Facebook and Legal Ethics

I recently filed a post about a request for production of the contents of a party’s Facebook page in the context of a personal injury claim. It was only a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of circumventing this procedure by obtaining the same information by other means. In an April 2009 Advisory Opinion, the Philadelphia Bar Association was asked for guidance in the following circumstances: a lawyer proposed to have a third person approach a hostile witness in a case the lawyer was involved in; the third party would try to become a “friend” of the witness with access to the witness’s Facebook and My Space pages; if access was granted, the third party would promptly funnel information back to the lawyer for possible use against the opposing party and witness during the course of the litigation.

The Bar Association refused to give its blessing to this course of action, saying that it was deceitful and contrary to the lawyer’s professional ethics. The Opinion contains useful insights:

Turning to the ethical substance of the inquiry, the Committee believes that the proposed course of conduct contemplated by the inquirer would violate Rule 8.4(c) because the planned communication by the third party with the witness is deceptive. It omits a highly material fact, namely, that the third party who asks to be allowed access to the witness’s pages is doing so only because he or she is intent on obtaining information and sharing it with a lawyer for use in a lawsuit to impeach the testimony of the witness. The omission would purposefully conceal that fact from the witness for the purpose of inducing the witness to allow access, when she may not do so if she knew the third person was associated with the inquirer and the true purpose of the access was to obtain information for the purpose of impeaching her testimony.

The fact that the inquirer asserts he does not know if the witness would permit access to him if he simply asked in forthright fashion does not remove the deception. The inquirer could test that by simply asking the witness forthrightly for access. That would not be deceptive and would of course be permissible. Plainly, the reason for not doing so is that the inquirer is not sure that she will allow access and wants to adopt an approach that will deal with her possible refusal by deceiving her from the outset. In short, in the Committee’s view, the possibility that the deception might not be necessary to obtain access does not excuse it.

The lawyer’s argument that the proposed course of action was no different than the practice of videotaping a party to litigation was given short shrift:

The inquirer has suggested that his proposed conduct is similar to the common — and ethical — practice of videotaping the public conduct of a plaintiff in a personal injury case to show that he or she is capable of performing physical acts he claims his injury prevents. The Committee disagrees. In the video situation, the videographer simply follows the subject and films him as he presents himself to the public. The videographer does not have to ask to enter a private area to make the video. If he did, then similar issues would be confronted, as for example, if the videographer took a hidden camera and gained access to the inside of a house to make a video by presenting himself as a utility worker.