Social media can be a valuable tool for litigators. Every state or local ethics authority that has considered the issue has held that public social media profiles are fair game. So litigators can generally mine the public profiles of witnesses, jurors, or even their own clients for useful information. But the same is not true for private social media profiles. Lawyers attempting to access anyone’s private social media profile are entering an ethical minefield. If someone is represented by counsel, then an attorney requesting access to that person’s private profile violates RPC 4.2, which prohibits communicating with individuals represented by counsel. Even if the person is not represented by counsel, some jurisdictions hold that it is still improper for lawyers to request access to private social media profiles unless they identify themselves and explain why they are requesting access. (Good luck getting someone to accept that friend request.) And requesting access from jurors is always improper because RPC 3.5 prohibits ex parte communications with jurors.
A recent ethics opinion from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Miller, offers another example of lawyers using social media improperly. In that case, respondent was the elected district attorney of Centre County, Pennsylvania. The Centre County judiciary had declared the sale of bath salts to be a nuisance and had enjoined three stores from selling them. Purportedly to track the sale of bath salts and enforce these injunctions, respondent created a fictitious Facebook account under the name “Brittney Bella.” To “portray a connection to the local community,” respondent created a fake backstory for “Brittney Bella,” claiming that she was a Penn State dropout who had moved to State College from Pittsburgh. She also included photos “from around the internet of young female individuals” on Bella’s Facebook profile, “to enhance the page’s allure.”
Once she established the fake Facebook account, respondent “liked” local establishments that sold bath salts, which led people who also “liked” those establishments to send “friend” requests to the fictitious Ms. Bella. Respondent accepted these requests and sent her own “‘friend requests’ in order to appear legitimate.” Respondent also encouraged the attorneys and staff in her office to help her with the Brittney Bella gambit. She told her staff that she “made a Facebook page that is fake for us to befriend people and snoop.” She encouraged them to “use it freely to masquerade around Facebook.” Finally, she requested that they “edit it . . . to keep it looking legit,” and “[u]se it to befriend defendants or witnesses if you want to snoop.” Respondent did not provide any guidance to her staff to prevent contact with defendants or witnesses.
Anyone who has practiced law for any period of time likely has a story about a misdirected email. You know, the one you meant to send to a client or a colleague, but it went to your adversary or your supervising partner instead. These situations often just result in mild to moderate awkwardness around the office, but they sometimes create bigger problems. MacNaughton v. Harmelech, a recent decision from the Appellate Division, involved the latter. But it also involved the litigation privilege, something I wrote about just a few weeks back. (What Do eBay, The "40 Year Old Virgin," And The Litigation Privilege Have In Common?). And, fortunately for defendant, the statements in his misdirected email were protected by that privilege.
In MacNaughton, plaintiff, a New Jersey lawyer, represented defendant in a lawsuit involving defendant's company. Defendant disputed plaintiff's bill and plaintiff eventually sued defendant over the bill. At some point during the litigation, the trial court asked the parties whether they were interested in mediation. Around the same time, however, plaintiff was "in contact with another of defendant's creditors about banding together to force defendant into involuntary bankruptcy." As you might expect, when defendant learned about plaintiff's efforts, it colored his decision about whether to agree to mediation. In fact, defendant sent the following email, reprinted exactly as it appeared in the Appellate Division's decision, to his lawyers on the subject:
Please I Am asking you to file a paper in the state court there WILL NOT BE AGREE NOT TO BE A MEDIATION MACNAUGHTON CALL TODAY AND ASK HIM TO TRY TO POT ME IN IN VALENTRY BANKRUPTCY AS YOU SEE HE IS A. LIAR THIEF AND NO GOOD DRUNK
NO TO BE TRUSTED THANKS
Unfortunately, defendant also copied plaintiff on this email. Upon receiving it, plaintiff filed a one-count complaint for defamation. The trial court held a hearing on whether the statements were protected under the litigation privilege. After taking testimony from defendant and his current counsel, the court applied the four-factor test from Hawkins v. Harris, and held that they were. As a result, plaintiff's claim was dismissed. Plaintiff appealed.
This was the question posed to the Committee on Professional Ethics of the New York State Bar Association. Its answer was a qualified yes — counsel has a duty to disclose the alleged error to the client but only if it was a significant error that could give rise to a malpractice claim.
