Social Media

Beware of Social Media!

We all spend way too much time browsing social media. It is easy to get lost looking at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and every other platform that has become a way of life. Although most of the time spent on social media is harmless, sometimes what seems harmless often can be problematic.

Recently, an article was published on a local news site about a Bucks County man who is facing federal charges in connection with the Capitol riots in January. The FBI was tipped off when it was sent screenshots of a post his wife made on Facebook detailing her husband’s account of the incident – which he attended. Another recent article was published about a New York man who is being charged with disability fraud. Why? Because pictures emerged on his wife’s Instagram account of this “disabled” man running a business and pumping iron.

After all, social media posts are designed to be public, but they can also be problematic, as these men discovered. The same applies for the average person who may believe that their posts don’t matter. They do.

At the Law Offices of Daniel J. Siegel, we represent injured workers in workers’ compensation claims, disabled persons who are seeking Social Security benefits, and persons injured in slips and falls and motor vehicle accidents. In all of those types of cases, we advise our clients to be very careful about what they post to social media.

Posts about your activities or your whereabouts could potentially impact your case. Claiming you are injured and need to receive workers’ compensation benefits while posting photos of you hiking in the mountains, for example, can make your claims seem more than a little bit unbelievable. Even if your account is “private,” you never know who is looking or may decide to forward on information. I am sure the wife of the Bucks County man wasn’t thinking any of her “friends” would pass on information to the FBI! The post had been later deleted from public view, but the screenshots already existed. And the New York man’s wife used her Instagram account very publicly to serve her own business.

It is now very common in litigation and other proceedings to be asked about social media accounts. And even if the question never comes, often, the lawyers are looking. Make sure you are careful about what you post, and never discuss your case! And make sure you control who can “tag” you in their posts. When in doubt, don’t post. If you do, and aren’t careful, it may cost you.

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Professionals @High_Risk on Social Media

Pundits swiftly smacked down Rosanne’s recent racist and anti-Semitic tweets, comparing them with New York Lawyer Aaron Schlossberg’s videotaped, racist rant against people for standing in front of him in a line. In a situation, where honestly, blameless people were supporting a local business, Attorney Schlossberg fumed at them shamelessly, calling them undocumented immigrants for inconveniencing him. He went so far as to threaten to report them to “ICE” (the deportation and enforcement branch of the United States Customs Immigration Service (USCIS)).

This has raised a question of whether the “digital divide” is blurring the line between opinionated and derogatory. Have we abandoned the ancient wisdom passed down to us from prior generations?

  • “If you would not feel comfortable saying it to your grandmother, then don’t put it in writing.”
  • “If you wouldn’t want to see it in the newspaper, then don’t say it.” Or,
  • “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

Sound familiar?

Of course, the novelty and thrill of seeing one’s opinion in print makes social media platforms addictive. Facebook builds upon the indescribable feeling that getting “likes” simulates. It cannot be understood from a rational dimension separate from the feelings that posts create. There are millions of people on Twitter; rationally speaking, does your opinion even matter? The rational answer is generally no, not even if you’re the President of the United States.

As we increasingly publicize our own views, we simultaneously begin to believe that our views are important. By narrowing our focus on our limited perspective, we may fail to honestly assess the valid opinions of others. We lose our audience. We gain only extreme followers who share our views. As a result, the world around us begins to shrink. Our newsfeed populates with limited perspective.

Like Roseanne or Schlossberg, professionals are the most high-risk population on social media because they can lose their reputation, clients, dignity and prestige from a poorly worded post. As we have the most to lose, we must think twice about what we say, how we say it, and be ever mindful of the risks of posts being conscience-shocking, racist, bigoted, and/or incriminating. Is your opinion perhaps unique only because no one would ever actually say it to their grandmother?

