Defrauding Social Security? Don't Tell Facebook

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 10, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Facebook is not your friend or confidant. It does not keep your secrets. So, it's probably a bad idea to broadcast your potential crimes all over the social network. Too many bungling criminals learn this the hard way, whether it's taunting the police online, posting from stolen electronics, or simply contradicting court testimony.

Brandy Lemons was no different. After Lemons was diagnosed with a pain disorder that limited her activities, she began receiving disability payments from the Social Security Administration. Yet, despite her debilitating condition, Lemons' Facebook showed her hunting game with a bow and riding an ATV.

Et Tu, Facebook?

In 2009, Lemons received a diagnosis for arachnoiditis, a disorder caused by inflammation of a membrane that surrounds the nerves of the spinal cord. She applied for Social Security Disability Insurance but was denied. Lemons successfully appealed, receiving about $800 a month from the SSA.

Unfortunately, Lemons seems to have also made some enemies. A year into her disability, the SSA received an anonymous letter filled with pictures of Lemons looking far from disabled. The photos showed her cutting tree limbs and other activities incompatible with her disability claim. They seem to have been sent in by her son. Investigators quickly turned to Facebook and saw even more evidence that Lemons was not disabled.

Lemons' benefits were canceled and she was tried and convicted three counts of theft of government funds and one count of making a false statement. The false statement? That she had no hobbies. Lemons was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Yes, Facebook Photos Are Admissible

On appeal, Lemons challenged the introduction of the Facebook evidence. The screenshots had contained statements by Lemons and others who had commented on the photos. Lemons argued that such comments should have been redacted because they were irrelevant, nonprobative, and prejudicial. Some of the comments included Lemons saying "I can shoot my bow all I want to here at the house" and talking about riding her ATV for hours. The comments were used to show that, contrary to what she told the SSA, Lemon had several hobbies -- chief among them, bow hunting.

Unsurprisingly, the Eighth Circuit rejected Lemons challenges to the evidence on appeal. The fact that the jury saw Lemons' comments and the comments of others did not affect her substantial rights. Indeed, the main comment Lemons objected to (a friend's question wondering "shouldn't you be teaching" a bow safety class) was cumulative evidence.

This just goes to show -- next time you claim to have a debilitating disability, try keeping evidence to the contrary a bit more private.

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