Friends on Facebook – Hold Them Close, Get Held in Contempt of Court!

Since 2009, Legal Bytes has been blogging off and on about the implications of social media to the legal profession and the legal process. Whether it’s judges being "Friends" with lawyers (see, Florida Judges Can’t Have Friends), or jurors networking about evidence or cases as they deliberate (see, When Pressing Suits, Judges Tell Jurors Neither Social Nor Media is OK), or reporters "tweeting" from the courtroom (see, Freedom of the Press = Freedom to Tweet), social media is a force to be reckoned with—and the legal process also needs to reckon with it.

The latest blip on the radar comes from the UK, where Joanna Fraill, a juror, has been tried and convicted of being in contempt of court in what is being widely reported as the first Internet-related contempt of court prosecution in the UK (and perhaps anywhere). So in addition to judges, prosecutors and plaintiffs’ lawyers being wary about managing their online relationships, and jurors being admonished for searching online for information regarding the facts, parties, or issues in a case, add communication between jurors and parties in the legal proceedings to the list. Ms. Jamie Sewart, a defendant in a trial in Manchester involving billions of BPS’ worth of drugs, was contacted by Ms. Fraill, one of the jurors in the trial, through Facebook while the jury was deliberating.

Ms. Sewart admitted knowing Ms. Fraill was one of the jurors when she "accepted" the request to be friends, and the case collapsed when their communication through the social networking medium was uncovered. Ms. Sewart’s partner was convicted and is currently in prison, but Ms. Sewart was acquitted as a result of this trial. In one exchange between them – the text has now been made public – Ms. Fraill sent a message to Ms. Sewart regarding the jury deliberations stating: "cant get anyone to go either no one budging pleeeeeese don’t say anything cause jamie they could all miss trial and I will get 4cked to0."

Now before everyone rants about the evils of social media, bear in mind that the same result would be obtained if the juror had written a letter, called by phone or sent a coded message by carrier pigeon. The fact that a new means of communication – the Internet – was involved doesn’t change the admonition, the rules, or the consequences of the conduct. Indeed, with Facebook’s user population at approximately 700 million, the relatively lax attitude toward anyone monitoring their millions of followers on Twitter (or who they follow – I generally just automatically reciprocate), isn’t it likely one of you is already "Friends" with a criminal, or you will be, or you are following someone who may be appearing in court any day now?

Communication between participants in legal cases has long been the subject of ethical rules, professional guidelines and rigorous policing. Issues relating to privilege and work product, attorney-client communication, and relationships between lawyers, judges, plaintiffs and defendants, are not new. But jurors wanting to be "friends" with a defendant in the midst of a trial – well that’s one I haven’t heard before.

Rimon has teams of lawyers knowledgeable in digital evidence and discovery, employment and social media, privilege and litigation, in the age of the Internet and mobile communication. So as I’ve said before, keep your browser tuned (or bookmarked) to for breaking news, and if you do need help, contact me, Joe Rosenbaum, or any of the lawyers at Rimon with whom you work.

OMG B KEWL and call (or SMS) if you need help.

Twitter Buys TweetDeck

Although unconfirmed directly, CNN and CNET are reporting that Twitter has acquired London-based TweetDeck for a reported $40 million. TweetDeck is a desktop application that uses Adobe Air and is attempting to create a user interface in columnar form to entice users to display and ostensibly manage their social media connections.

Twitter Settles with FTC – Gets 20 Years Probation!

On Friday, March 11, 2011, the Federal Trade Commission issued a press release announcing that, by a 5-0 vote, the Commissioners had approved a settlement with Twitter, stemming from charges that the social media and social networking site had deceived consumers by failing to protect personal information and potentially compromising their privacy. Last June, the FTC had charged Twitter with lapses in data security sufficiently serious that hackers were able to compromise administrative control, including both non-public user information and consumers’ private tweets. Hackers could send out fraudulent phony or spoofed tweets from virtually any user’s account.  The complaint originally filed against Twitter alleged that there were at least two instances where hackers were able to get control in early 2009, although it is possible there were other times as well. 

Twitter’s privacy settings ostensibly permit a user to identify tweets as private, and the FTC has consistently maintained that when a company posts a privacy statement or policy, aside from seeking to form a binding agreement between company and consumer regarding use of the site and the service, it also can make claims, announcing (i.e., advertising) the quality, integrity, reliability and security (among other things) of the features, functions and operations of the site that the public and each consumer using the service can rely upon. As the FTC noted in its press release, Twitter’s privacy policy says, "Twitter is very concerned about safeguarding the confidentiality of your personally identifiable information.  We employ administrative, physical, and electronic measures designed to protect your information from unauthorized access." From a regulatory perspective, this statement is viewed as constituting a ‘claim’ relating to the data protection measures Twitter utilizes and how the company treats customer information and activity.  

