At the risk of appearing obsessed, I write a second time about the separation of Jeff and Makenzie Bezos. This time my subject is again borrowed from the Wall Street Journal, but it’s not about the money. Rather, the Journal produced a prominent and adulatory article about the divorce announcement by the couple (actually Jeff) on Twitter. I thought it interesting because anyone who separates from a spouse or long time relationship is left asking; how do I let people know?

In olden days, this was done either by phone or in person. It creates an awkward moment because if you are the person getting the news, you are not certain just how to react. After the “I’m sorry to hear that….” the question becomes how far does the inquiry go? It seems cold to stop with the vague “I hope it works out.” Yet, is the person making the announcement asking for absolution? Therapy?  There is no happy answer.

So, I think there is merit to a public announcement and despite my general abhorrence of Twitter, I see benefit in getting the word out. I don’t know whether it requires a “joint” announcement as the Bezos posting suggested. For most of us, separation does not suggest that we need to “calm the market” in Amazon stock. However, the many lawyers and therapists who commented upon the Bezos announcement liked the idea of controlling the message and communicating that the problems either have been or will be handled with civility.

If you read what was posted by Mr. Bezos, it was a bit treacly.  In part, it says:

“After a period of loving exploration and trial separation, we have decided to divorce and continue our shared lives as friends.”

Perhaps this was all so amicable, but the news was immediately accompanied by reports that Herr Bezos already has a girlfriend.  It also throws shade on the ambiguous phrase “loving exploration.”  But, back to the main point… People want to know if you are separating.  If they truly care about you, they would like to know things will be civil even if that is merely an aspiration. It is also a good way to signal to your spouse how you want him or her to respond. The beauty of the electronic approach is that it gets the word out and allows friends to control a responsive dialogue on their own terms.

I don’t do Twitter because I have witnessed a thousand prominent people see their public persona crash and burn. They did not think before they wrote. Twitter is best known as a place where people say stupid things.  But perhaps Twitter might actually become an instrument of civility rather than a semantic battleground.

What to say? Well it may be ideal to issue a joint announcement. It is rare for couples to be finished with each other at the same time.  Usually, one spouse is the catalyst. If that is your situation, keep it simple and avoid what will be perceived as over the top sentimentality.

“I wanted to let friends and family know that (Jeff ) and I are separating.  I am hopeful that this process will preserve our dignity and not draw you into a conflict where you will feel the need or desire to take a side.  I hope our friends will remain just that although we may no longer be a couple.”

Message sent.  Now, when you run into the neighbor in the frozen food aisle, they “know” and can ask either how it’s going or confine the conversation to whether chicken Florentine is good with arugula.  The recipients also know that you want to be an adult during the process.

So am I on the road to conversion as a Twitter acolyte? Perhaps. But then there is the recurring fear that if I joined the social media band no one would “follow.”

New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals ruled on February 13, 2018 that a Facebook account holder’s designation of a posting as “private” did not preclude a litigant from obtaining copies of those postings where they may be relevant to the litigation.

The ruling comes from a personal injury case where the plaintiff claimed to suffer permanent injury in an equine fall.  The plaintiff’s claims included those typically associated with loss of enjoyment of life. The defendant sought to secure plaintiff’s entire Facebook account. Plaintiff opposed production of any private posting and the intermediate appellate court agreed that privacy protection was available.  Further, appellate review was allowed.

The Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division, noting that its ruling would allow a party to effectively “hide” otherwise discover-able material simply by marking it as private or otherwise curating their own social media postings. It permitted the Defendant to review post accident postings in search of evidence to rebut Plaintiff’s claim to have suffered cognitive injuries and loss of life’s enjoyment caused by the accident.

The ruling was not open ended however. The trial court had ordered all pre and post accident photos to be produced without regard to privacy settings except those involving nudity or romantic encounters. It also ordered Facebook to produce records of the frequency and length of the postings so that pre and post accident activity could be compared.  The Court of Appeals upheld those limitations but added that a request for these kinds of materials needs to be reasonably calculated to yield relevant information.

Needless to say, in the world of divorce, the scope of relevancy will be considerably broader than that associated with a claim for physical injuries. But, the ruling is an important one.