The issue presented to the Committee was the following:
The inquirer was engaged to represent a client on the eve of trial. The client’s prior counsel is serving as co-counsel. In preparing the case, the inquirer has learned that co-counsel conducted virtually no discovery and made no document requests, although the inquirer believes correspondence and emails between the parties could be critical to the case. The inquirer believes this was a significant error or omission that may give rise to a malpractice claim against co-counsel. The outcome of the case, however, has yet to be decided. The inquirer is concerned about disclosing this situation to the client because it would undermine inquirer’s relationship with co-counsel, but the inquirer also believes it is in the client’s best interests to disclose the facts as soon as possible.
It is already established in New York (and several other jurisdictions, including New Jersey) that lawyers must report their own significant errors or omissions to clients. This requirement is based partly on Rule 1.4 and partly on Rule 1.7, each of which the Committee discussed in its opinion.
Rule 1.4 requires lawyers to keep clients informed about any material developments in their representation, and to explain issues "to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation." A client may decide not to continue to retain a lawyer who makes significant errors or omissions, and the client cannot make an informed decision on this issue unless the lawyer self-reports his own errors. Accordingly, clients must self-report their own significant errors or omissions to their clients. The Committee held that this rationale applied equally to lawyers reporting significant errors or omissions committed by co-counsel because the decision facing the client in both situations was the same — whether to continue to retain the lawyer who committed the errors or omissions — and the client cannot make an informed decision on that issue without full disclosure.
Embarrassing as this is to admit, there was a time when I did not entirely understand the difference between "net" and "gross." I would like to say that time was long ago, but it wasn't that long ago. Rest assured, however, that I know the difference now. The difference between the two was at the heart of Thakkar v. Allers, an unpublished decision from the Appellate Division in which plaintiff claimed that he authorized his attorney to settle for a net recovery of $80,000 but his lawyer settled for the grossamount of $80,000. In other words, plaintiff thought he would receive $80,000 from the settlement but he actually received less than $80,000 after fees and costs were deducted from the gross settlement amount. Plaintiff tried to undo the settlement, but the trial court denied his request and the Appellate Division affirmed.
Thakkar involved a personal injury lawsuit. Plaintiff was awarded $50,000 through mandatory, pre-trial arbitration, but rejected that award and demanded trial de novo. Prior to trial, plaintiff claims that he authorized his attorney to settle the case for "an amount that would yield an $80,000 recovery to [plaintiff], after deductions for fees and costs." He claimed that he gave his attorney these instructions over the telephone and in a letter. Several days after the alleged telephone conversation between plaintiff and plaintiff's counsel, plaintiff's counsel settled the case in a call with defendants' counsel and later confirmed the settlement in an email to defendants' counsel, which read: "As discussed at 5 PM today, [plaintiff] has authorized [plaintiff's counsel] to accept $80,000.00 in settlement."
Four days later, plaintiff's counsel wrote to defendants' counsel to report that plaintiff refused to sign a release because he wanted a settlement yielding a net recovery of $80,000, a fact that plaintiff's counsel indicated was "in no way" communicated to him by plaintiff before plaintiff's counsel advised defendants' counsel that plaintiff's counsel was authorized to settle the case for "the sum of $80,000.00."
In Mortgage Grader, a former client sued the defendant law firm and each of its partners after the firm dissolved. While the firm had maintained professional liability insurance while it was actively practicing, it did not purchase a "tail" policy to cover claims that arose after it dissolved. The trial court held that this violated Rule 1:21-1C(a)(3), which requires attorneys practicing as an LLP to "obtain and maintain in good standing one or more policies of lawyers' professional liability insurance which shall insure the [LLP] against liability imposed upon it by law for damages resulting from any claim made against the [LLP] by its clients." Accordingly, the trial court held that the individual partners were not shielded from liability as they would normally be as members of an LLP and were instead vicariously liable for their partners' negligence. In other words, the trial court effectively converted the LLP to a general partnership because it failed to maintain liability insurance. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the trial court did not have the authority to strip the individual partners of their liability protections under either Rule 1:21-1C(a)(3) or the Uniform Partnership Act.
The NJSBA asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to affirm the Appellate Division's decision. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that: (1) the insurance requirements for LLPs did not extend to the period when a firm is "winding up" its business — i.e., when it is collecting receivables but no longer providing legal services; and (2) even if they did, an LLP could not be converted to a general partnership as a "sanction" for failing to maintain liability insurance. Justice Albin wrote a separate opinion, concurring with the judgment of the majority, but suggesting that the Court Rules be amended to provide that an LLP would lose its liability protection if it failed to meet the insurance requirements, and to require LLPs to purchase tail insurance for six years following their dissolution.