Court Approves Service Of Complaint Via Facebook, No Word On How Many “Likes” It Received

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

Facebook (pd)Facebook is useful for a lot of things — humble bragging about your children, posting professionally taken candid photographs of your smiling family, announcing your engagement/marriage/pregnancy/baby's gender to several hundred of your closest friends, etc. In K.A. v. J.L., a New Jersey court added another item to this list. After observing that courts in other jurisdictions were almost evenly split on the issue, the court allowed plaintiffs in that case to serve defendant via Facebook. (When it researched the issue, I assume the court reviewed one of my prior posts about two New York courts that also allowed service via Facebook.)

K.A. involved very unusual facts. Plaintiffs sued defendant to "enjoin defendant from holding himself out as the father of their [adopted] son." Defendant, who was not the son's biological father of record, sent the son a friend request over Facebook. The son declined. Defendant then reached out to the son over Instagram, claiming that he was the son's biological father. Defendant allegedly informed the son that he knew where the son was born, and disclosed both the identity of the son's birth mother and that the son had "biological siblings at large." (Plaintiffs allege that defendant also sent a Facebook friend request to the son's sister, who, like the son, declined the invite.) Defendant also "incorporated a picture of [the son] into an image comprised of three separate photographs, each featuring a different person," and purportedly claimed that the collage was a picture of his children. Defendant shared this picture with the public on his Facebook account. Plaintiffs believe defendant obtained the image of the son from the son's Facebook account.

Plaintiffs claimed that defendant was a "complete stranger to them," and that they had no contact with him prior to the events that led to the litigation.  Plaintiffs' counsel attempted to serve cease and desist letters on defendant at his last known address via certified and regular mail. The certified letters were returned as unclaimed, but the letters sent by regular mail were never returned. Plaintiffs then sued, seeking an injunction preventing defendant from contacting their son or claiming to be his father. They sought permission from the court to serve the complaint on defendant via Facebook.

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Court Adopts Low Tech Solution to High Tech Evidence Problem

Smart phone(PD)
Litigation has been transformed over the past decade or so by e-discovery. An entire industry has developed around the collection and presentation of emails, text messages, social networking posts, etc. In large commercial cases, it is not unusual to have an outside vendor handling this evidence from discovery through trial. But what about a different kind of case, for example, a contested domestic violence hearing, where the victim, often acting pro se, comes to court with a smart phone containing allegedly threatening text messages, and seeks to introduce those messages into evidence.  They only exist on the phone, so there is nothing that the victim can physically introduce into evidence, and therefore no documentary evidence of the messages that can be reviewed on appeal. How then does a court accept evidence from a plaintiff's cell phone into the court record?

This was precisely the question facing the court in E.C. v. R.H., a recent unpublished Law Division decision. In that case, plaintiff alleged that defendant harassed her through unwanted texts, social media posts, and voice mails. She asked the court to enter a restraining order against defendant. At the start of the hearing on her application, plaintiff sought to introduce evidence of several allegedly harassing communications that were stored on her cell phone. The court observed that the court rules, which were designed to handle tangible evidence, were not designed to handle a request like this: "[S]ome of the more traditional methods of introducing evidence into court do not address the specialized needs and practical problems which may arise when parties come into court and seek to introduce information stored on their cell phones directly into evidence." The Court further observed that this problem was exacerbated in the domestic violence context, which involves "expedited summary proceedings [and] self-represented litigants who have little or no legal training at all." 

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New Jersey Supreme Court To Hear Appeal In Case Involving Defense Counsel That “Friended” Plaintiff On Facebook

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

Earlier this year, I posted about an ethics grievance that was filed against a defense attorney whose paralegal "friended" a plaintiff on Facebook, which allowed the defense to gain access to information that could be used to impeach the plaintiff at trial. (Click here for my original post.) The Appellate Division decision that was the subject of that post had less to do with the substance of the grievance — whether it was unethical to do what the paralegal did — and more about the strange procedural history of the grievance.

The Secretary of the local Ethics Committee originally refused to docket the grievance (which the Secretary is allowed to do if the Secretary, in consultation with a public member of the Ethics Committee, makes an initial determination that no ethics rules were violated), but plaintiff then went to the Director of the Office of Attorney Ethics ("OAE") with more information and convinced the OAE to investigate. Defense counsel argued that this violated the so-called “no appeal” portion of the New Jersey Court Rules, which prohibits appeals from decisions declining to docket ethics grievances. Defense counsel made this argument in a complaint that he filed in the Chancery Division, but the complaint was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because, according to the trial court and the Appellate Division, the New Jersey Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over matters involving the disciplining of attorneys.

