Man Who Deactivated Facebook Account To Dodge Discovery Request Smacked Around By Disgruntled Court

from the I-fought-the-law,-but-swung-and-missed-badly,-and-it-was-over-before-it-began dept

Social media. So popular. And so very, very incriminating. The less-than-illustrious history of many a criminal who felt obliged to generate inculpatory evidence via social media postings has been well-detailed here. But what if you want to hide your indiscretions and malfeasance? If you’ve posted something on any major social network, chances are it will be found and used against you.

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 presented a variety of novel defenses in hopes of escaping Marquette Transporation’s examination of his Facebook account — one of which was that he had no Facebook account.

Plaintiff objects to this Request as vague, over broad and unduly burdensome. Plaintiff further objects to the extent this Request seeks information that is irrelevant and not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. Notwithstanding said objections and in the spirit of cooperation, plaintiff does not presently have a Facebook account.

Note the qualifier “presently.”

Crowe later testified in his deposition that he stopped having a Facebook account “around October” of 2014.

Oddly coincidental.

Marquette served its written discovery upon Crowe’s counsel on October 17, 2014. (Rec. doc. 16-1 at p. 1). Crowe’s Facebook records from the “Brannon CroWe” account indicate that account was deactivated on October 21, 2014. Counsel for Marquette is entitled to explore the timing of this deactivation.

“Stopped having” actually meant “deactivated his account.” Crowe didn’t go so far as to delete the account, which might have made the damning post a bit more difficult to recover. But he wanted to keep his account alive for use at a later date. This didn’t escape the court’s notice.

The same Facebook records indicate that the account was accessed routinely by an iPhone with an IP address of beginning well before the alleged accident up to and including on the date of deactivation. On January 7, 2015, the account was reactivated by the same iPhone with the same IP address. Counsel for Marquette is entitled to explore these matters, particularly given the current dispute over the status of Crowe’s iPhone service and whether he was able to and did send “text messages” to others at points in time when he claimed to be unable to do so.

Crowe’s shovel-wielding skills far outpace his ability to hide incriminating information. But as is the case with shovel wielders, even the most efficient can do little more than dig holes of increasing depth. When this foolproof plan to thwart Marquette Transportation’s discovery request failed, Crowe deployed Plans B, C and D, with similar results.

Similarly, counsel for Marquette is entitled to analyze the thousands of pages of Facebook messages Crowe exchanged with others, including his co-worker, Robert Falslev, particularly given his testimony that his account: (1) did not use a capital “W” in its name, (2) that it was hacked, and (3) that he did not send one particular Facebook message to Falslev stating he was injured fishing, rather than on the Marquette vessel.

Crowe’s counsel, now presumably righteously pissed, produced the records sought by Marquette — in bulk.

Pursuant to the Court’s Order quoted above, Crowe, through counsel, has now submitted to the Court for in camera review an astonishing 4,000-plus pages of Facebook history from the account “Brannon CroWe.” While the Court has made a preliminary review of certain of these materials, it is not about to waste its time reviewing 4,000 pages of documents in camera when 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.

The court may not be interested in looking through Crowe’s obviously very active (before it suddenly, suspiciously wasn’t) Facebook account, but I would imagine Marquette’s lawyers will find the time to do so. But even in Crowe’s self-inflicted dark cloud, there’s a silver lining — albeit one brought about by his desire to save his (supposedly hacked-with-a-capital-W) Facebook account, rather than see it (and the incriminating post) vanish into the ether.

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.

The court won’t offer Crowe much sympathy in the future, but it’s not likely to pursue sanctions. That’s about all there is in terms of good news. The effort made to hide the evidence doesn’t make Crowe look any less guilty. Social media platforms are bad places to do bad things. Even swift deletions can be recovered with timely court orders and an internet’s worth of cached pages and third-party content aggregators often assures that deleted postings will live on in one form or another.

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