Lawyer Suspended One Year For Creating Fake Facebook Account To “Snoop” On Defendants And Witnesses

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

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.

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Do New Jersey Employers Have To Accommodate Medical Marijuana Use? Maybe.

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

In New Jersey, cannabis is a hot topic. The laws regulating its use for medicinal purposes are evolving, and the legislature may soon legalize it for recreational use. Cannabis issues also continue to percolate through New Jersey courts. On Wednesday, the Appellate Division issued its opinion in Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc., an important decision on whether employers must accommodate medical marijuana use by their employees. When this case was decided by the trial court, most employers interpreted it as not requiring them to do so. This may not be the case after the Appellate Division’s decision. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court but stopped short of declaring that employers must always accommodate their employees use of medical marijuana.

In Wild, plaintiff worked as a funeral director at a funeral home owned by one of the defendants. Two years after he started working at the funeral home, he was diagnosed with cancer. As part of his treatment, plaintiff was prescribed medical marijuana as permitted by New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Act, which allows individuals who are suffering from “debilitating medical conditions” to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. The act also protects those individuals, along with their doctors, from criminal prosecution for marijuana possession and from other civil and administrative penalties. But the Act does not “require . . . an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.” This provision was at the heart of the dispute in Wild.

In 2016, plaintiff was driving a hearse for a funeral when another driver ran a stop sign and collided with the hearse. Plaintiff was injured and was taken to the emergency room. Plaintiff advised the treating physician that he had a license to possess marijuana. The physician stated that it was “clear plaintiff was not under the influence of marijuana, [ ] therefore no blood tests were required.” After being examined, plaintiff was given pain medication and sent home. When he went home, plaintiff took the pain medication and used his medical marijuana.

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Lawsuit Challenging E-ZPass Administrative Fee Revived

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

The Appellate Division’s recent decision in Long v. New Jersey Turnpike Authority dealt with a topic that is likely familiar to many New Jersey residents — the administrative fee assessed when you (allegedly) go through an E-ZPass lane without paying the toll. In the interest of full disclosure, I am very much not neutral on this issue. I recently received three notices from E-ZPass claiming that I went through toll plazas without paying. The tolls I allegedly failed to pay amounted to $20.45, but the administrative fee for each is $50, so my $20.45 in allegedly unpaid tolls may now cost me $220.45. But I digress.

First, some background. New Jersey law allows the Turnpike Authority to establish procedures for addressing “violations of [its] toll collection monitoring systems” (i.e., E-ZPass). Among other things, the Turnpike Authority may send “an advisory and payment request” to alleged toll violators, providing them “with the opportunity to resolve the matter prior to the issuance of a summons and complaint that charges a violation of the toll collection monitoring system regulations.” As part of this “advisory and payment request,” the Authority may require that the alleged violator pay “the proper toll and a reasonable administrative fee established by the authority and based upon the actual cost of processing and collecting the violation.” This administrative fee was originally set at $25 but was later raised to $50.

In Long, petitioners were two “E-ZPass toll violators” who filed a petition with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority challenging the $50 administrative fee. Petitioners challenged both the constitutionality of the regulation establishing the administrative fee (arguing that the Authority violated its rule-making authority, violated due process, etc.), and the amount of the fee itself, arguing that $50 was excessive because it was “unrelated to the actual costs of enforcement.” The Authority denied their petition and petitioners appealed to the Appellate Division.

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New Trial Ordered Where Juror Objected To Defendant Not Putting Hand On Bible When Being Sworn In

Trial lawyers warn young lawyers to be careful because jurors are always watching. You never know when what you do or say will be seen by a juror and color his or her impressions of you. This can sometimes make you paranoid. I had a Starbucks coffee with me on the first day of a jury trial but, after noticing several jurors with Dunkin Donuts coffee drinks, I switched to Dunkin. I doubt this was crucial to the jury’s deliberations, but sometimes the results are far more significant. Such was the case in Davis v. Husain, where a juror’s observation that defendant did not place his hand on the Bible when being sworn in led to the jury’s verdict being reversed and defendant being granted a new trial.

In Davis, plaintiff sued defendant under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination. The jury ruled in plaintiff’s favor, and awarded her damages. After the trial, the judge met ex parte with the jury. During that meeting, “a female juror mentioned that [plaintiff] had not placed his hand on the Bible when taking the oath.” The judge told counsel about this revelation, but refused to make any further inquiries of the jurors or grant a new trial.

Defendant appealed the jury’s verdict, and the case eventually made its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which “flatly prohibit[ed] ex parte post-verdict communications between trial judge and jurors,” like the ones that had occurred in Davis. (That decision can be found here.) The Supreme Court remanded the matter to a different trial judge to determine whether the juror’s “actions or comments affected others on the panel,” and whether “a good case showing [could be] made that the jury’s decision was tainted by misconduct.”

