All information from plaintiffs’ social networking profiles and postings that relate to their general emotions, feelings, and mental states must be produced in discovery when they allege severe emotional trauma and harassment against their employer, a federal court in Indiana has ruled. (EEOC v. Simply Storage Management LLC, S.D. Ind., No. 1:09-cv-1223, discovery order 5/11/10).

Social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook and MySpace are fast becoming a hot topic in litigation as they may contain a wealth of potentially relevant information. In Simply Storage, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought suit on behalf of plaintiffs and other similarly situated employees who claimed their employers were liable for a supervisor’s alleged sexual harassment. The EEOC requested a discovery conference because counsel for the parties disagreed as to whether the two named plaintiffs must produce the Internet social networking site profiles, including postings, pictures, blogs, messages, personal information, lists of “friends,” and of causes joined that the user has placed or created online.

The EEOC objected to production of all SNS content (and to similar deposition questioning). It argued the requests were overbroad, not relevant, unduly burdensome (because they improperly infringe on claimants’ privacy), and would harass and embarrass the claimants. Simply Storage countered that discovery of these matters was proper because certain EEOC discovery responses placed the emotional health of particular claimants at issue, beyond that typically encountered in “garden variety emotional distress claims.”

The court weighed ordering complete discovery of the plaintiffs’ Facebook and MySpace account information against limiting discovery to content specifically related to the alleged injury.  It found neither alternative satisfactory. According to the court, limiting discovery to posts that specifically referenced the mental issues and harassment alleged by the plaintiffs would be too narrow, while admitting the full profiles would include likely irrelevant—and potentially inflammatory—content. The court held, “It is reasonable to expect severe emotional or mental injury to manifest itself in some SNS content, and an examination of that content might reveal whether onset occurred, when, and the degree of distress. Further, information that evidences other stressors that could have produced the alleged emotional distress is also relevant.”

The court therefore defined the relevant scope of discovery as including “any profiles, postings, or messages (including status updates, wall comments, causes joined, groups joined, activity streams, blog entries) … that reveal, refer, or relate to any emotion, feeling, or mental state, as well as communications that reveal, refer, or relate to events that could reasonably be expected to produce a significant emotion, feeling, or mental state.”

The court rejected the EEOC’s assertion that broad discovery of this kind would violate the plaintiffs’ right to privacy and held that, while potentially relevant content may be embarrassing to the plaintiffs, “this is the inevitable result of alleging these sorts of injuries.” In addressing the argument that the profiles were “private” and password protected, the court held that these protections were insufficient to circumvent discovery. “[A] person’s expectation and intent that her communications be maintained as private is not a legitimate basis for shielding those communications from discovery.”

This case illustrates the importance of expanding the traditional thinking behind discoverable information to cover social media. Employers, upon advice of counsel, should consider requesting information of this nature.