Forman v. Henkin  http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ny-court-of-appeals/1889175.html

We live in an age of instant information where there is constant temptation to share what one is doing and thinking. We are used to sharing our experiences and thoughts freely. The temptation becomes even greater when we are in times of stress. And, while this is a universal tendency that has always been prevalent, today we have a new means of making our thoughts known; through electronic writing.

A recent case outside the domestic relations realm informs us of the perils of this form of indulgence. The case in question involves a medical practice group that over a short period of time split into warring factions. The practice group encompassed different medical specialties and operated an acute care hospital in Greensburg, PA.

In 2010, rumors propagated that two physicians in the cardiology practice were performing surgical procedures which were not medically required or sound. The Chief Executive of the practice engaged an independent peer review group to evaluate these rumors. The preliminary report indicated that there were procedures performed that were not medically necessary.

Upon learning that their privileges were about to be suspended the two cardiologists resigned. The practice group then hired a second peer review organization to conduct a more complete study. Armed with a second report confirming that the cardiologists had performed unnecessary angioplasty, the physician group publicly announced its conclusion that there was wrongful conduct of the cardiologists.

The cardiologists subject to the report filed suit, alleging the reports to be false and the product of an effort by management to squeeze them out after the physicians had refused a buy out of their practice interests. The claims were cast as intentional interference in their relationships with their patients and defamation.

The practice group consulted with an attorney before deciding to publicly announce that the physicians had performed unnecessary surgery. The attorney shared her opinions on this subject with general counsel for the practice group. The practice group also hired a public relations firm to manage inquiries from the press and patients. General Counsel thought it provident to share the attorney’s opinion letter advising him about publicity with the public relations firm. This legal memo from attorney to client practice group was freely circulated within the public relations firm.

In 2013, the exiled physicians served the practice group they had sued with a request for “documents revealing any information related to your thoughts or plan to disclose to the media the conclusions of the independent peer evaluators.” The practice group asserted that this was an improper request for attorney-client communications. The physicians then scheduled the deposition of and subpoenaed the public relations executive in charge to bring any documents related to the public announcement made by the practice group about the physicians who were accused of improper practice.

No protective order was sought and the public relations executive was deposed. The deposition revealed that public disclosure had first been discarded as an option, but three days later those instructions were reversed and disclosure was authorized by management. The deponent had not revealed in deposition that she had been privy to the legal opinion independent counsel had provided to the employee-general counsel. That legal opinion surfaced as part of a privilege log. This prompted a renewed request for the opinion and all related correspondence. A discovery master reviewed the material in camera and decided the documents were privileged. The plaintiff physicians appealed. The Trial Court determined that transmission of the opinion letter to the public relations firm waived the privilege. The privilege is lost when protected communications are shared with third parties unless the third party is an agent of the lawyer acting in furtherance of the representation. Restatement of Law Governing Lawyers Sec. 70 (2000). In the Trial Court’s view the public relations company was providing service to the practice group, not the attorney advising that group.

The practice group appealed this order as collateral to the proceeding under Pa.R.A.P. 313. The application of privilege and work product doctrine is a question of law for which the standard of review is plenary.

The Superior Court opinion of Judge Mary Jane Bowes starts by noting that evidentiary privileges are not favored and need to be viewed to exclude evidence where there is a “public good transcending the normally predominant principle of utilizing all rational means for ascertaining the truth.” Key to this concept is that the client has not waived the privilege. Communications made in the presence of third parties or sent by the client to a third party lose their protection as privileged.

The appellate court distinguishes the facts in this case from situations where a law firm brings in experts on its own to assist in its representation of the client. If the third party is rendering advice to assist the lawyer in the representation, the communication is privileged. The third party’s access to privileged communications must be necessary or useful to the lawyer’s purpose. There was no link in this case between the opinion provided by counsel and the service that the public relations firm was engaged to provide. The deposition of the general counsel made clear that the public relations firm was not being consulted about whether to disclose the physician names or there alleged conduct.

As for claims of work product protection under Pa.R.C.P. 4003.3, the court notes that the purpose is to shield the mental processes of the attorneys so that they can prepare the case without fear that their theories of the litigation will be subject to discovery. But this rule is also subject to waiver. The Appeals Court devotes much attention to the Penn State University investigation that resulted in Bagwell v. Pennsylvania Dep’t. of Education, 103 A.3d 409 (Pa. Cmnwlth 2014). Bagwell had sought information provided to the state while he was affiliated with Penn State’s Board of Trustees. But the Bagwell court found that there had been no disclosure to a third party where the facts in this appeal show that the disclosure had been made for purposes not directly related to litigation or prospective litigation.

