eDiscovery Daily Blog

Judge’s Facebook Friendship with Party Causes Decision to Be Reversed and Remanded to Different Judge: eDiscovery Case Law

In the case In Re the Paternity of B.J.M., Appeal No. 2017AP2132 (Wis. App. Feb. 20, 2019), the Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, concluding that “the circuit court’s undisclosed ESM connection with a current litigant in this case {by accepting a Facebook “friend” request from the litigant} created a great risk of actual bias, resulting in the appearance of partiality”, reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings before a different judge.

Case Background

In this case where the parties entered into an order granting parties Timothy Miller and Angela Carroll joint legal custody and shared physical placement of a minor child in 2011, Carroll filed a motion to modify the court order on the basis that Miller had engaged in a pattern of domestic abuse against Carroll. After the parties had submitted their written arguments, the judge deciding the motion – Judge Michael Bitney – accepted Carroll’s friend request on Facebook. Subsequently, Carroll “liked” eighteen of Judge Bitney’s Facebook posts and commented on two of his posts – none of which related to the pending litigation.  Judge Bitney did not “like” or comment on any of Carroll’s posts, nor did he reply to any of her comments on his posts; however, Carroll’s other activities (“liking” multiple posts from other parties and “sharing” one third-party photograph) did appear on Judge Bitney’s “newsfeed.” One of these shared stories related to domestic violence.

On July 14, 2017, Judge Bitney issued a decision granting Carroll’s modification motion. After the decision, Miller learned that Judge Bitney and Carroll were Facebook friends during the period prior to making his ruling, and moved to reconsider the judge’s decision.  At a hearing on Miller’s motion, Judge Bitney confirmed that he had accepted Carroll’s friend request after the custody hearing and before rendering his written decision. However, he concluded he was not subjectively biased by accepting Carroll’s “friend” request, because he already “had decided how I was going to rule, even though it hadn’t been reduced to writing.” Further, he concluded that “[e]ven given the timing of” his and Carroll’s Facebook connection, the circumstances did not “rise[] to the level of objective bias. . . .” Consequently, he denied Miller’s motion. Miller appealed the decision.

Court’s Ruling

In an opinion written by Justice J. Seidl, he noted that “This case involves what appears to be an issue of first impression in Wisconsin: a claim of judicial bias arising from a judge’s use of electronic social media (ESM)” and stated that “we need not determine whether a bright-line rule prohibiting the judicial use of ESM is appropriate or necessary”.  He also referenced a New Mexico supreme court in Thomas as “particularly instructive”, which said:

“While we make no bright-line ban prohibiting judicial use of social media, we caution that ‘friending,’ online postings, and other activity can easily be misconstrued and create an appearance of impropriety… A judge’s online ‘friendships,’ just like a judge’s real-life friendships, must be treated with a great deal of care.”

The opinion also stated that “the time when Judge Bitney and Carroll became Facebook ‘friends’ would cause a reasonable person to question the judge’s partiality. Although Judge Bitney apparently had thousands of Facebook ‘friends,’ Carroll was not simply one of the many people who ‘friended’ him prior to this litigation. Rather, Carroll was a current litigant who reached out to Judge Bitney and requested to become his Facebook ‘friend’ after testifying at a contested hearing, at which Judge Bitney was the sole decision-maker. Judge Bitney then took the affirmative step to accept this ‘friend’ request before issuing his decision in this case…This timing creates a great risk of actual bias and a resulting appearance of partiality because, even assuming that a Facebook ‘friendship’ does not denote the type of relationship traditionally associated with the term ‘friendship,’ it is unquestionably evidence of some type of affirmative social connection…Carroll’s choice to send a ‘friend’ request to Judge Bitney, combined with Judge Bitney’s choice to accept that request before issuing his decision, conveys the impression that Carroll was in a special position to influence Judge Bitney’s ultimate decision – a position not available to individuals that he had not ‘friended,’ such as Miller.”

As a result, the court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings before a different judge.

So, what do you think?  Should judges accepting friend requests from litigants disqualify them from ruling in their cases?  Please let us know if any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Hat tip to Sharon Nelson’s Ride the Lightning blog for coverage of this case.

Case opinion link courtesy of eDiscovery Assistant.

Sponsor: This blog is sponsored by CloudNine, which is a data and legal discovery technology company with proven expertise in simplifying and automating the discovery of data for audits, investigations, and litigation. Used by legal and business customers worldwide including more than 50 of the top 250 Am Law firms and many of the world’s leading corporations, CloudNine’s eDiscovery automation software and services help customers gain insight and intelligence on electronic data.

Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views held by CloudNine. eDiscovery Daily is made available by CloudNine solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscovery Daily should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.