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New Jersey Defense Attorneys who Used Facebook to Gather Information on a Victim in a Personal Injury Suit Face Ethics Charges

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A New Jersey appeals court will decide whether the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) has the legal right to file ethics grievances against two defense lawyers who used instructed a paralegal to “friend” the plaintiff in a personal injury case on Facebook to gather information about him, and whether the judges themselves even have the authority to get tangled in the dispute.

In 2007, an Oakland, New Jersey, man filed a lawsuit alleging that he was doing push-ups in the driveway of the local firehouse when he was struck by a police officer’s cruiser. The man suffered a fractured femur that required multiple surgeries. The defense lawyers in the case had a paralegal “friend” the plaintiff on Facebook to gain information about him, court documents obtained by the New Jersey Law Journal show. The plaintiff’s attorney discovered the scheme following a deposition in which one of the accused defense lawyers asked the plaintiff about travel, dancing and other activities they believed would show the plaintiff was overstating the seriousness of his injuries. The police officer’s attorney also supplied amended answers to interrogatories, accompanied by conversations, photos and a video of the plaintiff wrestling with his brothers that were posted on the Facebook pages of the plaintiff and his friends.

A Bergen County Superior Court judge ruled that Facebook data could not be used as evidence because it was produced after the discovery’s deadline. The case was settled in 2010 for $400,000. The plaintiff later responded by filing an ethics grievance against the defense attorneys. Upon review, a member of the district ethics committee said it did not have enough proof of unethical behavior. The OAE found a basis for charges, however, and filed a formal complaint on November 16, 2011. According to the complaint, a paralegal at the defense attorneys’ firm was able to freely compile information from the plaintiff’s Facebook page until he changed his privacy settings, at which point the paralegal sent him a friend request, the New Jersey Law Journal wrote.

The defense lawyers are charged with violating RPC 4.2, for communication with a represented party; 5.3(a), (b) and (c), for failure to supervise a nonlawyer; 8.4(c), for conduct involving dishonesty and violation of ethics rules through someone else’s actions or inducing those violations; and 8.4(d), for conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. The partner alone is charged with breaching RPC 5.1(b) and (c), which impose ethical obligations on lawyers for the actions of attorneys they supervise.

The accused attorneys argued that they only asked the paralegal to perform a broad and general Internet search,” which is “was not outside the norm.”  Both men claimed to be unfamiliar with the inner workings of Facebook privacy settings and said that they believed that a friend request was an automatic process in which any user who clicked the button could view another user’s personal information. They denied understanding that to friend someone “meant reaching out to specifically request someone to accept an invitation,” according to the New Jersey Law Journal.

Both men are arguing that the Supreme Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over attorney discipline “does not rob lower courts of their general jurisdiction to interpret court rules, even when the subject matter of those rules touch on the disciplinary process,” the New Jersey Law Journal wrote.

breakinglawsuitnews.com disclaimer: This article: New Jersey Defense Attorneys who Used Facebook to Gather Information on a Victim in a Personal Injury Suit Face Ethics Charges was posted on Monday, October 20th, 2014 at 4:00 pm at breakinglawsuitnews.com and is filed under Other Lawsuits, Personal Injury Lawsuits.

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