Now the New Jersey Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case to resolve the following question:

Does the Director of the Office of Attorney Ethics have the authority to proceed with a grievance after a District Ethics Committee Secretary (with concurrence by a designated public member) has declined a grievance, pursuant to Rule 1:20-3(e)(3)?

As I mentioned in my prior post, it seems like the more interesting question is whether defense counsel's conduct was unethical, but we will not get an answer to this question until the New Jersey Supreme Court clears up this  procedural issue.And, we will not get an answer at all if the New Jersey Supreme Court agrees with defense counsel and finds that it was improper for the OAE to investigate the grievance after the Secretary of the Ethics Committee refused to docket it.

Stay tuned for more on this case.

Even in Texas It Is Not OK For A Judge To Share Details Of A Pending Trial Over Facebook

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

I recently wrote an article for law360.com about when, if ever, it is appropriate for active judges to become “friends” with lawyers on Facebook and other social media. Courts and ethics authorities in several states have weighed in on the issue, with some banning judges from “friending” lawyers who regularly appear before the judge and others permitting all such “friending” unless it violates one of the canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct (e.g., the prohibition against ex parte communications between a judge and counsel).

According to a recent article from the Texas Lawyer (h/t Above the Law), Judge Michelle Slaughter, a judge on the Texas state district court, got herself into some hot water, not for the “friends” she kept on social media, but for broadcasting details of a pending trial to those “friends” over Facebook, including the following:

On the first day of testimony, Slaughter posted the following comments on her Facebook page: "Opening statements this morning at 9:30 a.m. in the trial called by the press 'the boy in the box' case"; "After we finished day 1 of the case called the 'boy in the box' case [the defendant was charged with unlawful restraint for allegedly keeping a 9-year-old boy in a 6 feet by 8 feet wooden enclosure that had been used as the child's bedroom], trustees from the jail came in and assembled the actual 6'x8' 'box' inside the courtroom!"; and "This is the case currently pending in the 405th!" The post included a link to a Reuters article about the case.

The "actual box" comment referenced evidence that had not yet been presented in the trial, and the Reuters article contained extraneous information that had also not been presented in the case.

Somewhat ironically, Judge Slaughter’s Facebook posts came after she warned the empaneled jury not to discuss the case with anyone, including over Facebook and other social media.

 

 

 

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Another New York Judge Approves Service Of Process Through Facebook

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

On Monday, the Daily News reported on a "landmark" ruling by a Manhattan judge allowing a woman to serve her "elusive husband" with divorce papers via Facebook. The judge order that the divorce papers must be sent to the husband over Facebook "once a week for three consecutive weeks or until acknowledged." According to the article, the husband kept in touch with his wife by phone and through Facebook, but that he had no fixed address and refused to make himself available to be served. After all other conventional methods of service failed — he vacated his last known address in 2011, he had no job, the post office had no forwarding address for him, there was no billing address linked to his prepaid cell phone, and the DMV had no record of him — the judge allowed service through Facebook.

While interesting, this is not actually a landmark decision. Less than one year ago, a Staten Island judge permitted service via Facebook in a similar case. (Obviously, since this took place in my ancestral home, it went unnoticed — the latest proof that Staten Island truly is the "forgotten borough.") In that case, also involving a domestic dispute, a man was allowed to serve his ex-wife with "legal notice that he [did not] want to pay any more child support" via Facebook after more conventional methods of service failed.  The man's ex-wife had moved from her last known address and did not provide any forwarding information to the post office. However, she maintained "an active social media account with Facebook," therefore the judge allowed her to be served through that Facebook account.

In addition, several federal courts have also addressed this issue. For example, in one case, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that service via Facebook might not, on its own, comport with due process, but it was acceptable as a supplemental method in conjunction with other, more conventional, methods of service. In a different case, a different judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York refused to authorize service via Facebook where the plaintiff could not demonstrate that the Facebook profile that the plaintiff proposed to use for service was in fact maintained by the defendant or that the email address listed on the Facebook profile was accessed by the defendant. Although these cases are among the few to have considered the issue, they appear to describe the approach courts are likely to take when faced with a request to permit service via Facebook — if all other methods are exhausted, or service via Facebook is one of several methods to be employed, and if there is some showing that the individual to be served actually maintains and accesses the Facebook account, then service via Facebook would probably be acceptable.