The takeaway is that what you give to and get from your attorney needs to remain confidential. Sharing that information with others creates the risk that the protection of that information may be waived. In this case a more thoughtful sequencing of who retained the public relations firm and when they were engaged (e.g., the independent attorney did the hiring) may have produced a different result.

Twitter, Facebook and other forms of instant messaging certainly do allow all of us to try to control the message or at least be first to relate it. But these methods have no legal protection. If you share the information you gave your lawyer or what the lawyer communicated to you, both the attorney client privilege and the work product doctrine will be jeopardized. If the matter you face merits engagement of counsel, counsel needs to be an integral part of any decisions about how the world learns your “news.”

Bousamra v. Excela Health et al.   2017 Pa. Super. 66 (March 13, 2017)

We’ve reported on the United States v. Elonis in the past. This case involved a Northampton County man who made a series of threats on his Facebook page directed at his estranged wife, his employer, and an FBI agent who came to investigate a threat he made to attack an elementary school. Elonis, in his defense, claimed that his posts were not, in fact, threats, but rap lyrics and forms of artistic expression.

He was nonetheless charged with under 18 U.S.C. 875(c) which prohibits transmitting in interstate commerce a communication containing a threat to injure the person of another. He was eventually convicted at trial of four out of the five charges against him and sentenced to forty-four (44) months in jail. He conviction was upheld by through the appellate system and eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court who granted cert to hear his appeal. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction, but did not address any of the First Amendment claims or other issues raised on appeal except for what they viewed as an error in the jury instruction identifying the standard the jury was to apply to the offenses. Helpfully, however, Justice Samuel Alito articulated in a concurring/dissenting opinion a road map for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals – the court where the Supreme Court was remanding the case for further consideration – on how to have Elonis conviction upheld.

The Third Circuit did just that, finding that the jury instruction amounted to harmless error and he would have been convicted under either of the discussed standards since there was indisputable evidence in the record that Elonis intended his wife and others to perceive the statements as threats.

The reason this case is relevant to family law cases is that Elonis conviction proves that social media posts will be closely scrutinized by the courts to determine whether or not they can be construed as threats. There is no special First Amendment protection attached to them and context will have a huge affect on whether or not a statement will be interpreted as art or as a threat of harm. In this case, there can be little confusion that Elonis wanted to inflict fear and anxiety on his estranged wife and others around him. His threat to attack an elementary school with the intent to die in “blaze of glory” was concerning enough to prompt a visit from the FBI – an episode that prompted Elonis to “creatively write” and post shortly thereafter a scenario where he uses a knife to quickly slit the agent’s throat as she stood on his porch.

In short, even if Elonis had no intention of carrying out these acts, the trial court and Third Circuit found that he clearly intended them to be threats and whether that determination is made by a reasonable person or if his acts were interpreted as reckless was immaterial to the fact they were made and with a desired affect. Issues of the First Amendment and free speech were never considered and, frankly, I don’t think any court will be looking to carve out violent lyrics as being a protected class of speech. For every Eminem who wins Grammys for writing vividly violent verses about his ex-wife, there will be hundreds or thousands of people who try to circumvent their PFA Orders or try to intimidate an ex-partner through social media or other means and use the facade of “art” and “lyrics” to shield themselves from prosecution or being found to have violated a protective order.

What Court wants to define the line between art and threats? Quite simply, the courts – like many of us – don’t know how to define art, but know it when we see it. Similarly, we might not be able to define an easy catch-all definition of what constitutes a threat over social media, but we can discern context and content make those determinations on a case-by-case basis to ensure both the accused and accuser are protected under the law.

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty.

 

A recent criminal case addressed, in part, an issue we saw in the case of Elonis v. United StatesThe Elonis case went to the U.S. Supreme Court which ultimately reversed the criminal conviction of a man based on statutory construction grounds that his Facebook postings did not offer the requisite mental intent to threaten the victim(s). The Supreme Court’s opinion did not  address any First Amendment rights, however.

