Drop-by-Drop Water Torture Productions

There are judges who have a way with words when they want to make a point. One example of such judicial prose was by Magistrate Judge Gregory G. Hollows in Botell v. United States:

At this juncture, the United States has purportedly been looking for documents for months, yet the undersigned, to the date of the hearing, does not have confidence that an organized, thorough search has been performed. Rather, defendant’s document production performance in these proceedings has been akin to a drop-by-drop water torture. At some point, plaintiff must be protected from the United States’ further belated production of pertinent documents. The court now enters a preclusion order prohibiting the United States from presenting evidence in its case that had been requested by plaintiffs in the Requests for Production, but which has not been produced by the date of compliance with this order.

Botell v. United States, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134265, 15-16 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 18, 2012).

Botell v. United States is a wrongful death and personal injury case involving a minor injured and another killed at a National Park. The Government produced over 7,000 pages of documents, but there was a “a glaring lack of production of emails from defendant’s agents and employees.” Botell, at *11-13. Moreover, the total number of custodians produced by the Defendant totaled one.

The Plaintiffs argued five other relevant custodians’ emails needed to be produced, because the custodians were referenced in the already produced ESI. Botell, at *11.

The Defendants produced one declaration by the Chief Ranger at the park, which explained his efforts to find responsive email.

These efforts included “searching” the office and network drives, and the Ranger’s coordination with officials and IT personnel at another National Park to search another custodian’s computer. The declaration was silent on any search for emails by the other custodians. Botell, at *11-12.

Another declaration curtly explained the back-up policy for Lotus Notes emails as follows: “[B]ack-up emails are retained for 30 days only, unless they are subject to a litigation hold notice or pertain to the BP Gulf Oil spill.” Botell, at *12.

The Court ordered the Defendants to provide a declaration explaining the searches conducted to locate physical and electronic copies of responsive emails by the five custodians. The Court specifically required the following:

The declaration shall state the steps taken to locate these emails, whether any such emails exist, and if not, a definitive statement that they no longer exist. If further responsive documents are located, they shall be produced at the time declarations are filed.

Botell, at *12-13.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Nothing goes for the jugular like a preclusion order for failing to produce discovery. Botell is a powerful example of the dangers of what appeared to be “do it yourself” collection. While it was not outright stated the Defendant did not have an eDiscovery collection expert, it sure sounds that way from the context of the declarations.

One would hope when a large organization has a triggering event for a lawsuit, an effective litigation hold is enacted. Many of today’s records information management systems have the ability to electronically sequester a specific custodian’s email and ESI with a keystroke. Additionally, much of this technology has Early Case Assessment and data reduction features that can identify the relevant information for attorneys to review.

An organization should either have professionals trained in the search and preservation of ESI or retain outside professionals to competently preserve ESI. The steps taken to search and identify responsive ESI must be documented and should, at a minimum, explain the search methodology; technology used; data sources searched; search results; possible exclusions or exotic files; and anything else relevant to explain to a judge how ESI was searched.

A requesting party should not have to blink “torture” in Morse Code for a judge to stop a party neglecting their discovery obligations. An attorney’s duty of competency should compel their preservation obligations are met with those trained to effectively find and produce responsive discovery.

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