Although a settlement finalized in a consent agreement doesn’t amount to an admission of liability or a violation of any law or regulation, a final consent order does have the force of law against the company going forward. In this case, Twitter has agreed that for the next 20 years it will (a) not mislead consumers about the extent to which it protects the security, privacy and confidentiality of nonpublic consumer information, (b) respect and honor consumers’ privacy choices, and (c) not mislead consumers about what it does or how safe the mechanisms are that are designed to prevent unauthorized access.  Twitter also agreed that every two years for the next ten years, it will have an independent auditor review and evaluate Twitter’s information security program.

Need more information about how the FTC views terms of use, privacy statements and the ‘advertising’ claims that arise in social media?  Contact me or the Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work.

Landlord Can’t Let Tweet sMOLDer

If you have been wondering what happened to the third grade line “there’s a fungus among us,” we have the answer. It seems a “tweet” made available May 12, 2009 on Twitter contained the following statement: ". . . Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s OK." Since the tweet is alleged to be available publicly for the world to see on Twitter, that didn’t seem particularly humorous to the management of the apartment building in which the Tweeter lives.

So non-humorous in fact, that Horizon Group Management, landlord of the apartment building in question, has filed suit in a Cook County Illinois Court for libel, alleging this was a "malicious and defamatory" tweet about the state of her apartment. The complaint further contends that because the "statement damaged the plaintiff’s reputation in its business, the statement is libel per se." Horizon is seeking a minimum of $50,000 in damages and that isn’t birdseed. You can read a copy of the complaint right here.

Employees Off-Work, But Online

This post was written by E. David Krulewicz and Cindy Schmitt Minniti.

Facebook, MySpace and Twitter have become household names, a ubiquitous part of the daily lives of many and often a tool for keeping in touch with friends and family. These websites are increasingly being used by individuals to document their daily lives and activities, voice their concerns and post their opinions for the world to read and to respond. The business community has also turned to these “social media” websites as means for marketing their brands and, in some instances, for obtaining information about current employees and prospective job applicants. A series of recent cases reminds us there are significant risks related to the posting and/or use of information discovered on “social media” websites.

For example, in Pietrylo and Marino v. Hillstone Restaurant Group, a case pending in the Unites States District Court for the District of New Jersey, two individuals sued their former employer after they were terminated for posting complaints about their workplace on an invitation-only discussion forum on Much to the employees’ surprise, managers from Hillstone Restaurant Group were able to access this discussion board (although the parties dispute whether the managers had a right to do so) and were less than pleased with what they read. The employees were quickly terminated and a lawsuit followed. 

In their complaint, the former employees assert their employer not only violated state and federal Wiretap and Stored Communications Acts by accessing the invitation-only forum, but wrongfully terminated them in violation of New Jersey’s public policy favoring free expression and privacy as embodied in the U.S. and the New Jersey Constitutions. Their employer has denied the claims and asserts the plaintiffs were “at-will” employees who could be terminated for any reason or no reason at all.

Ultimately, the question of liability may hinge upon whether the employees had a right to privacy for statements made online and whether the employer has a right to make disciplinary decisions based on an employee’s off-duty conduct.

Although legal commentators and privacy advocates debate how the trial will unfold when the case goes to trial later this summer, they all agree the case highlights real- world issues that can follow an individual’s seemingly innocent decision to post his or her thoughts on a social networking website. This is far from an isolated incident – indeed, the sports media recently reported a similar incident involving the Philadelphia Eagles’ termination of a long-time employee for disparaging the team’s management and its decision to release a prominent player on his Facebook page.  

While it is unclear if any of the companies in the cases above had a policy or provided instruction to their employees on these issues, it should not surprise you that increasingly business employers are finding they must do so. Clearly, before making decisions or taking action against employees for online, but off-duty conduct, employers should seek legal counsel from lawyers who understand these issues and can guide you in this dynamically evolving environment – where federal and state (and sometimes municipal or local) law may apply and little, if any, precedent currently exists. Worried? Need help? Need to understand more? Contact E. David Krulewicz or Cindy Schmitt Minniti or the Rimon lawyer with whom you work. 

Update:  Today, May 20th, after this story was posted, the U.S. House of Representatives also approved the bill regulating some common credit card and gift card industry practices. It is likely President Obama will sign the bill once it arrives on his desk.