The case of Commonwealth v. Lambert, involved a Protection from Abuse Order entered against Lambert, the victim’s ex-boyfriend.  Interestingly, and likely an insight into the voluminous use of social media by Lambert, was the specific PFA Order instruction that he shall refrain from posting “any remark(s) and/or images regarding Plaintiff, on any social network(s), including, but [not] limited to, Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, or any other electronic networks.” In other words, he was not permitted to post anything to social media pertaining to his ex-girlfriend. It should be noted that a Protection from Abuse Order restricts a perpetrator from having direct or indirect contact with a victim. If they do have contact, they could be subject to an Indirect Criminal Contempt.  PFA Orders are civil restraining orders to protect a victim, but they have criminal repercussions: a violation – either verbally, in writing, or physically – will land someone in jail.

With that context in mind, we look at what Lambert did to violate the PFA Order. A day after the Order was entered, he posted a series of Facebook comments in which he does not name his ex-girlfriend, but that she was clearly the subject of the posts. As the Superior Court points out, Trial Courts need to consider the context of the violation and “temporal proximity” of the statements. Perhaps if Lambert had not made his posts a day after he was found to have abused his ex-girlfriend, the context and temporal proximity would have led the court to a different interpretation. The posts were not actually threatening or outwardly menacing (though the victim could certainly feel otherwise), but, as the Court considered, the posts were about the victimThey were discovered by the ex-girlfriend when she went to his Facebook page – she testified that she regularly checks the page for her own knowledge since he is such a voracious social media user that if he was angry or having mental health issues she would have notice of them before risking an interaction with him.

The victim let her local police know about the postings; they contacted the District Attorney’s office, who then initiated the contempt action. He was subsequently found guilty of contempt. That conviction led to the appeal by Lambert as to whether his indirect criminal contempt conviction was a violation of his First Amendment rights to free speech and whether the lack of wrongful intent (i.e. the posts were not threats) should have led to acquittal.

The main issue the Superior Court considered was the First Amendment claim. The Court’s opinion on that issue can be summarized with concept that the PFA Order is contact-based not content-based.  In other words, the PFA does not restrict speech so much as it restricts who the speech is directed at.  This is an important distinctions since restrictions on content must be strictly scrutinized.  Here, however, the contact was – directly or indirectly – made to the victim through Lambert’s public (likely another factor) Facebook profile. By making statements about the victim on a public profile where she could reasonably be exposed to them, Lambert was, effectively, attempting to contact the victim.

As a consequence, his conviction was upheld. His mental intent argument – which successfully led to the overturning of the Elonis conviction – was unsuccessful, as well, since his mental intent to threaten was not at issue; merely the attempt to contact mattered – whether it was to threaten or say he was sorry is immaterial. It should also be noted that the standard of proof for Elonis was the criminal justice system’s “beyond a reasonable doubt,” whereas the standard for finding abuse occurred is the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard, though an indirect criminal contempt carries the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.

The broader implication is that Facebook and social media can be and will be considered forms of communication with the victim of a PFA. Shouting into the void of social media is not without consequences and, as Lambert demonstrates, the intent is secondary to the act of communicating.

I recently wrote a column for The Legal Intelligencier about the Supreme Court’s decision in the Elonis v. United States to overturn Elonis’ criminal conviction and forty-four month prison term for statements he made through social media about his estranged wife, shooting up a kindergarten class, and slicing the throat of an FBI agent who was sent to interview him about his kindergarten class attack statements. Suffice to say, the facts of the case are compelling, but the legal positions taken by the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions make Elonis an important case to consider in the context of statements made over social media and the interpretation of those statements as threats by third parties.

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty.

Facebook reutersTo the best of my knowledge, using Facebook as a way to serve legal papers or proving notice of a lawsuit or other legal issue has not been addressed by Pennsylvania courts, but that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. Recently, two different states took two different approaches to the use of Facebook as a method of legal notice.

This month, a court in Oklahoma ruled that a woman could not use Facebook to notify the father of her child that she was pregnant in advance of putting that child up for adoption. The basic facts are that the couple had a brief sexual relationship resulting in a pregnancy. Though they had little contact with each other after the encounter, the mother sent the father a Facebook message informing him of her pregnancy. Though he claims to have never seen the message, he learned of the child’s existence shortly after its birth and visited the baby for several months. He later had his parental rights terminated and the child was adopted with the mother’s consent.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Facebook message was insufficient for providing notice to the father of the pregnancy because it is not “reasonably certain to inform those affected.” There is a strong dissent which basically states that the Court is being naive that Facebook is less reliable than other forms of communication and that other forms of notice (face-to-face; mail) can just as easily be ignored.

