Legal Ethics Social-Media Lessons for Employers

Legal Ethics Social-Media Lessons for Employers

Legal-ethics issues in social media is probably my favorite subject. If that makes me an uber dork, so be it. Last week I had the pleasure of speaking on this topic to the Richard K. Herrmann Technology Inn of Court here in Delaware. 

Despite my interest in the subject, I don't often post about legal ethics here because it doesn't directly relate to employment law. Today's post, though, is an exception to that self-imposed rule. And, because you're indulging my side interests, I'll return the favor and tie the lesson of the story back to employment law. There are three recent cases that got my attention.

Lesson 1: Know What Your Subordinates Are Doing On Your Behalf
The first case involves two New Jersey defense lawyers who are charged with violating the rules of ethics. The lawyers' paralegal is alleged to have friended the plaintiff in one of the firm's cases. The allegation arose after the lawyers asked "very specific" questions at the plaintiff's deposition, which indicated that they had somehow had access to the non-public portions of the plaintiff's Facebook profile. The defendant later supplemented its discovery responses with Facebook pages from the plaintiff and the plaintiff's friends.

The plaintiff filed an ethics complaint in which he alleges that a paralegal working for defense counsel friend him to get access to his non-public profile. The lawyers are reported to deny any knowledge of the paralegal's conduct. This does not immunize them from discipline, though. The rules of ethics impute liability for the acts of non-attorney agents to the attorney for whom they work.

One of the reasons that I find this case so interesting is that, in my opinion, it was bound to happen. Although several bar associations around the country (including Philadelphia), have issued advisory opinions that explain that friending a represented person would likely violate the rules of ethics, I still think it is just a matter of time before we see more cases involving similar conduct.

So what's the HR takeaway? Well, here's one: know what your HR staff is doing and how they're doing it. You may be surprised to find how many people in HR (and supervisors generally), conduct online searches of job applicants prior to an interview. Surprise or not--you and your organization will be on the hook for the conduct of your staff. But you won't know until you ask.

See Mary Pat Gallagher's article, When 'friending' is hostile, Daily Report on Law.com

Lesson 2: Be Aware of "Friendly" Conflicts
The second case comes from Florida, where a judge has been disqualified from a case because he was Facebook friends with the prosecutor. Florida has a rule that judges may not be Facebook friends with attorneys who will appear before them due to the potential appearance of impropriety. Whether you agree with the outcome of his case or not, employers--particularly HR professionals and supervisors--should again consider the propriety of being Facebook friends with direct reports. Sometimes it's not just whether there is a conflict; sometimes problems arise just from the perception of a conflict.

See Venkat Balasubramani's post at the Technology & Marketing Law Blog.

Lesson 3: You Can Breach Confidentiality Via Facebook
Our third case also comes from Florida, where a 31-year-old public defender has been terminated as a result of a picture she posted on her personal Facebook page. Specifically, the photo was of her client's leopard-print underwear. She took the picture when a corrections officer was inspecting the garment. Her client's family had brought the underwear and other clothes for him to wear to trial.

The client had requested new counsel on several occasions but was denied. Someone saw the picture and reported it to the judge presiding over the trial. The judge ordered a mistrial and the attorney was immediately filed.

There are multiple lessons to be learned from this story but I'll keep it to just one. People continue to believe that what they post on Facebook "stays on Facebook." This is simply not true. And the sooner we learn this, the better. Consider using this story as a "teaching moment" for your employees.  

See Martha Neil's article at ABA Journal.

Read more Labor and Employment Law insights from Margaret (Molly) DiBianca in the Delaware Employment Law Blog.  

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