By Helen E. Tuttle and Noreen Cull
The latest Facebook case highlights how courts now intend to hold parties accountable when it comes to preserving their personal social media accounts during litigation. Recently, a federal court ruled that a plaintiff’s deletion of his Facebook account during discovery constituted spoliation of evidence and warranted an “adverse inference” instruction against him at trial. Gatto v. United Airlines and Allied Aviation Servs., et al. , No. 10-CV-1090 (D.N.J. March 25, 2013).
The plaintiff, a ground operations supervisor at JFK Airport, allegedly suffered permanent disabling injuries from an accident at work which he claimed limited his physical and social activities. Defendants sought discovery related to Plaintiff’s damages, including documents related to his social media accounts.
Although Plaintiff provided Defendants with the signed authorization for release of information from certain social networking sites and other online services such as eBay, he failed to provide an authorization for his Facebook account. The magistrate judge ultimately ordered Plaintiff to execute the Facebook authorization, and Plaintiff agreed to change his Facebook password and to disclose the password to defense counsel for the purpose of accessing documents and information from Facebook. Defense counsel briefly accessed the account and printed some portion of the Facebook home page. Facebook then notified Plaintiff that an unfamiliar IP address had accessed his account. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff “deactivated” his account, causing Facebook to permanently delete the account 14 days later in accordance with its policy.
Defendants moved for spoliation of evidence sanctions, claiming that the lost Facebook postings contradicted Plaintiff’s claims about his restricted social activities. In response, Plaintiff argued that he had acted reasonably in deactivating his account because he did know it was defense counsel accessing his page. Moreover, the permanent deletion was the result of Facebook’s “automatically” deleting it. The court, however, found that the Facebook account was within Plaintiff’s control, and that “[e]ven if Plaintiff did not intend to deprive the defendants of the information associated with his Facebook account, there is no dispute that plaintiff intentionally deactivated the account,” which resulted in the permanent loss of relevant evidence. Thus, the court granted Defendants’ request for an “adverse inference” instruction (but declined to award legal fees as a further sanction).
The Gatto decision not only affirms that social media is discoverable by employers, but also teaches that plaintiffs who fail to preserve relevant social media data will face harsh penalties. Employers are reminded to specifically seek relevant social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, LinkedIn accounts) in their discovery requests since such sources may provide employers with sufficient evidence to rebut an employee’s claims. This case also serves as a reminder and a warning to employers that the principles of evidence preservation apply to social media, and employers should take steps very early in the litigation to preserve its own social media content as it pertains to the matter.