Lawyers look to Internet, social media for clues

Jenny Montgomery
July 20, 2011
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Indiana Lawyer Focus

Attorneys have a message for the public: Be careful about what you post on Facebook, because lurid photos or incriminating statements may end up on the docket.

Social media like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have become valuable resources for lawyers looking to build a case for their client. For example, with a minimal amount of research, a lawyer may be able to show that a litigant was skiing in the Alps when he claimed to be bedridden from a workplace injury. And with more users signing up daily for social media accounts, their use as evidence is likely to become commonplace.

The smoking gun

lonnberg-kelly-mug Lonnberg

Kelly Lonnberg, of Evansville’s Bamberger Foreman Oswald & Hahn, began practicing law 15 years ago. Over time, she has watched the evolution of social media and its effects on family law matters like divorce proceedings and custody hearings.

“People make comments on Facebook that continue to surprise me,” she said. “Almost everybody who at one time was married, they’ve got mutual friends in common, and those things (said on social media sites) get back to each other.”

A case that illustrates what can happen when people forget who is paying attention to their social media pages originated in Arkansas. In Kathleen Lipps v. Robert Lipps, No. CA09-1108, Robert Lipps, a member of the Arkansas National Guard, was on active duty in Iraq when he saw pictures on his wife’s MySpace page of her and another man lying in bed together. Lipps filed for divorce one day after returning from Iraq and ultimately won custody of the couple’s infant son.

vanostrand-amy-mug Van Ostrand

In custody disputes, Lonnberg said, Facebook posts can give the opposing counsel more support when arguing that a parent is unfit.

“References to activities that either are not consistent with their testimony at trial or are supportive about the other party’s references to unfitness” are sometimes found on social media pages, Lonnberg said. “I’ve even had cases where people were critical of the judges and put it on their Facebook account.”

Amy Van Ostrand, an attorney with Hensley Legal Group in Indianapolis, represents primarily personal injury plaintiffs. She advises her clients to think of all their social media as a public diary.

“People easily forget or maybe don’t understand the implications that when they put this info on social media sites … that content is being shared with so many people, you have a very limited expectation of privacy,” she said. “I tell them the best thing to do is to really shut down their social media. I’m always struck by the degree to which new clients seem startled at the prospect of shutting down their social media sites.”

Discoverability and admissibility

An Indiana case – E.E.O.C. v. Simply Storage Management, et. al. No. 1:09-cv-01223 (S.D. Ind. May 11, 2010) – may offer a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that Facebook or MySpace content is shielded from discovery.

In that case, two employees claimed that their employer was liable for the behavior of a supervisor who sexually harassed them. The plaintiffs claimed emotional distress as a result of the alleged harassment, and counsel for the defense filed an order on discovery seeking content from their Facebook and MySpace accounts. The defense argued that postings the plaintiffs made on these sites would provide relevant information about their mental well-being. The court agreed.

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Aviva Orenstein, Val Nolan Faculty Fellow and professor of law at Indiana University – Maurer School of Law, said that in any case where victims claim serious emotional or physical distress, what they say through social networks is relevant.

“This is a subset of the fact that we have in a global sense traded openness for privacy,” she said. “And people may have unrealistic expectations of what they can keep private.”

Lonnberg said that when she has used Facebook content as evidence, it’s usually because a third party forwarded her the information. She said judges may tend to look more favorably on evidence discovered in that manner.

“They always like things to come from people who don’t have a dog in the fight, of course,” she said. “If you have a neighbor or mutual friends who can’t be said to have a strong opinion as to the outcome – people who seem more neutral, such as teachers, mutual friends, the softball coach – the people who wouldn’t necessarily be rooting for one side or the other,” she said, they will be an effective source for this sort of information.

bodensteiner-ivan-mug Bodensteiner

Valparaiso University School of Law Professor Ivan Bodensteiner said he does not think the use of evidence gathered online poses any dilemmas regarding admissibility.

“If I send a text to someone, I send an email to someone, I post something on a social network, it seems that all of those are the equivalent of me writing a note and maybe throwing it in a waste can, and maybe somebody finds it,” he said.

Orenstein said that authenticating a statement made through social media is similar to how courts determine that a signature on a contract is legitimate.

“The judge does the first test on authentication,” she said. But if that authenticity cannot be validated, the jury will be asked to help make that decision.

Sonnberg said one drawback to using online statements as evidence – particularly in instances where a party has made a threat to harm someone – is that the court doesn’t know the intent behind the statement.

“That’s regularly a source of cross-examination … when you don’t have tone and demeanor to go along with it, it’s very difficult to decide. I don’t think you have nearly as much in the way of evidence if you have a text or an email or a Facebook post.”

Digging for dirt

Before the advent of social media, attorneys often relied on private investigators to conduct surveillance of parties and gather information for a case. Nowadays, a simple Google search may be able to produce the same results, at no cost to the attorney. But a fine line exists between gathering evidence and violating ethical standards.

In 2009, a Pennsylvania lawyer suspected that a woman may have posted information on social network sites that could undermine her credibility as a witness for the opposing counsel. After trying to access the pages and finding they were restricted to friends only, he wondered whether hiring someone to friend the witness would be unethical. He sought the advice of the Philadelphia Bar Association Professional Guidance Committee.

In its opinion, the committee said that when videotaping the public conduct of a plaintiff, the videographer follows and records the subject as she presents herself to the public, but does not have to ask to enter a private area to make the video. Hiring someone to friend a party in a case, the committee stated, would be unethical deception.

Going forward

Bodensteiner said when debating the merits of using social media as evidence, relying on rules that have applied for years in law will help people determine whether the evidence is worthy.

“I think the starting point is – in trying to analyze it – is to not get too hung up on the fact that it happens on Facebook or some other social network,” he said. “Treat it as a statement made by someone – there are all kinds of ways to make a statement – and then apply the rules accordingly.”

Van Ostrand said, “I think that as the use of the social media becomes more and more ubiquitous it’s going to become a routine part of discovery. Those few decision that are out there seem to suggest that authentication issues are not serving to exclude the evidence.”•


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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.