Post at Your Own Risk: Pennsylvania Court Permits Discovery of Information on Personal Facebook Profile

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A Pennsylvania court recently decided that information posted by a party on their personal Facebook page is discoverable.  Largent v. Reed, Case No. 2009-1823 (C.P. Franklin Nov. 8, 2011) arose out of a chain-reaction automobile accident in which the plaintiffs, who were riding a motorcycle, were hit by a minivan that was hit by the defendant.  Plaintiffs claimed serious and permanent physical and mental injuries, pain, and suffering as a result of the accident. 

During the deposition of one of the plaintiffs, defense counsel discovered that the  plaintiff/deponent had a Facebook profile that she regularly accessed.  The defendant then accessed Plaintiff’s public profile and saw posts that contradicted her claims of serious injury.  Specifically, Defendant claimed that Plaintiff posted several photographs that showed her enjoying life with her family and a status update about going to the gym.  Defense counsel requested access to Plaintiff’s Facebook page, but Plaintiff refused to voluntarily disclose any information about her profile.  In response, Defendant moved to compel Plaintiff to disclose her Facebook username and password.  Plaintiff  opposed the Motion, arguing that the information sought was irrelevant, did not meet the threshold under Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 4003.1, and that access to her information would cause unreasonable embarrassment and annoyance.    

Court of Common Pleas Judge Richard J. Walsh began his opinion with a lengthy description of Facebook as the site that “helps you connect and share with the people in your life.”  Judge Walsh pointed out that the site has more than 800 million active users, 50% of whom are active on the site daily.  Although he acknowledged that Facebook has privacy settings, Judge Walsh emphasized that users must take “affirmative steps” in order to prevent their information from being shared with the public. 

The Court then turned to the issue at hand – whether and to what extent such “private” information is discoverable in a civil case.  With respect to relevancy, the Court pointed out that Pennsylvania has a “slight” relevancy threshold pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 4003.1.  Under this standard, the photographs depicting Plaintiff with her family and status updates about exercising at the gym are “clearly relevant” because they might prove that Plaintiff’s injuries do not exist or that they are exaggerated.

The Court found that Plaintiff’s Facebook information is not privileged.  Information on Facebook is shared with third parties and, thus, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in such information.  In addition, Pennsylvania law does not recognize a confidential social networking privilege.  As Judge Walsh explained, “[o]nly the uninitiated or foolish could believe that Facebook is an online lockbox of secrets.”  Further, Plaintiff’s information was not protected by the Stored Communications Act, which prevents the government from compelling Internet Service Providers (ISP) from disclosing information about their users because the information was sought directly from Plaintiff, who is not an ISP. 

Finally, the Court concluded that Defendant’s request was not unreasonably embarrassing or annoying and disagreed with the claim that Defendant’s request is akin to asking Plaintiff to produce all of her personal mail.  Since Plaintiff’s postings were never truly private, there could not be any unreasonable embarrassment in producing the postings in litigation.  The Court also determined that the request would not cause unreasonable annoyance, because Defendant would bear the entire cost of investigating Plaintiff’s Facebook information. 

As Judge Walsh points out, social networking is a recent phenomenon and these issues are just beginning to infiltrate the courts.  Although relatively few courts have spoken on this issue, the standard is becoming clear: Post at your own risk. 

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