The Protojournalist
9:20 am
Thu April 24, 2014

Tweet Suits: Social Media And The Law

Originally published on Tue April 29, 2014 7:29 am

In the past several years, as more and more people are connected through more and more social media, the idea of turning personal grievances into class actions has been popping up, well, more and more.

In Virginia, a group that is against affirmative action in education went fishing for plaintiffs on websites recently, according to NPR. The group seeks college applicants who feel they were discriminated against.

In Utah, the American Civil Liberties Union posted a tweet on Twitter earlier this year seeking plaintiffs in a suit to protect the rights of same-sex couples married there.

In Kentucky, Sen. Rand Paul took to email last year looking for plaintiffs — and donations — for a class action against the National Security Agency.

And in California, Tea Party organizations have come together in a class action alleging that the Internal Revenue Service treated them unfairly. They have created a website, Sue the IRS, that focuses on aspects of the suit.

According to a recent post on Law360, the action — which comprises tax and privacy issues — could be a test case for social media and the law. Citizens for Self-Governance, the group behind the case, is led by Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler. Such public activity could have repercussions for the case, reports Law360. "As the overlap of social media and class actions continues to escalate, this could be a great case to watch."

Hashtag Justice

Now that folks are posting and tweeting — and retweeting — complaints and grievances around the clock, is every negative experience a possible class action? If someone has a bad experience with a bank or someone gets food poisoning at a restaurant or someone has a problem with a prescribed medicine, he can immediately find others with similar outrages. Are social media making it easier for plaintiffs to band together?

"It is true that with social media, it may be easier for plaintiffs who want to pursue a case to find others who are similarly aggrieved, and who may want to join them as plaintiffs," says Shannon Liss-Riordan, a class-action-litigation lawyer in Boston. "But I don't think the mere fact that people are airing their grievances in a public format is in itself leading to more class-action cases."

To get a case certified as a class action, Shannon says, "the courts require so much more than that a plaintiff can merely identify that others have a complaint about the same thing. There are very particular and stringent requirements that must be met, and the cases most likely to be certified are those that challenge a policy that, on its face, affects a large number of people."

Let's Tweet All The Lawyers

But one thing is for sure: Attorneys are turning to social media. In the same ways it has been using TV ads to find people who have been been done wrong by a certain medical circumstance or corporate practice, the legal profession is clamming for clients in the ocean of social media.

In Georgia, a lawyer sought plaintiffs — on a chiropractic message board — for a suit against for-profit education companies. In Missouri, a firm recently relied on Reddit to find investors who feel misled by a certain bitcoin mining hardware company.

In New York, attorney Rob Corbett posted on a Facebook page a while back: "I am helping investigate a new case about text message 'spammers.' I am looking for plaintiffs who have received unsolicited text message advertisements."

And on Twitter he tweeted in December 2012: "Did you ride on a doubledecker sightseeing bus in NYC between March 2009 and now? I am looking for plaintiffs for a class action suit."

When asked if his hunting has been successful, Corbett says he can't really comment "because the litigation is pending."

His use of social media "really is just another way to get a message out to people I already know, from friends to clients, etc. I do not have a broad public looking at my sites. So really, it is just an easier way to shoot out a message."

Corbett will say, however, that in the double-decker-bus case, "I put it out over social media. In the end, though, the plaintiff I found was a neighbor."

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