To Compel Discovery Of A Party’s Social Media Content In Pennsylvania, There Must Be A Hook

Pennsylvania trial courts have been particularly active in the past few years in issuing opinions regarding how much, if any, of a party’s non-public Facebook and other social media content are subject to discovery in litigation.  A July 2012 opinion issued by Judge Wettick in Allegheny County, Trail v. Lesko, highlights these increasing discovery disputes and outlines the recent trends of the courts addressing the disputes.  As Judge Wettick found, courts have compelled very broad access to social media content in cases where one party has articulated that the publicly available portions of the other party’s social media site contains information relevant to the prosecution or defense of a claim.

Although there are no appellate court opinions on this subject matter in Pennsylvania, there are several trial court opinions.  On the one hand, some of the cases permit very broad access to Facebook and other social media content.  For example, at least three written opinions in Pennsylvania since 2010 have required the party from whom discovery is sought to provide his or her username, password or other login information to the requesting party. In these cases, the requesting party provided the court with specific evidence from the individual’s publicly accessible pages showing the likelihood that full access to the social media account would garner further relevant information.  In Zimmerman v. Weis Markets, Inc., the plaintiff claimed personal injuries from a workplace injury and his public profile said he enjoyed “ridin” and “bike stunts” and showed pictures of him with a black eye and his motorcycle both before and after the workplace accident at issue in the litigation.  And, as one Pennsylvania trial court put it in McMillen v. Hummingbird Speedway Inc., “[w]here there is an indication that a person’s social network sites contain information relevant to the prosecution or defense of a lawsuit, . . . and given [the case law’s] admonition that the courts should allow litigants to utilize ‘all rational means for ascertaining the truth,’ . . . and the law’s general dispreference for the allowance of privileges, access to those sites should be freely granted.”

On the other hand, a number of Pennsylvania trial courts, in written opinions, have completely denied any and all access to a party’s social media content.  Many of the requesting parties in these cases failed to identify any compelling or specific reason for obtaining access to the other party’s non-public social media content.  These courts have concluded that the mere fact that a party has a social media account, without anything more, is insufficient to justify broad discovery access to the account.

In Trail, Judge Wettick provides a comprehensive review of Pennsylvania’s case law addressing this question.  Judge Wettick also highlights cases from a number of other jurisdictions, which are generally consistent with the approach of Pennsylvania courts that have addressed this question in that the other jurisdictions tend to require some factual predicate suggesting the existence of relevant information prior to ordering access to the information being sought.  Unlike Pennsylvania, though, some other jurisdictions have sought to establish more of a middle ground between wholesale denial of the request for social media content and unlimited access to the user’s profile.  Judge Wettick reached what is perhaps the obvious conclusion from these cases: litigants seeking access through discovery to a party’s Facebook or other social media content must show that there is a sufficient likelihood that the discovery requested will provide relevant evidence that is not otherwise available.  Further, Judge Wettick said the court must consider the level of intrusiveness as balanced against the need for the discovery.  Although courts are still wrestling with this question and the answer will continue to evolve, the courts seem to fall back on the age-old principle that discovery should not be an unbridled fishing expedition into a party’s private information.  However, with a big enough hook (i.e., publicly accessibly portions of the social networking site suggesting that further relevant postings are likely to be found by access to non-public portions), Pennsylvania courts are willing to provide very broad access to a party’s social media content.

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