Courts in Florida Are Split: Are “Facebook Friends” Really “Friends”?

You likely have many—perhaps thousands—of Facebook friends. Does that mean that each and every one of your “Facebook friends” are actually your friends in real life? As our personal injury lawyers at Aronberg & Aronberg will explore in this blog post, in a recent Florida Court of Appeal case, the Third District Court of Appeal (covering Miami-Dade County) addressed this very issue in ruling on a petition for disqualification. The Courts in Florida are Split: Are “Facebook Friends” Really “Friends”?

In a lawsuit originating in state court in Miami, a lawyer representing the plaintiff filed a petition for disqualification, demanding that the trial court judge be disqualified because the judge was a Facebook friend of an attorney representing a possible witness and potential party in the case. As our Injury Lawyers know, the basic premise of the petition was that where a judge has a conflict of interest (and/or a potential bias toward one side), he or she should be disqualified from hearing the case. The plaintiff’s lawyer, in this case, argued that the Facebook friendship between the judge and one of the lawyers was evidence of a relationship which could create an actual conflict.

Status of Lawsuit

The petition was reviewed and denied by the Third District Court of Appeal (DCA) in an opinion released on August 23, 2017. The Court, in Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. v. United Services Automobile Association (Fla. 3d DCA 2017), framed the issue in this manner: “whether a reasonably prudent person would fear that he or she could not get a fair and impartial trial because the judge is a Facebook friend with a lawyer who represents a potential witness and party to the lawsuit.”

The Third DCA found in the negative for three prime reasons. First, the Court pointed out that some people have thousands of Facebook friends. Second, the Court focused on the fact that members of the Facebook community often can’t even recall everyone they’ve accepted as friend or people who have accepted them as as a friend on the social network. Third, the Court analyzed how many Facebook friends are the result of Facebook’s data algorithm-based suggestions of who someone should be friends with. In the end, the Court found that because “a ‘friend’ on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, . . . the mere fact that a judge is a Facebook ‘friend’ with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook ‘friend.’” For that reason, as our Trial Lawyers know, the court denied the petition.

Will the Florida Supreme Court Rule?

However, be aware that the finding of the Third DCA is in conflict with a 2012 holding from the Fourth DCA (which covers Broward County and Palm Beach County, among other counties). In Domville v. State (Fla. 4th DCA 2012), the Fourth DCA held that a judge had to be recused when the judge was a Facebook friend of the prosecutor. Because of this split among the DCAs, it is likely that the Florida Supreme Court will have the opportunity to choose the proper rule.

If you have any questions about these cases or this issue, or if you have any questions about any other personal injury issue, please contact our Delray Beach personal injury lawyers at Aronberg & Aronberg. To schedule a free consultation, please call 561-266-9191. With offices in Delray Beach, Boca Raton and Wellington, we are ready and able to assist you.

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