Not only does social media pose a risk to a professional’s reputation, it may put an injured person at risk if they post on Facebook, or put an attorney at risk for attorney discipline or a legal malpractice claim if they reveal client information online. If you or someone you know has a personal injury matter or you are a lawyer with a professional discipline matter, call the Law Offices of Daniel J. Siegel, LLC, the lawyer other lawyers call for advice.

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Authenticating Social Media Evidence Is Harder Than Lawyers Think

Let’s play a game. You’re the judge. Under the following facts, is the social media evidence admissible?

After obtaining a Court Order allowing him to obtain a criminal defendant’s Facebook records, the prosecutor files a motion seeking permission to introduce into evidence the following items:

  1. Screenshots of the defendant’s Facebook account
  2. Various undated mobile and online “chat” messages
  3. A bloody hands photo posted by another individual

So, which items were admissible? Not which items should have been admissible?

The answer: None.

Why? Even social media obtained pursuant to a court order must be authenticated properly to be admitted into evidence. In other words, the prosecutor failed to establish sufficiently that the items were “connected” to the defendant even though the Facebook account in question bore the defendant’s name and other characteristics. The chat messages were excluded because they contained insufficient contextual clues establishing the defendant’s identity as the author to allow them in as evidence.

Pennsylvania Evidentiary Standards for Authenticating Electronic Data

The Superior Court, in Commonwealth v. Mangel, 2018 PA Super 57 (Pa. Super. Mar. 15, 2018), ruled that social media evidence authentication requires, at a minimum:

  1. An adequate foundational showing of its relevance and authenticity, and
  2. Direct or circumstantial evidence that tends to corroborate the identity of the author of the communication, such as testimony, or contextual clues in the communication tending to reveal the identity of the sender.
  3. The admissibility is to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis for an “adequate foundational showing of its relevance and authenticity.”

Direct Evidence such as electronic communications or documents require more than mere confirmation that the number or address belonged to a particular person to be authenticated and used in court.

Circumstantial evidence may include personal knowledge of participants, and verification to authenticate computerized instant messages, cell phone text messages, Facebook posts, and other contextual clues that tend to corroborate the identity of the sender to verify authorship.

So, was Mr. Mangel lucky that his Facebook chats were not admitted? Yes. But, why? Because the Commonwealth did not do its research and obtain corroborating data to authenticate the messages. In fact, no one testified about the veracity of the messages; thus, they were unverifiable.

Of note, as our office has explained to many clients, as well as lawyers attending continuing legal education programs where we speak, social media records and communications can be properly authenticated within the existing evidentiary rules. To authenticate social media chat messages or emails, the proponent (person offering the evidence) must present sufficient direct and circumstantial evidence to establish its authenticity, that the matter is what it purports to be, and/or testimony of a witness with personal knowledge. See Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 901.

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Plaintiffs Must Be Careful Using Social Media When Pursuing Injury Claims

According to recent surveys, two-thirds of all American adults use Facebook, with the majority using it on a daily basis. Social media platforms are ever-growing and changing, with 78% of people under the age of 24 now using Snapchat, and 71% using Instagram. Using these platforms to make statements or post photos has become second-nature for many, and you might not realize the risks of using social media if you are in the midst of a legal battle. If you are pursuing a legal claim, especially for personal injuries, workers’ compensation, or other claims involving physical and emotional injuries, you must be cautious when using social media. Any information that you post may be seen and requested by the other side, and even information you believe is private can be discoverable.

Recently, a Monroe County Court of Common Pleas Judge granted a defendant’s motion to compel discovery, including access to the plaintiff’s Instagram account, in a personal injury lawsuit. In that case, defense counsel offered publicly viewable posts from the plaintiff’s account that seemed to show physical activity inconsistent with her alleged injuries. The facts of that case are particularly interesting because while the plaintiff’s account was publicly viewable at the time of the offered posts, she had since changed her account to private. The Judge determined that full access to the account, which plaintiff had previously denied existed, was relevant to verifying the extent of her injuries and rehabilitation.

