The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled this week that two lawyers accused of spying on a plaintiff’s private Facebook page can be prosecuted for attorney misconduct.
The case began in 2007 when a police officer allegedly hit a pedestrian, Dennis Hernandez, with his car. Hernandez claimed he suffered permanent injuries, and sued the police department, the officer and the town. The two attorneys who represented the town told a paralegal to dig up some dirt on Hernandez online, and the paralegal gathered information from his public Facebook page.
However, Hernandez eventually set his profile to a private mode. But that allegedly didn’t stop the two lawyers. They told their paralegal to find a way to access his profile, and she sent him a friend request, which he accepted. The lawyers were then able to view videos and images on Hernandez’s profile that showed him moving around, thereby illustrating that he possibly wasn’t as injured as he claimed. They presented screenshots of his profile in court, which ultimately led to the ethics complaint.
For their part, the two attorneys have denied engaging in unethical behavior, claiming they were “unfamiliar with the different privacy settings on Facebook.” The attorney that represented them in front of the Supreme Court, Michael Stein, made a similar argument.
“We’re trying to apply analog rules to a digital world, and they don’t fit neatly in the environment we’re now operating in,” he said.
There’s no clear-cut legal answer to this case, but if a ruling comes down against the snooping lawyers, it could mean good things for all of our Facebook privacy.