Facebook Spoliation Levels the eDiscovery Playing Field

When an individual or small company plaintiff litigates against deep-pocketed defendants, the eDiscovery burden and risk largely falls on the latter. In employment litigation for instance, the employer must collect, review and produce up to hundreds of thousands of emails and electronic documents, with the plaintiff-employee usually not required to do much at all. The reason for this is obvious, as typically the employer possesses nearly all of the relevant documents. Many individual Plaintiffs achieve knock-out punches by establishing spoliation by a corporate adversary, with Zubulake vs. UBS Warburg being just one of many examples.

However, as Federal District Court Judge Craig B. Shaffer noted last month in his Federal Courts Law Review article, social media can turn the tables. In his co-authored piece “Looking Past the Debate: Proposed Revisions to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,” 7 Fed. Cts. L. Rev. 178 (September, 2013), Judge Shaffer, as part of a broader analysis of the proposed amendments to the FRCP that affect eDiscovery, calls out the important new strategic dynamics of social media evidence:

“In the past, particularly in an asymmetrical case (such as a single employee discrimination action brought under Title VII), plaintiff’s counsel might have paid only fleeting attention to his or her client’s preservation obligation since it was presumed that the defendant employer had possession, custody or control of all the relevant ESI. That confidence may be misplaced, however, with the advent of social media. As one court recently observed, there is ‘no principled reason to articulate different standards for the discoverability of communications through email, text message, or social media platforms.’ A party is presumed to have control over their social networking accounts and relevant information on those sites is discoverable…Since the plaintiff controls when litigation commences, as well as the nature and scope of any claims asserted, a plaintiff’s attorney who does not take early and affirmative steps to preserve social media content risks spoliation sanctions.”

The most notable case involving social media spoliation so far this year is Gatto v. United Air Lines, Inc., 2013 WL 1285285, (D.N.J. Mar. 25, 2013). In Gatto, a JetBlue employee filed a personal injury suit, alleging United’s negligence caused a set of fueler stairs to crash into him. Gatto claimed that his injuries rendered him permanently disabled and that his disability limited his physical and social activities. United sought discovery of Gatto’s social media accounts, but Gatto refused to comply and deactivated his account. The court ultimately awarded United an adverse inference instruction based on Gatto’s failure to preserve his Facebook account and his intentional destruction of evidence. (See also, Cajamarca v. Regal Entertainment Group, 2012 WL 3782437, (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 31, 2012) (plaintiff’s counsel sanctioned for failing to advise client to preserve Facebook communications); Katiroll Co., Inc. v. Kati Roll and Platters, Inc., 2011 WL 3583408, (D.N.J. Aug. 3, 2011) (court finds party failed to preserve trademark-infringing Facebook profile and ordered remediation to original state to enable production).

And then there is of course Lester v. Allied Concrete Company, where the Plaintiff’s attorney blithely instructed his client to rid his Facebook page of damaging evidence, resulting in what many attorneys believe is the most severe eDiscovery court sanction imposed upon a lawyer. However, for every situation like the Lester case where relevant social media is brought to the forefront, there are presumably many others where important social media evidence is overlooked by attorneys and their service providers who do not include social media as part of their standard eDiscovery preservation checklist. As it is now established that social media is highly relevant as evidence, it is important that attorneys, paralegals, eDiscovery consultants and investigators proactively seek out such evidence from their clients, witnesses and opponents alike, and include its investigation in their standard processes and checklists. Many courts and legal experts have now weighed in to establish that professional standards of care require it.


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