Ye v. Veissman (1:14-cv-01531)(Memorandum Opinion and Order) examines the scope of Facebook page discovery requests in the context of a wrongful death suit.
There, the plaintiff, whose daughter was killed in a freak traffic accident as she walked on a downtown Chicago street, sued the responsible trucking company and driver for wrongful death and tried to recover for mental anguish resulting from the accident.
To probe the depths of the plaintiff’s claimed mental malaise, the defendants sought discovery of the decedent’s Facebook communications going back seven years before the accident. The plaintiff refused on the grounds of relevance and overbreadth (“it’s a fishing expedition”) and the defendants moved to compel the material.
Denying the defendants’ motion, the Court answered important questions on when social media evidence is relevant to a mental distress claim and the case starkly illustrates the importance of narrowly tailoring discovery requests in this computer-drenched society.
The Federal Discovery Rules and Facebook Data
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) allows discovery into any nonprivileged matter relevant to a party’s claim or defense that is proportional to the needs of the case.
Facebook discovery requests can present thorny logistical challenges since the amount of discoverable information is voluminous, data is retained for a long time and the number of people with whom a given Facebook subscriber communicates is potentially limitless.
In spite of these difficulties, social media evidence is still discoverable so long as the requested information meets the test of relevance. The Illinois and Federal rules of evidence define relevant evidence as “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” See Illinois Evidence Rule 401.
The Ye court noted that while “everything posted on social media can reflect a person’s emotional state of mind” at any given snapshot of time, a plaintiff’s injection of his state of mind does not give a requesting party with a “generalized right to rummage at will through [social media] information.”
Seven Years of Facebook Data = Too Broad
Finding the defendants’ discovery requests too broad, the Court noted that the amended discovery rules, effective since December 2015, limit the scope of relevant evidence and required that discovery be proportional to the needs of a given case.
The court allowed that since plaintiff’s damage claims were nebulous by nature – they included mental suffering, grief, sorrow, loss of society, companionship, and consortium – some social media discovery was clearly permitted (and relevant). This was because the discovery requests sought to shed light on the plaintiff’s mental state and his damages claims.
The court found that “[c]ertainly some social media content during the time period prior to death will be relevant”, this didn’t give the defendants a green light to request unlimited Facebook information. The court found the seven-year request overbroad as it wasn’t confined to a narrower pre-accident time span.
The extensive request for Facebook data also exceeded relevance restrictions since defendants sought communications between the decedent and third parties who had nothing to do with the accident or the lawsuit. According to the court, if the discovery requests were pruned to only include communications between the decedent and her immediate family, the requests would likely be focused enough to meet the discovery rules’ relevance and proportionality tests.
However, as the requests currently stood, the minimal relevance of the decedent’s Facebook communications was outweighed by the burden to the plaintiff in producing the data.
To support its findings, the Court cited liberally from recent Federal cases in Indiana and California that found Facebook discovery requests spanning five years (the Indiana case) and seven years (Cal.) too broad under Rule 26.
This opinion is a good example of a court grappling with the discoverability of social media evidence in a case where a plaintiff’s mental state is clearly at issue. Like so often, the discovery decision distills to a balancing test: the Court weighs the possible relevance of the requested information against the time, money and energy burden to the plaintiff in producing the information.
While some latitude is allowed in discovery requests, it’s clear from this case and others like it, that discovery requests have limits. Where the burden of responding to Facebook discovery outweighs the possible relevance of the requests, a court will order the requesting party to constrict its requests.