New York Personal Injury Law Blog » Law Practice, privacy


July 27th, 2009

Client Privacy and the Courthouse File

One day the scandal will happen, and I want to make sure my clients don’t get caught up in it. The problem is simple: Our court files are open to the public and all manner of private information gets place into those files. Attached to motions in personal injury cases, for example, may be pleadings, discovery responses and deposition transcripts containing a spectacular wealth of information.

Those records may contain social security numbers, birth dates and places, maiden names, kids names, schools attended, and the answer to almost any other type of “security” question that people ask in order to verify identities.

In the pre-Internet days this wasn’t as much of an issue. While the records rooms of the courthouses were open, the problem of identity theft hadn’t exploded. But the Internet has made the acquisition of information vastly easier. In some places with electronic filing, a trip to the courthouse to look at the physical file may not even be needed anymore.

Back in those pre-Internet days I used to send reports of my significant verdicts and settlements into the New York Jury Verdict Reporter, which in turn would send its publication of verdicts and settlements out to subscribers. Potential clients would then have published synopses of my cases so that they could see what types of actions I had handled. This was particularly important since I was a solo practitioner, and I could understand how a new client would like to see a track record for such an attorney.

Those jury verdict reporters were (and continue to be) valuable tools in trying to determine the value of a case in settlement negotiations. Just as house hunters like to look at “comparables,” so do lawyers. These verdict reporters also sometimes had information on experts, unless you were like me and refused to provide those little tidbits.

When the Internet came along, I put up those settlements and verdicts on my website, again so potential clients could see what I had done in the past. I stripped out the names of my clients though, as I began to appreciate the power of too much available information.

And I also elected to remove the names of doctor-defendants. About a year after one particular case had settled, I saw my prior adversary on the street and he mentioned to me that his doctor-client had Googled himself and found his name on my site. (There was no confidentiality agreement.) He wasn’t happy. So I deleted his name, and the names of all other individual defendants. Why? Because I didn’t want some future defendant to fear settlement because their name would come up on my site in a Google search. That would be a disservice to my own client.

All of this brings me back to the too-much-information issue in the courthouse files. Several years ago I stopped putting social security numbers into any document likely to be filed, as well as dates of birth. This information can be given privately to defense counsel if they need it to track down records. But the court file doesn’t need it.

So far I’ve yet to have a defense lawyer complain, and for good reason. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Neither side finds it beneficial to have more personal information than is absolutely required in an open file.

One day the scandal will come. Some big case some place will settle and a wealth of details will be stolen from the court files to steal an identity.

And the only question is, which lawyer will have allowed it to happen?

Links to this post:

Had A Client Stolen Yet?
In a brilliant article by Eric Turkewitz, Esq. he describes the information now becoming available in public records of lawsuits; settled and active and the potential for lawsuits arising from this type of easily accessible private data

posted by Lina Maini @ August 03, 2009 2:00 AM

had a client stolen yet?
as our readers know, bni is in the business of information gathering. specifically, as virtually all lawsuits have a monetary value attached, our stock in trade is locating positive and negative financial information (assets, debt,

posted by Lina Maini @ August 02, 2009 6:00 PM

litigation vs. privacy, part lxxvii
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posted by Walter Olson @ August 02, 2009 4:34 PM

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