Why it matters

Considering the scope of an employer’s access to a worker’s social media accounts for discovery purposes, a Connecticut federal court refused to grant full access, as it would constitute a “wholesale invasion of [the plaintiff’s] privacy,” instead opting for a middle ground. Lauren Marsteller claimed that two male coworkers repeatedly sexually harassed her, watched her on a company security camera while she changed her clothes, and shared the video with other employees. The employer petitioned the court for direct access to Marsteller’s social media accounts or, in the alternative, copies of her social media communications, arguing that the materials were relevant to her claims of emotional distress. Attempting to strike a balance, the court allowed the employer’s request for copies of certain social media communications but refused direct access to the plaintiff’s accounts, calling the request a clear “example of a fishing expedition.” An employee’s “routine status updates and/or communications on social networking websites are not, as a general matter, relevant to her claim for emotional distress damages, nor are such communications likely to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence regarding the same,” the court wrote.

Detailed discussion

In her Connecticut federal court complaint, Lauren Marsteller claimed that two coworkers repeatedly sexually harassed her, watched her on a company security camera while she changed her clothes in a private office, and showed the video to other employees. Alleging “severe emotional distress,” she asserted claims under Title VII, state law and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among others.

The employer filed a motion seeking to compel Marsteller to provide access to her social media accounts or, in the alternative, copies of certain social media communications. The materials were relevant to her allegations of emotional distress, the defendants told the court.

Marsteller objected, asserting that she never posted anything relevant to her employment or the allegations in her complaint.

Drawing a line, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah A.L. Merriam refused to have the plaintiff hand over her password but did allow the defendants to obtain copies of relevant communications.

As a general matter, routine status updates and communications on social networking websites are not relevant to a claim of emotional distress, the court said. “Requiring plaintiff to provide her social media passwords to defendants would constitute a wholesale invasion of her privacy, and would be far outside the bounds of proportionality,” Judge Merriam explained. “One can hardly imagine a better example of a fishing expedition.”

However, the request for copies of responsive social media materials was both “reasonable and likely to lead to admissible evidence,” the court said. The motion sought “statements … of any and all witnesses to the Incident(s) described in the Complaint” and “communications, including, but not limited to, emails, text messages, regarding or relating to the Incident as alleged in the Complaint.”

Granting the motion to compel production of social media materials responsive to these two requests, the court cautioned the defendants not to expand or amend the requests to seek information about the plaintiff’s mental or emotional state generally.

The defendants also scored a victory with an order to compel disclosure of Marsteller’s medical records. Although the plaintiff argued that her medical files were privileged and disclosure would be inappropriate, she also asserted a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the court pointed out. By claiming “severe” emotional distress in her complaint, she waived the psychotherapist-patient privilege and the “defendants are entitled to discovery of her treatment records to provide a reasonable opportunity to defend against these claims,” Judge Merriam wrote.

To read the order in Marsteller v. Butterfield 8 Stamford LLC, click here.