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