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Judges Voting From Beyond The Grave?

“May a federal court count the vote of a judge who dies before the decision is issued?” The cynical New Jersey resident in me thinks the answer to this question is simple – people vote all the time in New Jersey after they die. But this was not what the Supreme Court was after in Yovino v. Rizo.

Yovino was before an en banc panel of 11 judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. One judge participated in oral argument, voted, and wrote a decision on the case, but died before the decision was released. The Ninth Circuit nonetheless counted his vote, which was significant, because it was the deciding vote. By counting his vote, the judge’s decision became the majority opinion and thus binding precedent in the Ninth Circuit. If his vote had not been counted, then the case would have ended in a 5-5 tie with no majority opinion, and thus no binding precedent.

The Ninth Circuit claimed that it was justified in counting the judge’s vote because “the majority opinion and all concurrences were final, and voting was completed by the en banc panel prior to his death.” The Supreme Court disagreed. It held that, by statute, only active or senior-status judges can participate on en banc panels. It further held that judges’ votes and opinions do not become “immutable at some point in time prior to their public release,” but instead, “a judge may change his or her position up to the very moment when a decision is released.” Thus, a decision is not final until the date of its release. And if a judge dies or retires before that date, then he or she is no longer an active judge or a senior judge when the decision is made, therefore his or her vote does not count.

Applying this standard to Yovino, the Supreme Court held:

Because Judge Reinhardt was no longer a judge at the time when the en banc decision in this case was filed, the Ninth Circuit erred in counting him as a member of the majority. That practice effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death. But federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.

(Although the lede is sufficiently buried at this point, that last sentence is the main reason why I wrote this post.)

Reason Number 2,345,789 To Have A Will

[Full disclosure: I don’t have a will. I know I should. And everyone tells me I should, even my doctor who reminds me, every year, at my annual check up that I need one. Yet I still don’t have one. But this post is not about me.]

In Estate of Travers, the trial court provided yet another reason why everyone should have a will. In that case, decedent passed away unexpectedly (and far too young). He died without a will, without a spouse, and without any children. His parents, who were divorced, agreed on every aspect of the administration of his estate except one — whether decedent should be cremated or buried. Because they could not agree, the court had to resolve the issue.

At the outset, the court noted that both parents had presented “reasonable explanations for their respective positions that [were] very personal to them and emotionally charged.” But, under New Jersey law, it was the “wishes and desires of the decedent, not the parents,” that governed.

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Words Matter! “Acknowledgement” Of Company Policy Is Not “Agreement” To Be Bound By It

“This case exemplifies an inadequate way for an employer to go about extracting its employees’ agreement to submit to binding arbitration for future claims and thereby waive their rights to sue the employer and seek a jury trial.”

If you are an employer, and a court begins its decision this way, it is probably not going to be a good day for you. Such was the case for the defendant in Skuse v. Pfizer, Inc.

I know I have been writing a lot lately about arbitration agreements, and Skuse deals with this same topic. But it is different from other recent cases, and in an interesting way. In most of the cases I have written about, the question was whether a plaintiff’s claims fell within the scope of an arbitration agreement and, if so, whether the agreement adequately informed plaintiff that he or she waived the right to have those claims heard in court, by a jury. In Skuse, plaintiff did not argue that the text of defendant’s mandatory arbitration policy insufficiently explained the policy itself or the rights being waived. Instead, plaintiff challenged the the manner in which the policy was delivered to employees.

In Skuse, defendant sought to “extract[ ] its employee’s agreement” to arbitrate (as the Appellate Division characterized it) through what the company called a “training module.” Employees were sent an email with a link to a presentation that described the company’s mandatory arbitration policy. They were “assigned” the task of “reviewing” the presentation, which was comprised of four slides. The first slide explained that agreeing to the policy was a requirement of continued employment with the company, and indicated that employees would be required to “acknowledge” receipt of the policy in a later slide. The second slide contained a link to a “Resources” tab that contained the company’s five-page, single-spaced arbitration policy, which could be reviewed and printed by employees. The third slide contained a paragraph stating that the employee understood that agreeing to the policy was a requirement of employment and requiring the employee to click on a “rectangular box with rounded corners,” next to which was printed: “CLICK HERE to acknowledge.” This slide also indicated that even if employees did not click the acknowledgement, they would be deemed to have acknowledged the policy if they remained with the company for 60 days after receiving the presentation. The fourth and final slide thanked the employees for “reviewing” the arbitration policy.

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