With the incredible rise of social networking websites (an estimated half of Americans use these sites), litigators are beginning in earnest to seek discovery of parties’ social networking accounts and postings (such as Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter). Frequently, statements made or photographs shown on a person’s “wall” or page made be relevant to issues in a lawsuit. For example, in a personal injury action where a plaintiff claims to be disabled or physically restricted because of an accident, a photograph showing the plaintiff engaged in a physical activity after the injury, such as skiing or running, may shed light on the true extent of his or her injuries. Litigators want to obtain access to these social networking sites as part of the discovery process.
The question facing Courts is whether to allow such access and, if so, are there limits on what must be revealed. Senior Judge R. Stanton Wettick, Jr. of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (which includes Pittsburgh) recently issued an opinion where he extensively discusses the case law surrounding when a litigant is entitled to access an individual’s social networking site and what must be produced if it is. Because Judge Wettick handles most discovery disputes in Allegheny County, this decision is particularly important for practitioners in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania state courts.
In his opinion, he notes that information from an individual’s social networking site is not protected by any privileges, either because there is no basis for the privilege or it has been waived by sharing the information with others. Despite that, he concludes that the information is not per se discoverable. Rather, the party seeking the discovery must make some threshold showing that there is likely to be relevant information on the social network site before it is entitled to discovery. He concludes that such a test adequately balances the need for relevant discovery with the intrusion of giving access to a great deal of personal information that is unrelated to the issues in the lawsuit.