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Goines v. Lee Memorial Health System

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

August 26, 2019

DONIA GOINES, Plaintiff,
v.
LEE MEMORIAL HEALTH SYSTEM and JEOVANNI HECHAVARRIA, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOHN E. STEELE SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on review of defendant Lee Memorial Health System's Second Amended Motion for Spoliation Sanctions (Doc. #193) filed on June 21, 2019. Both Plaintiff and non-party Halberg & Fogg, PLLC filed Responses in Opposition (Doc. #195; Doc. #197) on July 5, 2019. For the reasons that follow, the motion is denied.

         I.

         Plaintiff Donia Goines has filed an Amended Complaint alleging she was sexually assaulted by defendant Jeovanni Hechavarria while a patient at a Lee Memorial hospital. (Doc. #31.) The issue currently before the Court involves plaintiff's responses to discovery requests and her deletion of her Facebook account, and whether such actions warrant sanctions.

         A. Factual Background

         According to the Amended Complaint, plaintiff was admitted to the Cape Coral Hospital on the evening of July 15, 2016 and stayed through July 17th. (Id. p. 2.) Hechavarria was plaintiff's night nurse and was in plaintiff's hospital room multiple times between 10 p.m. July 16th and 7 a.m. July 17th. (Id. p. 3.) Plaintiff alleges that Hechavarria sexually assaulted her during the early morning hours of July 17th. (Doc. #120-49, pp. 3033, 3036-37.) She has also testified Hechavarria threatened her if she told anyone, telling plaintiff he had written down her address and “would come get” her. (Id. p. 3036.) Plaintiff testified that since the alleged assault, she has experienced depression, paranoia, and isolation. (Id. p. 3074.)

         In August 2016, Lee Memorial received a demand letter from plaintiff's then-attorneys. (Doc. #193, p. 4; Doc. #193-4, pp. 67-68.) Per Lee Memorial, upon receipt of the letter its attorneys ran a Facebook search for plaintiff. (Doc. #193, p. 4.) Plaintiff's profile was located and fourteen pages of screenshots were saved, although several of the pages were duplicates of each other. (Id.) The screenshots indicate plaintiff was active on Facebook during the early morning hours of July 17th, making various posts and comments. (Doc. #193-2, pp. 54-57.) One such post, purportedly made at 1:16 a.m., stated plaintiff was “Getting well” and utilized Facebook's location feature to indicate plaintiff was at the Cape Coral Hospital.[1] (Id. p. 56.)

         Plaintiff filed her initial Complaint in November 2017 (Doc. #2), and Lee Memorial submitted to plaintiff interrogatories and requests for production in February 2018 (Doc. #193-5; Doc. #193-6.) In the interrogatories, Lee Memorial requested, inter alia, the following:

Identify (as defined above) social media accounts owned by you or used by you between July 1, 2016 through the present for which your posts, comments or discussions reference Defendant Lee Health, your hospitalization at Defendant Lee Health, any of Defendant Lee Health's past or current employee [sic], any issues relating to your lawsuit, or your mental health or status. For each account, identify (as defined above) the forum and user name. Include accounts for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, SnapChat and/or any other social media pages or sites in which you participate.

(Doc. #193-5, pp. 72-73.) Lee Memorial also requested from the same time period “all electronic postings on any social networking website, ” including Facebook, in which plaintiff “reference either Defendant, your hospitalization with Defendant, Lee Health, Defendant Lee Health's past or current employees, any issues relating to your lawsuit, or your mental or emotional state.” (Doc. #193-6, p. 77.) The request was “not limited to postings on [plaintiff's] own social media sites.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff responded to the requests on April 23, 2018, stating she “had Facebook until October, 2017” and it had been “deactivated.” (Doc. #193-5, p. 73.) Plaintiff also provided her username, but stated the following: “I do not believe that any of my posts mention Lee Health, my hospitalization at Cape Coral Hospital or any of the Defendants [sic] past or current employees.” (Id.) Plaintiff also stated she had none of the electronic posts requested and did not maintain an active social media account. (Doc. #193-6, p. 77.)

         Being in possession of plaintiff's post in which she referenced her hospitalization at Cape Coral Hospital, Lee Memorial evidently requested plaintiff provide additional information regarding her Facebook account. (Doc. #195, p. 5.) Plaintiff supplemented her responses in May 2018, stating her Facebook account had been deleted and she was unable to retrieve any information, posts, or photographs. (Doc. #193-7, p. 84.) She also stated again that, to the best of her recollection, none of her posts referenced Lee Memorial, its employees, her hospitalization, or “any issues” relating to the lawsuit or plaintiff's mental health.”[2] (Id.)

         Plaintiff was deposed by Lee Memorial in June 2018, during which she testified that she had not used social media during the night of July 16th or early morning of July 17th. (Doc. #120-49, pp. 3034, 3048, 3050, 3052-53.) When confronted with the screenshots of posts made on July 17th, plaintiff testified she did not recall going on Facebook while at the hospital. (Id. pp. 3100-04.) During the deposition, plaintiff also testified that she briefly reactivated her Facebook account in 2018 but she did not recall when. (Id. p. 3116.) When asked if she could reactivate the account again, plaintiff testified that she did not know because she had not tried. (Id.) When asked if she had tried as part of the discovery in the lawsuit, plaintiff responded, “Why would I? As part of this discovery. What do I need to discover? . . . Why would I want to go check on something.” (Id. p. 3117.)

         Following the deposition, Lee Memorial sent a letter to plaintiff's attorneys again requesting plaintiff's Facebook posts responsive to the previous requests. (Doc. #193-9, p. 96.) Plaintiff's attorney responded that plaintiff did not have access to the deleted Facebook account, and characterized Lee Memorial's letter as “merely an attempt to artificially create a discovery issue as a litigation tactic.”[3] (Doc. #123-11, pp. 125-27.)

         Each party subsequently made attempts to either retrieve the Facebook information or restore access to the account. In August 2018, Lee Memorial subpoenaed Facebook regarding plaintiff's account. (Doc. #193-10, p. 98.) Facebook responded that it could not identify the account and therefore had no information to provide. (Id.) In September 2018, plaintiff unsuccessfully requested Facebook restore access to her account “to satisfy discovery requests related to [her] Facebook account and activity.” (Doc. #195-1, p. 22.)

         B. Procedural History

         After failing to obtain information from Facebook, Lee Memorial filed an initial and then an amended motion for spoliation sanctions in December 2018. (Doc. #110; Doc. #123.) The amended motion accused plaintiff of willfully destroying her Facebook account to prevent the defendants from using the contents to defend themselves. (Doc. #123, p. 2.) While the motion was pending, the Court received a letter purportedly written by an individual named “Bonnie Hayes.” (Doc. #153.) In the letter, which the Court has filed under seal, Ms. Hayes makes allegations that plaintiff deleted her social media accounts to destroy evidence and did so under the direction of her attorney. (Id.) Lee Memorial evidently received a similar letter and subsequently filed a motion requesting an evidentiary hearing on the matter. (Doc. #160.) As an alternative to an evidentiary hearing, Lee Memorial requested discovery be reopened and it be allowed to take depositions of various individuals. (Id.) Plaintiff objected to both requests, stating the letters were written by a disgruntled former employee of plaintiff's attorneys and the information therein was ...


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