If you are in litigation or considering pursuing a claim for injuries, you should refrain from communicating about your case or disclosing anything on the internet or social media. While you do not need to stop using social media or the internet altogether, you must be very careful about what information, videos, photographs, and so on that you post online. Like the example above, photographs and other posts can be used by the other side to argue that your injuries have not prevented you from certain activities. In addition, embarrassing or profane materials could be used to try to attack your character.

We regularly represent injured persons, and we always advise our clients of the implications of social media use when pursuing claims for workers’ compensation or personal injury matters. If you have been injured in an auto accident, slip and fall, work-related, or other accident, call our office at 610-446-3457 to set up a consultation with our attorneys. We can guide you through the process, and advise you about what you should expect and consider when pursuing your claim.

 

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12 Rules for Lawyers to Ethically Deal With Social Media

For lawyers, the issue of social media – whether it is their use of it or, God forbid, their clients’ use of it – is one that seems to pervade every area of their practices. As a result, many attorneys prefer the “head in the sand” approach, hoping that if they ignore it, it will go away.

To assist lawyers in dealing with social media, and help them address their concerns head-on, I authored an article, “12 Rules for Ethically Dealing With Social Media,” which appeared in the February 2017 issue of Business Law Today, published by the American Bar Association Business Law Section.

The article is based on my experience with clients; representing and counseling other attorneys and law firms; and as the primary author of multiple ethical guidance opinions published by the Pennsylvania Bar Association Committee on Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility (of which I am a Vice Chair) and the Philadelphia Bar Association Professional Guidance Committee.

In the article, I outline twelve important rules for attorneys dealing with social media, regardless of the nature of their practices. Click here to read the article.

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Lawyers & Social Media – Adding Flames to Fires

Ah, social media. Facebook, Yelp, you name it, social media is out there, and lawyers are using – and misusing it. Here are some recent examples that highlight the issues confronting us – and why it is best to recognize the problems up front – so you don’t have to hire me to represent you in front of the Disciplinary Board later.

Consider Attorney John Mahoney of Washington, DC, who got into a conflict with a former client, who thought his fees were excessive, and his expenses were unwarranted and unnecessary. The client also was displeased with his representation during mediation.

The client posted comments about the attorney on a website. In his response, Attorney Mahoney revealed specific information about the case, the client’s emotional state, and what transpired during your attorney-client relationship – although he did not identify the client by name. Although the investigation did not support the client’s allegations against the attorney, he nevertheless violated the Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6’s prohibition against revealing client confidences.

In particular, the lawyer included the name of the client’s employer, the dates on which certain events occurred, and other detailed information that could lead back to his former client. He added to his problems by violating Rule 8.4(c) when he “posted a further response on the website concerning Disciplinary Counsel’s investigation of the client’s allegations and Disciplinary Counsel’s statements. Specifically, although Disciplinary Counsel advised you that your postings on the website about the client were inconsistent with your obligations under Rule 1.6, you posted another response on the website stating that Disciplinary Counsel had ‘clear[ed]’ you and quoted a sentence from a letter that omitted information about the Rule 1.6 violations that we found meritorious.” Click here to read the DC Disciplinary Decision.

Or, consider Attorneys John Robertelli and Gabriel Adamo, whose New Jersey Supreme Court case focuses on procedural issues regarding the New Jersey Disciplinary process. With that caveat, the case’s genesis was Facebook. Here’s what happened:

“On March 10, 2007, a police car driven by a sergeant with the Oakland Police Department allegedly struck a pedestrian, Dennis Hernandez. Hernandez claimed that he suffered permanent injuries, and commenced suit against the Borough, the police department, and the sergeant. Plaintiffs, who are attorneys licensed in New Jersey, were employed by the law firm that represented the defendants in the lawsuit. In order to obtain information about Hernandez, plaintiffs directed a paralegal employed by the firm to search the internet. Among other sources, she accessed Hernandez’s Facebook page. Initially, the page was open to the public. At a later point, the privacy settings on the account were changed to limit access to Facebook users who were Hernandez’s “friends.” The [Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE)] contends that plaintiffs directed the paralegal to access and continue to monitor the non-public pages of Hernandez’s Facebook account. She therefore submitted a “friend request” to Hernandez, without revealing that she worked for the law firm representing defendants or that she was investigating him in connection with the lawsuit. Hernandez accepted the friend request, and the paralegal was able to obtain information from the non-public pages of his Facebook account.

