There is never a shortage of new and interesting stories involving social media that impact upon our world of family law.  We have previously blogged about what NOT to do online, because there may be a spouse ready and willing to use such online postings, pictures and the like against you in your divorce proceeding.

Apparently the Mom in the case of Melody M. did not read our blog posts. In a decision from a New York appellate court that garnered enough attention that I first read about it in the New York Daily News, Mom lost legal custody of the children for being mean to her oldest child on Facebook.

The basic facts were relatively straightforward.  The parties entered into a separation agreement in 2006 providing for joint custody of their three children, with “alternating physical placement.”  In 2009, the parties stipulated to continuing joint legal custody, with Dad having primary physicla custody and Mom having scheduled parenting time for an evening each week and on weekends during the school year.  In 2010, Mom commenced the first proceeding to increase her parenting time.  Dad opposed the requested modification, and, among other things, sought his own form of modification by requesting that he be granted sole legal custody of the children.


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Melissa Brown, an attorney in Charleston, South Carolina, is a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and one of the preeminent family lawyers in South Carolina. I had the occasion, last week, to read her excellent article on her blog entitled "Be Careful When Using Technology to Gather Evidence."  Melissa has graciously allowed us to re-post her post. Her article is as follows:

The world of technology changes at break neck speed. Just in the past year, Apple released its third generationiPad and seven months later it is introducing the fourth generation  iPad, new iPad Mini and the iPhone 5. Even Apple fans hardly have time to familiarize themselves with a new toy before another is introduced. The new technology is available even before contracts run on the previous models.

Most people today are not as concerned about keeping up with the Jones’s as they are with keeping up with the Steve Jobs’s. The problem in the legal field is that while lawyers struggle to keep up with latest and greatest technological advances, the laws addressing the use, misuse and abuse of such technology are also ever-evolving. However, the laws are not evolving at nearly the pace of technology growth. The result is that obtaining evidence through the use of technology can become dangerous both to clients and attorneys.

No one can be completely sure how old laws will apply to new technology particularly technology that few could fathom or contemplate when the laws were enacted. Lawyers and judges struggle to apply general principals of law to situations never imagined. While there are some hard and fast rules, much of this area of law remains murky and uncertain. Clients may believe their "smoking gun" e-mail will win their case, but, if a court later decides that the client obtained the e-mail illegally, the court will exclude that evidence entirely. Even worse, the client and the attorney offering the illegally obtained evidence might face civil and criminal liability for even attempting to admit such material.

In a much-publicized Ohio case, an ex-wife, Catherine Zang is currently suing her ex-husband, Joseph Zang, and his attorney, Mary Jill Donovan, for wiretapping and invasion of privacy. Catherine Zang claims her ex-husband installed monitoring devices in their home and spied on her with a hidden video camera and microphone. She alleges that he installed these secret cameras to gain leverage during their divorce proceedings. Under the federal wiretapping laws, a person may not intercept wire, oral, or electronic communications, and, under many state’s laws,unless one of the parties in the conversation is aware of the recording, the recording is illegal. This means that in so called "one party" states like South Carolina, a husband is allowed to tape his wife’s conversation only if he is also a party to the ‘conversation. Joseph Zang under Ohio law was probably not allowed to record his wife;s conversations that were not with him, as he allegedly did. He and his lawyer are facing civil penalties up to $10,000 per taping, plus punitive damages and attorney fees. They could also be charged criminally and be fined up $250,000 and serve up to five years in jail.

The reality is that using technology to gather evidence for potential use in during litigation is likely dangerous for both clients and their attorneys. Most technologically savvy attorneys implement electronic evidence policies that require their clients to disclose how they obtained electronic evidence before ever discussing the substance of the evidence. Such policies are designed to protect both the client and the attorney from exposure to criminal and civil liabilities.


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Melissa Brown, an attorney in Charleston, South Carolina, is a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and one of the preeminent family lawyers in South Carolina.  I had the occasion, last week, to read her excellent article on her blog entitled "Jurists & Lawyers Ignorant of Social Media Can Unintentionally Harm Litigant’s and Clients."  I thought that the article was so good that I asked Melissa if I could re-post it as a guest blog on this blog, and she graciously agreed.  Her article is as follows: 

In a lengthy opinion following a discovery motion in a personal injury case, Judge Richard Walsh of Franklin County, Pennsylvania ordered Plaintiff to disclose her login information for her Facebook account. Defense counsel had argued that Plaintiff had previously posted photographs and comments about her going to the gym and enjoying activities that she had previously testified under oath that she could no longer do as a result of the accident.

Apparently, at some point in the past, Plaintiff’s Facebook profile was “public” and accessible by defense counsel. On that basis, the judge granted defense counsel unfettered access to Plaintiff’s Facebook account. The judge wrote in a footnote, “The Court does not hold that discovery of a party’s social networking information is available as a matter of course. Rather, there must be a good faith basis that discovery will lead to relevant information. Here, that has occurred because Jennifer Largent’s profile was formerly public. In other cases, it might be advisable to submit interrogatories and requests for production of documents to find out if any relevant information exists on a person’s online social networking profiles.” However, despite the footnote commentary, Judge Walsh ruled that Plaintiff has to give over her username and password for her Facebook account thereby granting defense counsel access to Plaintiff’s messages and chats that are never “public” or accessible except to the individual to whom such messages are sent. In addition, by allowing unfettered access to Plaintiff’s account, Judge Walsh’s ignored his own observations that defense counsel was only entitled to information that could lead to discoverable evidence. One has to wonder if Judge Walsh understood the overly broad nature of his order and if Plaintiff’s attorney tried to protect his client by arguing that such ruling was overly broad and intrusive.

This author only has access to the court’s order and knows nothing else about this case. However, it seems clear that Judge Walsh is unfamiliar with the multiple functionalities of Facebook. One wonders if he knew he was granting access to chat logs and private messages in addition to “publicly” posted information. One also wonders if Plaintiff’s own attorney possessed enough information about the various components of Facebook to object to the Court’s ruling as overly broad or to offer less intrusive remedies to permit access to properly discoverable information while still protecting his client’s private (and irrelevant) information.
 


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