Legal ruling in: Facebook ‘friends’ aren’t necessarily real friends

Facebook “friends” aren’t always real friends — at least legally.

That was the finding Wednesday of an appeals court on a specific Facebook-related legal question: Whether a Miami judge needed to recuse herself because one of the attorneys involved in a case in her court is a Facebook “friend.”

The answer, in a 10-page opinion that takes a remarkably nuanced look at social media, is: No.

The ruling notes that Facebook data mining and algorithms lead to people accepting friend requests from people they barely know, or are acquainted with purely from professional circles.

“Electronic social media is evolving at an exponential rate,” Third District Court of Appeals Judge Thomas Logue wrote in the unanimous opinion. “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.”

But the legal fight over Facebook friendship isn’t over. An appeals court in Palm Beach earlier ruled to the contrary – meaning the Florida Supreme Court could very well decide the true legal meaning of social-media friendship.

The legal row began with a lawsuit over unpaid legal bills.

The Miami law firm Herssein and Herssein sued its former client, the United Services Automobile Association. The case was assigned to Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko. Former Miami-Dade circuit judge Israel Reyes was hired to represent one of the association’s executives.

Lawyers Reuven and Iris Herssein asked Butchko to recuse herself because she is Facebook friends with Reyes, saying they had a “well-grounded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.” Butchko, however, declined and the Hersseins appealed.

The appeals court disagreed the Facebook relationship was enough to warrant recusal, especially because the law has long allowed judges with a “mere friendship” with attorneys in real life to remain on a case.

The same goes for social media, the Third District Court of Appeals ruled, pointing out that some Facebook users have hundreds of “friends,” some of whom they may not even remember accepting as “friends.”

“An assumption that all Facebook ‘friends’ rise to the level of close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking,” Logue wrote.