It is worth noting that Oklahoma is also where a major adoption case arose involving a Native American child and was ultimately adjudicated before the U.S. Supreme Court.Perhaps that case has made Oklahoma’s courts particularly sensitive to issues of verifiable notice for legal actions?

The second case in which Facebook was recognized as a valid form of notice and service was in New York where a father placed his child’s mother on notice of his intent to have child support ended since his child had turned 21 years old.

The New York father had no address for his child’s mother; mailed documents were returned without a forwarding address. However, the father was aware of the mother’s activity on social media, including her “liking” photos on his wife’s page. The judge ruled that serving the mother personally had proven “impracticable” and that the Facebook message was a viable way of contacting the other party.

These are two cases with two significantly different perspectives on the reliability of social media to effectuate notice of a legal action. How this issue will be addressed in Pennsylvania will remain to be seen, but it will clearly need to be only after exhaustive attempts to serve under the traditional methods have been taken.

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty.

The Instruments of Embarrassment
The Instruments of Embarrassment

A recent story through ABC’s Good Morning America website highlighted the evolution of the prenuptial agreement in the social media age. Divorce lawyers are reporting an increasing amount of requests for language in prenuptial agreements – if not stand-alone agreements – addressing social media usage.

It makes a lot of sense. In an age where nothing ever really seems to be removed from the internet, protecting one’s privacy or “personal brand” on social media is a major personal and professional priority. People have been fired from their jobs due to content someone posted about them online; personal and professional reputations have been tarnished over embarrassing photos.

The concept of this clause does raise some intriguing legal issues. First, your ex-wife posting an embarrassing photo of you is not going to be defamation per se; after all, it is difficult to assert she is lying when the photographic evidence speaks for itself. Secondly, how can financial damages even be measured for someone posting on social media? Unless a job is lost or there is a concrete connection between the posted content and the outcome, I think a person calling “foul” over their ex-spouse posting photos will have a difficult time proving they lost income.

The way to give such an agreement “teeth,” therefore, is to provide for a defined financial sanction against the posting party. One attorney in the story suggests that the sanction should be relative to the earning power of the violating party and apply to each incident in which barred information was published. Practically speaking, the sanction has to be great enough that neither party will feel that the personal satisfaction of humiliating their former spouse outweighs the financial penalty.

I would think such an agreement, however, would need to carve out an exception for trial evidence or at least be narrowly tailored to the dissemination of information through social media platforms. Pictures and video acquired during the marriage can be a valuable resource for the corroborating behavior or actions of a party; it can provide important, admissible evidence. A blanket prohibition of the dissemination of pictures or video could undermine their application at trial and would certainly be subject to a discovery motion as to whether the agreement precluded the use of information at trial or, merely, the use of such information on social media. I would be surprised if people – particularly if they plan to have children – would want to prospectively preclude the introduction of certain types of evidence which may be relevant at a custody trial. An exception for the use of such media evidence at trial or, possibly, an agreement that such evidence would be viewed by the judge “in camera” (i.e. not in open court) could also help address the sensitive nature of the evidence.

It is axiomatic that technology changes faster than the court system can keep up. Private agreements, however, can mirror the shifting landscape of technology and privacy. Expect to see greater creativity in prenuptial and post-nuptial agreements dealing with this and other technologically based issues.

(picture credit: celeritystaffing.com)

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty

The Arizona Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the custody case of Steve Nash, the point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers.  The opinion upheld the trial court’s decision, which prohibited either party from disparaging the other on social media.  The issue arose initially when Nash’s ex-wife tweeted some disparaging comments about Nash.  Nash’s ex appealed the trial court’s decision, claiming that it infringed upon her First Amendment rights.

tweet pic

The Court of Appeals, in upholding the trial court’s prohibition of disparaging comments, relied heavily on the fact that the parties had reached an agreement in their custody matter that contained language forbidding either party from speaking poorly about the other.  In doing so, the Court found that the parties had agreed to restrictions on their rights to free speech.

Unfortunately, while this case provides some guidance, because of the narrow ruling which relied on the parties’ agreement, it doesn’t answer the question of whether one parent can be prohibited from expressing his or her negative views about the other parent.