“Hernandez learned of the firm’s actions during discovery in the lawsuit, and objected to defendants’ use at trial of the documents that the paralegal obtained from his Facebook page. He also filed a grievance with the District II-B Ethics Committee, asserting that plaintiffs violated the RPCs by contacting him directly through his Facebook page without first contacting his attorney. The Secretary of the District II Ethics Committee, with the consent of a public member, declined to docket the grievance, having concluded that the allegations, if proven, would not constitute unethical conduct. Hernandez’s attorney then contacted the Director of the OAE (Director) and requested that the OAE review the matter and docket it for a full investigation and potential hearing.

“After further investigation, the Director filed a complaint against plaintiffs with the District XIV Ethics Committee. Plaintiffs requested that the Director withdraw the complaint, contending that the OAE was precluded from proceeding after the DEC declined to docket the grievance. The Director refused to withdraw the complaint, and plaintiffs filed a complaint in the Superior Court to enjoin the OAE from pursuing the matter. The trial court dismissed the complaint, holding that the Supreme Court and the ethics bodies that it established have exclusive jurisdiction over attorney disciplinary matters. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s determination in an unpublished decision.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court granted plaintiffs’ petition for certification and held that, consistent with the broad authority that the Rules of Court grant the Director and the important goals of the disciplinary process, the Director has authority to review a grievance after a DEC Secretary has declined to docket the grievance. The OAE may therefore proceed to prosecute plaintiffs’ alleged misconduct.” Click here to read Robertelli v. New Jersey Office of Ethics.

All because of Facebook.

In short, be careful, get guidance, and avoid being too social on social media.

 

 

 

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Pa. Bar Association Ethics Opinion Offers Attorneys Guidance on the Use of Social Media

The Pennsylvania Bar Association Committee on Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility has released an Ethics Opinion on Social Media, explaining to lawyers what they can and cannot do when posting or responding to information and comments on social media websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Avvo and others. The Opinion, one of the first in the country to broadly address these issues, explains (1) the issues confronting attorneys who use social media, (2) the ethical obligations of attorneys using social media, and (3) what attorneys and their staff may and may not do when dealing with information that their clients post on social networking websites.

I am proud to be one of the principal authors of the Opinion, but must also give special thanks to many people for their invaluable input/comments and insight, including my law clerk, Nora Viggiano, and attorneys Jennifer Ellis, Thomas G. Wilkinson, Dan Harrington, Victoria White, Michael Reed and Michael Temin.

The opinion is the first in the country to broadly address these issues, including: 1. Whether attorneys may advise clients about the content of the clients’ social networking websites, including removing or adding information. 2. Whether attorneys may connect with a client or former client on a social networking website. 3. Whether attorneys may contact a represented person through a social networking website. 4. Whether attorneys may contact an unrepresented person through a social networking website, or use a pretextual basis for viewing information on a social networking site that would otherwise be private/unavailable to the public. 5. Whether attorneys may use information on a social networking website in client-related matters. 6. Whether a client who asks to write a review of an attorney, or who writes a review of an attorney, has caused the attorney to violate any Rule of Professional Conduct. 7. Whether attorneys may comment on or respond to reviews or endorsements. 8. Whether attorneys may endorse other attorneys on a social networking website. 9. Whether attorneys may review a juror’s Internet presence. 10. Whether attorneys may connect with judges on social networking websites. If you would like to read the Opinion, please contact me.

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