Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert update which will discuss the recent (12/7/17) Order of the Florida Supreme Court granting the Herssein law firm’s Motion to Stay the lower court proceeding wherein Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge denied a motion to disqualify a lawyer who was a “friend” on the judge 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.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Supreme Court Case No. SC17-1848). The Herssein law firm’s Motion for Stay is here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2017/1848/2017-1848_motion_114995_motion2dstay2028proceedings20below29.pdf and the December 7, 2017 Florida Supreme Court Order is here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2017/1848/2017-1848_order_224307_o03bo.pdf.
As I previously blogged, the Third DCA upheld the decision of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko that she was not required to recuse herself from a case in which she was a Facebook “friend” of the lawyer for one of the witnesses/potential parties. The lawyer was also a former judge with whom she worked before he resigned as a circuit judge. This decision departs from a previous 4th DCA opinion and an opinion of the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (JEAC).
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.”
The Herssein law firm had moved to disqualify the judge from presiding over a contract dispute against their client, the United States Automobile Association (USAA) in which an attorney named Reyes represented 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 JEAC Op. 2009-20 (Nov.17, 2009). That opinion 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 4th DCA relied on the JEAC opinion in disqualifying a judge from a case for being Facebook friends with the criminal prosecutor. Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).
The Third DCA opinion 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.”
The Herssein law firm filed a Notice asking the Florida Supreme Court to invoke its discretionary jurisdiction to review the decision under Article V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const., and Rule 9.030(a)(2)(A)(iii) and (iv). In support of the request, the Notice states: “The decision expressly and directly affects a class of constitutional or state officers; all V judges in Florida, and the decision expressly and directly conflicts with the decision of another district court of appeal on the same question of law.”
Bottom line: As I said in my previous blogs, the lower court’s order and the 3rd DCA opinion is contrary to the 2009 JEAC opinion and the 2012 4th DCA opinion and acknowledges that it is in conflict with that opinion; however, it does provide the rationale that each case should be decided by examining the facts and the relationship. This would seem to create potential confusion and potential disqualification motions would then have to be decided on a case by case basis. The Florida Supreme Court has now stayed the lower court matter while it presumably looks at the issue and decides whether to invoke its discretionary jurisdiction.
Again, it would seem to be prudent for judges and lawyers who may appear before them 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, disclose it to all parties, and (the judge may) possibly provide an option to recuse if the party believes that it could be potentially prejudiced.
Stay tuned…and 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