Florida Supreme Court opinion finds that social media friendship with lawyer alone is not sufficient to disqualify judge

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent (11/15/18) Florida Supreme Court opinion which found that social media friendship with a lawyer, standing alone, is not sufficient to disqualify a judge.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. v. United Services Automobile Association, No. SC17-1848 (Fla. November 15, 2018) and the opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2018/sc17-1848.pdf

In the split opinion, the Florida Supreme Court resolved a conflict between Florida Districts Courts of Appeal as to whether a judge must be disqualified if he or she is a “Facebook friend” with a lawyer appearing before the judge. The Third and Fifth Districts had held that social media friendship alone was not a sufficient basis to disqualify a judge.

The Fourth District, however, held that recusal is required when a judge is a Facebook “friend” with a criminal prosecutor.  The opinion discussed the previously held principle of Florida law that a “traditional friendship” between a judge and an attorney, without more, is not sufficient to disqualify a judge and extended that principle to social media friendships, finding that “an allegation that a trial judge is a Facebook ‘friend’ with an attorney appearing before the judge, standing alone, does not constitute a legally sufficient basis for disqualification.”  The opinion did caution that “particular friendship relationships may present such circumstances requiring disqualification.”

According to the opinion, the states of Arizona, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, and Utah have also found that a social media friendship between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge standing alone, is not sufficient to disqualify the judge; however, a “minority” of states have found that social media friendships between judges and attorneys create an “appearance of impropriety” and may be prohibited.  The opinion lists the states of California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma as taking this position, along with Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Opinion 2009-20 (which may now be withdrawn or revised).

The opinion concluded:

In some circumstances, the relationship between a judge and a litigant, lawyer, or other person involved in a case will be a basis for disqualification of the judge. Particular friendship relationships may present such circumstances requiring disqualification. But our case law clearly establishes that not every relationship characterized as a friendship provides a basis for disqualification. And there is no reason that Facebook “friendships”—which regularly involve strangers—should be singled out and subjected to a per se rule of disqualification.

Bottom line:  This Florida Supreme Court opinion (which was a split 4-3 decision) concludes that Florida judges are not subject to disqualification merely for being a “friend” of a lawyer on social media (specifically Facebook); however, there may be additional factual circumstances which may require disqualification.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert 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.
This entry was posted in Attorney ethics, Florida Bar ethics, Florida Judge ethics, Florida Judicial Canons, Florida Supreme Court, Florida Supreme Court opinion- Judge Facebook and social media friendship with lawyer not per se prohibited, joe corsmeier, joseph corsmeier, Judge disqualification, Judge disqualification Facebook friends with lawyer, judge disqualification Facebook friends with lawyer Florida Supreme Court, Judicial Ethics Facebook and LinkedIn, Lawyer Ethics, Lawyer ethics Facebook, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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