Whaley: Adventures in e-discovery and social media

July 30, 2014
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whaley Whaley

By Alan Whaley

It’s no secret – the use of social media is commonplace and widespread. Online statistics say that Facebook had over 1.2 billion active users in the first quarter of 2014, and Twitter has 255 million active users sending 500 million messages a day. And social media is not just for individuals anymore; organizations use it on a large scale, too. According to a study by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research, as of July 2013, 77 percent of Fortune 500 companies were on Twitter, and 70 percent of them had Facebook accounts.

With all this social media use, it is not surprising that social media can have a significant impact on litigation and discovery. Occasionally something dramatic provides a cautionary tale, like the confidential settlement in a Florida employment discrimination case that the defendant private school voided when the plaintiff’s daughter bragged about it on her Facebook account. But there are many aspects of social media which, while not flashy, present interesting e-discovery challenges.

Relevance, scope of discovery

Some litigants have tried to take the position that their social media content should not be discoverable because some of it is personal and revealing it could be embarrassing. That argument usually doesn’t work. As with other kinds of evidence, social media content is potentially discoverable if it is relevant to the issues in a case. For example, the courts in EEOC v. Simply Storage Mgt., LLC, 270 F.R.D. 430 (S.D. Ind. 2010), and EEOC v. Original Honeybaked Ham Co. of Georgia, 2012 WL5430974 (D. Col. Nov. 7, 2012), both ruled that defendants in sexual harassment cases were entitled to discover some content posted on plaintiffs’ social media sites because it was relevant to the plaintiffs’ claims of emotional distress and financial injury.

The information deemed discoverable was not limited to content that directly addressed or commented on the issues in the litigation, nor was it limited to the public portions of the plaintiffs’ social media profiles. Most courts do not accept the argument that a party has a privacy interest in protecting information posted to a social media account, even its non-public sections. But they are also reluctant to order that all of a party’s social media content is discoverable. So they devise guidelines or methods to identify only the relevant content. In the Honeybaked Ham case, that involved appointing a forensic consultant as a Special Master to help filter through some of the information, and the court’s in camera review of other content. The cost of the consultant was shared equally by the parties.

Access to data

Knowing a party has social media content that may be relevant is one thing; getting access to it is another. A significant factor in seeking access to another party’s social media content is the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq. The SCA was written in the mid-1980s, before the advent of the World Wide Web, and it presents an often cumbersome framework that courts have found to be an imperfect fit when applied to social media. But it prevents Internet service providers from supplying access to the non-public electronic communications of their subscribers, so simply sending a civil subpoena to Facebook will get you nowhere, and in some courts will be sanctionable as an overreaching discovery tactic.

There are exceptions under the SCA for government-issued subpoenas and warrants, and the analysis in a given case will depend somewhat on whether a provider is deemed to be an “electronic communication service” provider or a “remote computer service” provider under the statute – and sometimes the same provider can be both an ECS and an RCS. In addition, sometimes the type of data storage (Is it “temporary?” Is it “backup?”) determines whether the SCA applies. Parsing through the nuances of these definitions is beyond the scope of this brief article, but the upshot is this: it will be difficult if not impossible to force an ECS or RCS provider to provide access to social media content without the consent of the subscriber. If the subscriber won’t give consent voluntarily, one option is to seek a court order directing that the consent be given.

Preserving data

One significant aspect of electronic data is that it frequently changes, and that is especially true of social media content. Therefore, at the beginning of a case it may be particularly important to try to preserve the status of another party’s social media information. You can do this with a preservation notice to that party, or if you think additional measures are needed, consider a preservation request to the service provider or even a “preservation subpoena” and motion filed with a court.


If a party has obtained social media content and needs to get it into evidence, authenticating that evidence may become an issue. One approach is to preserve and print a static image from a social media account – that can easily be done with a party’s public social media posts, for example. But the personal testimony of an authenticating witness, like the person who collected and printed the image, will probably be necessary. And with some kinds of content, like video or audio materials, special software and the assistance of a forensic computer consultant may be needed.

Other issues

There are social media issues that practitioners should at least be aware of. These include identifying who actually has possession, custody or control of social media content – sometimes, it’s not exclusively the subscriber. And there are very important ethical considerations affecting how a lawyer should use social media, both in the discovery context and otherwise. For example, it is widely considered unethical for a lawyer to “pretext” – that is, to seek “friend” status under false pretenses to gain access to someone’s social media content. And using social media recklessly, such as through blog posts or online comments, can invite trouble for lawyers and judges. In an information environment that can sometimes seem like the Wild West, circumspection is good policy.•


Alan (Skip) Whaley is a partner in the litigation and appellate practices of Ice Miller LLP. His practice focuses particularly on health care and product liability cases, e-discovery, confidentiality and privacy issues, regulatory and licensing matters, and risk management. He can be contacted at 317-236-2362 and The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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  1. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  2. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  3. Paul Hartman of Burbank, Oh who is helping Sister Fuller with this Con Artist Kevin Bart McCarthy scares Sister Joseph Therese, Patricia Ann Fuller very much that McCarthy will try and hurt Patricia Ann Fuller and Paul Hartman of Burbank, Oh or any member of his family. Sister is very, very scared, (YES, I AM) This McCarthy guy is a real, real CON MAN and crook. I try to totall flatter Kevin Bart McCARTHY to keep him from hurting my best friends in this world which are Carolyn Rose and Paul Hartman. I Live in total fear of this man Kevin Bart McCarthy and try to praise him as a good man to keep us ALL from his bad deeds. This man could easy have some one cause us a very bad disability. You have to PRAISAE in order TO PROTECT yourself. He lies and makes up stories about people and then tries to steal if THEY OWN THRU THE COURTS A SPECIAL DEVOTION TO PROTECT, EX> Our Lady of America DEVOTION. EVERYONE who reads this, PLEASE BE CAREFUL of Kevin Bart McCarthy of Indianapolis, IN My Phone No. IS 419-435-3838.

  4. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.

  5. I had a hospital and dcs caseworker falsify reports that my child was born with drugs in her system. I filed a complaint with the Indiana department of health....and they found that the hospital falsified drug screens in their investigation. Then I filed a complaint with human health services in Washington DC...dcs drug Testing is unregulated and is indicating false positives...they are currently being investigated by human health services. Then I located an attorney and signed contracts one month ago to sue dcs and Anderson community hospital. Once the suit is filed I am taking out a loan against the suit and paying a law firm to file a writ of mandamus challenging the courts jurisdiction to invoke chins case against me. I also forwarded evidence to a u.s. senator who contacted hhs to push an investigation faster. Once the lawsuit is filed local news stations will be running coverage on the situation. Easy day....people will be losing their jobs soon...and judge pancol...who has attempted to cover up what has happened will also be in trouble. The drug testing is a kids for cash and federal funding situation.