FAMILY LAW: JUDGES: DISQUALIFICATION: SOCIAL MEDIA: FACEBOOK FRIEND REQUEST FROM TRIAL JUDGE TO PARTY; APPEALS: PROHIBITION; STARE DECISIS: TRIAL COURT BOUND BY DECISION FROM A DIFFERENT APPELLATE DISTRICT BECAUSE IT WAS THE ONLY CASE IN POINT

Chace v. Loisel, ___ So. 3d ___, 39 Fla. L. Weekly D221 (Fla. 5th DCA January 24, 2014)

The petitioner moved to disqualify the trial judge in an action for dissolution of marriage because the judge retaliated, by entering an unfavorable judgment against the petitioner, when the petitioner ignored the judge’s invitation to become her friend on Facebook.  The appellate court, on petition for prohibition, quashed the trial court’s order denying the motion to disqualify.  Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012), review denied, State v. Domville, 110 So. 3d 441 (Fla. 2013), “determined that a judge’s social networking ‘friendship’ with the prosecutor of the underlying criminal case was sufficient to create a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial in a reasonably prudent person.”  The court in the present case observed that Facebook friendship is not necessarily indicative of a close personal relationship and that requiring disqualification on this basis “does not reflect the true nature of a Facebook friendship and casts a large net in an effort to catch a minnow.”  Despite this reservation, the court recognized that Domville was binding upon the trial judge because it “was the only Florida case that discussed the impact of a judge’s social network activity” when the judge ruled on the motion to disqualify.  Although Domville required disqualification, the motion should have been granted in any event because “[t]he trial judge’s effort to initiate ex parte communications with a litigant is prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct and has the ability to undermine the confidence in a judge’s neutrality.”  As a result, Facebook friendship with a litigant is even more problematic than Facebook friendship with a lawyer.