Facebook Posts Not Hearsay Where Offered To Show How Ex-Wife Presented Relationship To Others – Illinois Case Note

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Reversing a family law judge’s decision to terminate ex-spousal maintenance, the Second District appeals court in In re Marriage of Miller, 2015 IL App(2d) 140530 delves into the foundation requirements for getting Facebook pages into evidence and again highlights the crucial role social media plays in litigation in this digitally saturated culture.

The trial court granted the ex-husband (“Husband”) motion to terminate maintenance payments to his ex-wife (“Wife”) based on her multiple Facebook posts that she was in a relationship and (presumably) living with another man.  Illinois divorce law posits that maintenance payments must cease when the recipient remarries or cohabitates with another on a continuing basis.

Since the Facebook posts revealed the Wife frequently trumpeting her new relationship, the court found that the policies behind maintenance payments would be compromised by allowing the Wife to continue receiving payments from Husband.

The Wife appealed, arguing that the trial court shouldn’t have allowed her Facebook posts into evidence.

Held: Reversed (but on other grounds).  Wife’s social media posts were properly authenticated, not hearsay and any prejudice to her didn’t substantially outweigh the posts’ probative value.

Rules/reasoning:

– To enter a document into evidence at trial or on summary judgment, the offering party must lay a foundation for it;

– The party offering the document into evidence – including a document to impeach (contradict) a witness on the stand – must authenticate the document through the testimony of a witness who has personal knowledge sufficient to satisfy the court that the document is what the proponent claim it is;

– To lay a foundation for an out-of-court statement (including a document), the party attempting to get the statement into evidence must direct the witness to the time, place, circumstances and substance of the statement;

– Hearsay is a statement, other than made by the declarant while testifying at trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted;

– When the making of statement is the significant fact, hearsay isn’t involved (ex: the mere fact that a conversation took place isn’t hearsay);

Here, the court found that the Facebook posts weren’t offered for their truth.  Instead, they were offered to illustrate the way the Wife was portraying her current relationship to others.  The court deemed the posts relevant to the issue of how “public” or “out in the open” the Wife was about the relationship. 

And since the Husband didn’t offer the posts for the truth of their contents (that Wife was in fact living with someone and so disqualified from further maintenance payments) but instead to show the court the manner in which the Wife presented the relationship to others, the court properly allowed the posts into evidence.

The Second District also agreed with the trial court that the posts didn’t unfairly prejudice the Wife.  Indeed, the court characterized the posts as “bland”, “cumulative” and less effective than the parties’ live testimony.

(¶¶ 33-38)

The Wife still won though as the appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision to terminate Husband’s maintenance obligations.  The court found that more evidence was needed on the specifics of the Wife’s existing relationship including whether it was continuing and conjugal enough to constitute a “de facto marriage” (as opposed to a “dating” relationship only) and thus exclude the Wife from further maintenance payments from Husband.

Take-aways:

Hearsay doesn’t apply where out-of-court statement has independent legal significance;

Facebook posts authored by a party to lawsuit will likely get into evidence unless their prejudice outweighs their probative value;

Where social media posts are authored by third parties, it injects another layer of hearsay into the evidence equation and makes it harder to get the posts admitted at trial.

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Kanaris Stubenvoll & Heiss, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in post-judgment enforcement, collections and real estate litigation.