As social media has become ubiquitous, courts are wrestling with more discovery disputes involving social media accounts.
In a recent case, Crowe v. Marquette Transportation Co. Gulf-Inland, LLC, the plaintiff deactivated his Facebook account in an effort to be able to claim that he was no longer on Facebook. A federal court in Louisiana rejected this ploy, ordering the plaintiff to turn over all of his Facebook data to the defendant.
Here’s the background story: On May 19, 2014, Brannon Crowe sued his employer, Marquette Transportation. Crowe claimed that, in April 2014, he had an accident at work that “resulted in serious painful injuries to his knee and other parts of his body.” Crowe sued for pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages, past and future disability, and other special damages.
But Crowe may have unwittingly shot himself in the foot (or maybe the knee). The reason? Facebook.
Around the time Crowe suffered his injuries, he sent a Facebook message to a friend saying that he had actually hurt himself while on a fishing trip. How Marquette Transportation got its hands on the message is unclear. Nonetheless, the message led Marquette Transportation to seek other Facebook information from Crowe in discovery. On October 17, 2014, Marquette Transportation specifically requested “the Facebook history of any account(s) that [Crowe] had or has for the period commencing two (2) weeks prior to the incident in question to the present date.”
Crowe objected on several grounds. First, he claimed that his account had been “hacked.”
Then he suggested that the account associated with the fishing trip message was not his because the name on the account was “Brannon CroWe” and he does not capitalize the “W” in his last name.
Finally, Crowe claimed that he did not “presently have a Facebook account.” When questioned about that statement in a deposition, Crowe testified that, as of October 2014, he no longer had a Facebook account. Thus, Crowe was technically telling the truth; he had deactivated his account on October 21, 2014 (four days after Crowe received the discovery request to produce his Facebook account data).
Deactivating your Facebook account, however, is not the same as deleting your account. As the Court noted, “It is readily apparent to any user who navigates to the page instructing how to deactivate an account that the two actions are different and have different consequences.” Under Facebook’s terms, deactivation simply means “your profile won’t be visible to other people on Facebook and people won’t be able to search for you,” and that, upon reactivation, “[y]our profile will be restored in its entirety.” In contrast, deleting your Facebook account “means you will not ever be able to reactivate or retrieve any of the content or information you’ve added,” and there is “no option for recovery.”
As to Crowe’s claim that he was no longer on Facebook, the Court was having none of it. The court stated that “it is patently clear from even a cursory review that this information should have been produced as part of Crowe’s original response. This production makes it plain that Crowe’s testimony, at least in part, was inaccurate. That alone makes this information discoverable.”
In short, the Court held that Crowe’s Facebook-related information was discoverable because Crowe had deactivated his account to keep the evidence from his employer—and did so only after he received a discovery request.
Crowe may have inadvertently saved himself at least some trouble with the Court by deactivating his account rather than deleting it. This duty to preserve evidence in litigation extends to social media information and is triggered when a party reasonably foresees that evidence may be relevant to issues in litigation. As soon as he placed the source of his injuries at issue, Crowe triggered the duty to preserve. Deleting relevant social media data can result in sanctions against the deleting party because the information is not recoverable, which implicates spoliation of evidence issues. In contrast, Crowe’s Facebook data was still accessible upon a simple re-login.
Even though Crowe did not delete his account, the Court was obviously unhappy with Crowe. The Court found that Crowe unnecessarily delayed the proceedings and wasted the Court’s time by deactivating his account. And, ultimately, the Court ordered Crowe to produce all information in his Facebook account to his opponent in its entirety.
This case serves as a lesson that nothing good will come from deleting or deactivating your Facebook account to hide evidence. Even if deactivating a Facebook account to conceal damaging evidence does not constitute spoliation, because the data is ultimately recoverable, courts will inevitably come down hard on efforts to conceal evidence, even ham-handed and harebrained efforts.