note that one of the omitted citations is to Arons v. Jutkowitz, 880 N.E.2d 831 (N.Y. 2007), the decision confirming defendants’ right to informal interviews with treating physicians in New York, which we blogged about, here).

In short, plaintiffs who don’t want to produce their social media shouldn’t be plaintiffs.  If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the courtroom.

Thus, it was “err[or]” to condition discovery of “private” social media on what a plaintiff might, or might not, have done on public social media.  The Appellate Division had “effectively denied disclosure of any evidence potentially relevant to the defense.”  Id. at *5 n.6.  Rather, plaintiff’s testimony about her social media activities “more than met [any] threshold burden of showing that plaintiff’s Facebook account was reasonably likely to yield relevant evidence.”  Id. at *5.  Any photos of plaintiff’s activities “might be reflective of her post-accident activities and/or limitations.”  Id.  Further, “data revealing the timing and number of characters in posted messages would be relevant to plaintiffs’ claim that she suffered cognitive injuries that caused her to have difficulty writing and using the computer.”  Id. at *6.

Forman thus confirms what we have always thought – anything a plaintiff puts on social media is fair game for discovery, to the same extent as any other information under the plaintiff’s custody and control.  Decisions that seek to impose additional limitations on social media discovery, because social media is somehow different or more private, are wrongly decided.

We update our cheat sheet devoted to ediscovery for defendants differently than the others.  Because of the broad nature of the topic – these cases arise in a wide variety of non-drug/device contexts – other personal injury, employment, civil rights, occasionally even criminal litigation.  That means we have to research them separately to find what we need to include.  That is more taxing than our usual routine because it means looking through hundreds of cases to find the ones that are:  (1) on point, and (2) favorable to our side of the “v.”  Thus, it has been a while since we last updated, but we just did it now.  The new opinions are below, and every one of them either allows access to a plaintiff’s social media activity or imposes sanctions (often for spoliation) on plaintiff for resisting such discovery.

Once again, although we’ve read all the relevant social media discovery cases, we include only the good ones – because we don’t believe in doing the other side’s research for them.  A couple of words to the wise arising from the rest are appropriate.  First and foremost, if you’re representing a defendant and are considering making a broad request for social media discovery at the very outset of the case – DON’T.  Without anything more solid than generalized suspicions as reason for a deep dive into an opponent’s social media, courts are not impressed and are likely to treat it as a “fishing expedition.”  Most of the time a blanket social media discovery demand will succeed only when the defendant has caught the plaintiff in a lie – with contradictory public social media evidence − or the plaintiff has attempted to delete or otherwise hide social media activity.  The key word is “investigate.”  Once the tip of the spear penetrates a plaintiff’s shenanigans, the rest follows more easily.

Second, in the absence of such hard evidence, the defense is well advised to start small, with less intrusive discovery.  Instead of asking for everything at once, check with an ediscovery specialist and consider proposing sampling – 5% or 10% of all posts – as something less intrusive, but statistically likely to find contradictory evidence if it exists.  An active social media user (the type most likely to generate useful information) will usually have published thousands of posts and other types of entries.  In that situation, sampling is very likely to reveal something significant present in a plaintiff’s social media.  The sampling can then support a broader discovery demand.

With those caveats, here is the latest favorable set of cases in which defendants have successfully engaged in discovery of plaintiffs’ electronic activities:

  • Shawe v. Elting, 157 A.3d 142 (Del. Feb. 13, 2017). Plaintiff properly sanctioned for deliberate and reckless deleting email and text messages by being ordered not only to pay all expenses of recovery but also a percentage of defendant’s total counsel fees, due to the spoliation complicating the conduct of the litigation general.
  • State v. Johnson, 2017 WL 1364136 (Tenn. Crim. App. April 12, 2017). Although the Shared Communications Act prohibited criminal defendants from obtaining a witness’ social media content from social media platforms, the defendant had established good cause to obtain such evidence directly from the witnesses who were social media users. They are not privileged. The subpoenae to the witnesses were not oppressive.
  • Lawrence v. Rocktenn CP LLC, 2017 WL 2951624 (Mag. W.D. La. April 19, 2017). Plaintiff must produce all text messages, photographs and videos that concern: (1) plaintiff’s physical capabilities; (2) that allegations in the complaint; (3) emotional distress; (4) any decline in plaintiff’s marriage; (5) alternative causes of the injuries; and (f) plaintiff’s activities during the claimed period of disability.
  • Flowers v. City of New York, 55 N.Y.S.3d 51 (N.Y. App. Div. June 20, 2017). Evidence from plaintiff’s public social media contradicted the plaintiff, thereby justifying discovery from plaintiff’s private social media accounts, including deleted material, relating to the same subject matter. Plaintiff shall provide a release to obtain material, including metadata, from the provider.
  • Walker v. Carter, 2017 WL 3668585 (S.D.N.Y. July 12, 2017). Plaintiff sanctioned for failure to produce relevant text messages. Must pay defendant’s increased attorney’s fees.
  • Ottoson v. SMBC Leasing & Finance, Inc., ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2017 WL 2992726 (S.D.N.Y. July 13, 2017). Plaintiff sanctioned for failure to preserve text messages and emails concerning the events at issue. The jury will be instructed on an adverse spoliation inference.
  • Jones v. U.S. Border Patrol Agent Gerardo Hernandez, 2017 WL 3525259 (Mag. S.D. Cal. Aug. 16, 2017). Plaintiff must produce a GPS-based map generated by his fitness watch.
  • Ehrenberg v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 2017 WL 3582487 (Mag. E.D. La. Aug. 18, 2017). With respect to social media, plaintiffs must produce posts and photos: (1) relating to the accident, (2) relating to all physical injuries whether or not caused by the accident, (3) reflecting plaintiff’s physical activity, (4) relating to plaintiff’s emotional distress; (5) relating to alternative emotional stressors; (6) concerning plaintiff’s vacations.
  • Calleros v. Rural Metro, Inc., 2017 WL 4391714 (Mag. S.D. Cal. Oct. 3, 2017). In class action over alleged deprivation of rest breaks, defendant is entitled to social media discovery of any activity plaintiffs engaged in while on company time.

This is our quasi-annual update to our cheat sheet about ediscovery for defendants.  Essentially that means using discovery to obtain access to what plaintiffs have said about themselves, and their supposed injuries, on social media.  Such material can be critical to defeating a plaintiff’s case. See Zamudio-Soto v. Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 2017 WL 386375, at *11 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 27, 2017) (summary judgment on statute of limitations granted because plaintiff’s “Facebook post is even more indicative of suspicion [of causation]” than evidence that sufficed to defeat the discovery rule in binding Ninth Circuit decision).

However, we once again implore defendants – be reasonable.  Don’t do what we complain about the other side doing.  Don’t make unbounded requests for all social media at all times about everything.  Having just read a bunch of ediscovery cases about social media, we can state with confidence that such open-ended discovery is the quickest way to make bad precedent, the kind we don’t put on our cheat sheets, in this area.

Since discovery issues involving social media can arise in a many types of non-drug/device litigation – and even outside of personal injury altogether (think employment-related suits, for one thing) – this is a different kind of cheat sheet.  Instead of collecting cases as they come down via our weekly prescription medical product-related searches, we have to go out and research this issue specifically.  We’re lazy, so that doesn’t happen more than once a year or so.  The summaries below have been added to the cheat sheet itself, but we’re presenting them here as well.  As always with cheat sheets, we compile only those favorable to our side, which means those cases that allow all, or substantially all, of the discovery being sought.

