Florida Appeals Court finds that Miami-Dade Circuit Judge’s Facebook “friendship” with lawyer and former judge is not disqualifying

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent (August 23, 2017) Florida Third District Court of Appeal (DCA) opinion declining to disqualify a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge who was “friends” with opposing counsel on Facebook.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: 3D17-1421, Lower Tribunal No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Third District Court of Appeal) and the opinion is here: http://www.3dca.flcourts.org/Opinions/3D17-1421.pdf 

In a somewhat surprising decision, the Florida Third District Court of Appeal found that Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko is not required to recuse herself from a case in which she was a Facebook” friend” of the lawyer for one of the parties (Israel Reyes).  The lawyer was also a former judge with whom she worked before he stepped down as a judge.  This decision diverges from a Fourth District Court of Appeal opinion as well as a 2009 opinion of the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (JEAC)- JEAC Op. 2009-20 (Nov.17, 2009).  The Third DCA opinion states:

“A random name drawn from a list of Facebook ‘friends’ probably belongs to casual friend, an acquaintance, an old classmate, a person with whom the member shares a common hobby, a ‘friend of a friend’ or even a local celebrity like a coach.  An assumption that all Facebook ‘friends’ rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.”

As I previously reported in my August 4, 2017 Ethics Alert, the Herssein Law Group moved to disqualify the judge from presiding over a contract dispute against their client, the United States Automobile Association (USAA) in which Reyes represents a non-party USAA employee in the matter, who was identified as a potential witness/party.

The law firm argued that the judge could not be impartial in the case and cited the 2009 JEAC opinion which states: “Listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘friends’ on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.”  In 2012, the Fourth District Court of Appeal relied on the JEAC opinion in disqualifying disqualified a judge from a case for being Facebook friends with the prosecutor. Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).

The Third DCA opinion further states that Facebook friendships could represent a close relationship that would require disqualification, however, many do not.  The opinion concluded:

“In fairness to the Fourth District’s decision in Domville and the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee’s 2009 opinion, electronic social media is evolving at an exponential rate. Acceptance as a Facebook “friend” may well once have given the impression of close friendship and affiliation. Currently, however, the degree of intimacy among Facebook “friends” varies greatly. The designation of a person as a “friend” on Facebook does not differentiate between a close friend and a distant acquaintance. Because a “friend” on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, we hold that 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.” On this point we respectfully acknowledge we are in conflict with the opinion of our sister court in Domville.”

Bottom line:  This DCA opinion is contrary to the 2009 JEAC opinion and the 2012 4th DCA opinion and acknowledges that it is in conflict with that DCA opinion; however, it does provide the rationale that each case should be decided  by examining the facts and the relationship.  This would seem to open up potential confusion and potential disqualification motions that would have to be decided on a case by case basis.    It is still recommended that judges (and lawyers who may appear before them) would be well advised not to be “friends” or otherwise connect on social media and professional networking sites or, if they are already connected and a case is assigned, to immediately remove the connection and disclose it to all parties and provide an option to recuse if the party believes that it would potentially be prejudiced.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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About jcorsmeier

Joseph A. Corsmeier is an “AV” rated attorney practicing in Clearwater, Florida. He concentrates his practice primarily in the areas of defense of attorney disciplinary matters before The Florida Bar, attorney admission matters before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, and professional license and disciplinary matters before the Boards of the State of Florida. He provides expert analysis and opinion on conflict of interest and other attorney disqualification and legal malpractice issues and he testified as an expert in the Florida courts. He served as an Assistant State Attorney in the Sixth Judicial Circuit from 1986 to 1990 where he prosecuted felonies exclusively from June 1987, and as Bar Counsel for The Florida Bar’s Department of Lawyer Regulation from 1990 to 1998. He also practices in the areas of estate planning and Medicaid qualification, workers’ compensation, and labor law. Mr. Corsmeier is the author of numerous articles for various bar publications, has spoken at numerous local and statewide seminars on various topics, including ethics and professionalism, and was an instructor of legal ethics for paralegals at Rollins College until the Tampa campus closed. He received his undergraduate degree from Florida State University and his J.D. from Mercer University. He is admitted to practice in all Florida Courts, the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the Middle District of Florida. He is a member of The Florida Bar, American Bar Association, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, and the Clearwater and St. Petersburg Bar Associations.
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