  • Baxter v. Anderson, 2016 WL 4443178 (Mag. M.D. La. Aug. 19, 2016). Ordering plaintiff to identify every social networking website used or accessed since her accident, and where she posted photographs or other information, as well as usernames and the last date of access. Plaintiff must also produce all postings, including photographs, since the accident about the claims and defenses of the litigation, as well as postings about her alleged physical injuries and her physical capabilities.
  • Zamora v. GC Services, LP, 2016 WL 8853096 (Mag. W.D. Tex. Aug. 19, 2016). Plaintiff ordered to respond to discovery demand for all social media postings, recordings, and text messages, that concern the factual allegations plaintiff is making in the lawsuit.
  • McDonald v. Escape the Room Experience, LLC, 2016 WL 5793992 (Mag. S.D.N.Y. Sept. 21, 2016). Motion to compel granted ordering plaintiff to produce postings about plaintiff’s socializing, her attendance at parties or other social outings, and her participation in performances or other employment activities. Plaintiff’s production must include her complete postings, during the relevant time period, on any electronic social media or internet sites, including dating sites.
  • Jacquelyn v. Macy’s Retail Holdings, Inc., 2016 WL 6246798 (Mag. S.D. Ga. Oct. 24, 2016). No threshold showing is necessary before a defendant can seek discovery of social media evidence. Such a rule would shield from discovery Facebook users who do not share information publicly. Where a plaintiff puts physical condition and quality of life at issue, Facebook postings reflecting physical capacity and inconsistent activities are relevant and discoverable. Plaintiffs must produce: (1) all photographs posted by plaintiffs or in which they are tagged; (2) all comments to those photographs; (3) all posts by plaintiffs relating to activities in which plaintiffs contend they could not participate due to the incident; and (4) any posts referencing their claimed injuries, damages, or loss of enjoyment of life since the incident.
  • Scott v. United States Postal Service, 2016 WL 7440468 (Mag. M.D. La. Dec. 27, 2016). Where plaintiff has put her physical condition and activities at issue by filing a lawsuit, social media concerning those matters is discoverable. Defendant came forward with evidence that relevant social media existed. Plaintiff can also be required to identify all social media used since the accident and all postings related to any type of physical or athletic activities since the accident. To ensure completeness, plaintiff must retain historical data for all social media and review for responsive information. If such information is unavailable, plaintiff must describe the steps she took to locate and review responsive information.
  • Brown v. City of Ferguson, 2017 WL 386544 (E.D. Mo. Jan. 27, 2017). Social media discovery is no different than any other discovery. Social media is neither privileged nor protected by a right of privacy. Plaintiffs must produce all social media content with any relevance to the case, for five years prior to the incident, including private messages sent through Facebook messenger.
  • Gee v. Citizens Insurance Co., 2017 WL 694711 (Mich. App. Feb. 21, 2017) (unpublished). Affirming dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint as a sanction for deliberately deleting social media information to evade discovery.
  • Gordon v. T.G.R. Logistics, Inc., ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2017 WL 1947537 (D. Wyo. May 10, 2017). Plaintiff required to produce all social media history about her significant emotional turmoil, any mental disability or ability, or significant events which reasonably could result in emotional distress. Plaintiff also required to produce all Facebook postings which reference the accident, its aftermath, and any of her claimed physical injuries. Plaintiff must produce Facebook history and photos which relate or show her level of activity after the accident. Pre-accident social media need not be produced without a showing of relevance.
  • Matthews v. J & J Service Solutions, LLC, 2017 WL 2256963 (Mag. M.D. La. May 23, 2017). Plaintiff ordered to comply with document requests for all social media communications with defendant’s current or former employees and for archived Facebook material. Social media is discoverable.

These case have also been added to the cheat sheet itself, where we have collected over 100 favorable ediscovery for defendant cases that go back over a decade.

Bexis recently attended the “Emerging Issues in Mass-Tort MDLs Conference” sponsored by Duke Law School (those of us from Philly remember Duke as part of “Black Saturday” back in 1979).  Several panels discussed various issues relating to MDLs including using early, issue-specific fact sheets, which Bexis advocated be considered amended pleadings subject to Rule 8 and TwIqbal, as a winnowing tool against the hordes of meritless plaintiffs that persist for years in MDLs involving prescription medical products.  Another discussion, about Lone Pine orders, produced (among other things) a great deal of disagreement as to what exactly a “Lone Pine order” actually requires.

By the end of it all, Bexis was moved to make a modest proposal. A lot of the problem – both with the use of plaintiff questionnaires/fact sheets and with Lone Pine orders – is definitional.  There is no set standard for either of these supplemental discovery procedures.  What’s really needed is the type of clarity that can only be brought about by an actual rule of civil procedure.  Thus, Bexis proposed (and proposes here) creation of a new Federal Rule of Civil Procedure governing “optional discovery methods” that allow judges to use defined procedures for party questionnaires/fact sheets (not necessarily plaintiffs in all cases) and Lone Pine orders would set standards, as well as several other discovery techniques that we think should be defined and allowed by a formal rule.

The other techniques Bexis would include in a new rule are: (1) authorizations for release and production of medical and other relevant records in the hands of third-parties; (2) informal interviews with treating physicians; (3) predictive coding in ediscovery; and (4) provision of blood or tissue sampling for genetic testing.  The first two are traditional discovery techniques that suffer (like Lone Pine and questionnaires) from wildly divergent standards and could benefit from the uniformity imposed by a rule – as well as a leveling of the plaintiff/defendant playing field.  The latter two are innovative discovery techniques that are driven by technological advances.  Predictive coding (as we discussed in the links above) could both cheapen and sharpen electronic discovery.  Genetic testing, reliant on DNA and other molecular sequencing techniques that have become dramatically cheaper and more accurate over the past decade, will become more and more necessary in toxic exposure cases of all kinds as causation of more and more medical conditions, such as mesothelioma and other cancers, is determined to vary by individualized genetic differences (also discussed in our prior link).

As illustrious as the attendees of the (invitation only) Duke Conference are, that is not the forum for actually amending the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. That honor goes to Discovery Subcommittee of the Federal Judicial Conference’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure.  Having successfully completed its project on scope and sanctions that resulted in the amendments that became final in December, 2015, that Subcommittee might be looking for something else to do.  Maybe it could see fit to take up some or all of Bexis’ modest proposal.