Don’t Call Discovery Over Document Retention Policies Premature After You Admit Destroying Relevant Discovery

A Defendant sought reconsideration of a Court order allowing discovery on their document retention policies and litigation hold strategy on the grounds 1) the order was premature and 2) it was irrelevant and not discoverable. Cactus Drilling Co. v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45251, 11-14 (D. Okla. 2014).

The Court denied the motion.

The discovery at issue centered on a key player who left the Defendant’s company whose files were accidently destroyed. The Court stated:

Plaintiff is entitled to inquire into the circumstances of the destruction of such relevant files while this litigation is pending, whether defendants took proper precautions, and whether such precautions were actually exercised by defendants’ employees. Thus, clearly a discovery request on defendants’ document retention and litigation hold practices and policies and whether such policies were followed with respect to Ms. Valerio’s hard copy Cactus file is relevant and discoverable.

Cactus, at *13.

The Court also held that the order was not premature, as the Defendants requested a ruling on whether they had to produce the discovery and witness for deposition in their Joint Status Report. Cactus, at *12.

The parties were ordered to meet and confer over privilege and stipulation issues over the pending discovery. The Court “vented” over the parties prior cooperation in a footnote:

The Court has been disappointed with the parties’ inability to communicate in good faith and work out many discovery issues that could have been resolved between the parties. Such behavior has necessitated repeated intervention by the Court, unnecessarily and significantly depleting the Court and the parties’ valuable time and resources. Accordingly, the Court advises the parties that it will not look favorably on any party engaging in less than good faith behavior that leads to further abuse of the Court’s time and resources.

Cactus, at *14, fn 5.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Discussing the preservation of discovery, its scope and privilege is NEVER premature. These issues should be at the first meet and confer. Attorneys should be actively thinking about preservation the moment the case begins. Lawyers cannot afford to take a “let’s see how the motions go” before ensuring discovery is preserved.

Why do attorneys wait to exercise their duty of competency to ensure the preservation of discovery? Some might not know how to, others might not want to spend the money and others might think they can keep their clients happy by having the least amount of intrusion. These are all bad reasons.

An effective client interview and litigation hold strategy is less invasive then the joys of a person most knowledgeable deposition over how a litigation hold was enacted. Moreover, motion practice is not known for its low billable hours.

There are some lawyers who model their meet and confer strategies right out of Tombstone. This is not a good idea. There are issues worth fighting about, but methods of preservation, the scope of discovery, and other technical issues should stay objective. These issues are vital for moving the case forward, but are not worth brawling over. Save the fight for the merits.

You Need a Duty to Preserve Before Issuing Sanctions

In a case where the Court called the Defendants’ disclosures troubling, the Plaintiffs sought sanctions for the failure to back-up hard drives or issue a litigation hold.

There was one big problem with the Plaintiffs’ argument: they did not prove that the Defendant had a duty to preserve the email when it was destroyed. Magnuson v. Newman, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 138595, at *44 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 25, 2013).

The Court stated the earliest the Defendants could have been on notice of the duty to preserve was on August 18, 2010, when they were served the original complain. Magnuson, at *45. Additionally, the Defendants had a three-month email retention policy. Id. 

persegrossnegligence

The Plaintiffs did not even argue the timing of the destruction of the email, instead focusing exclusively on the fact the Defendants:

1) Did not back up their computers or;

2) Issue a litigation hold. Id.

In the Plaintiffs’ view, that amounted to per se gross negligence. Id. 

The Court noted that the Plaintiffs did not cite any authority requiring the Defendants to “back-up” their computers. Magnuson, at *45-46.

The Court stated the Second Circuit abrogated the holding of Pension Committee’s holding that it is gross negligence per se to not issue a litigation hold. Id. Moreover, whether a party failed to failed to issue a litigation hold is one factor in determining whether a party should be sanctioned for spoliation. Magnuson, at *46.

The Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the duty to preserve had yet triggered when relevant email was lost as a part of a routine data retention policy. As such, sanctioned were not warranted, however the Court warned that it would preclude any late emails from being introduced at trial. Id. 

Bow Tie Thoughts

The duty to preserve is the trickiest part of litigation for attorneys in my opinion. Lawyers have to give clients news they do not want to hear that can disrupt business. Often times lawyers are in denial about having to learn how clients communicate to identify relevant sources of ESI. Despite these challenges for many, there is simply no escaping the duty to preserve.

That being said, lawyers cannot argue sanctions are warranted if there was no duty to preserve. Moreover, the failure to issue a litigation hold is one factor in determining sanctions, not an outcome determinative fact.

Of Diapers & Litigation Hold Sanctions

Diapers. Perhaps the most effective tool for encouraging family planning. Now a messy diaper shipment case delivers a message on the importance of issuing a litigation hold.

RedDiaper

A Defendant brought a sanctions motion against a Plaintiff for their alleged failure to preserve evidence in a case over $3 million worth of diapers.

The Plaintiff admitted they had a duty to preserve electronically stored information. That did not happen because a formal litigation hold was not issued.

The Plaintiff’s failure to issue a litigation hold was not gross negligence per se under Chin v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 685 F.3d 135, 162 (2d Cir. 2012) cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 1724, 185 L. Ed. 2d 785 (U.S. 2013).

The Court stated, “the facts here establish that SJS’s failure to take the most basic document preservation steps, even after it discovered the packaging nonconformities and filed this action, constitutes gross negligence. Such failure is particularly inexcusable given that SJS is the plaintiff in this action and, as such, had full knowledge of the possibility of future litigation.” Sjs Distrib. Sys. v. Sam’s East, Inc., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 147549, at *10-17 (E.D.N.Y. Oct. 11, 2013), citing Sekisui Am. Corp. v. Hart, No. 12 CV 3479, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115533, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 15, 2013). This failure met the Defendant’s burden to show the Plaintiff was culpable for the loss of ESI. Id. 

Judicial Spoliation Wipes

BabyRedDiaperJudges look forward to disputes on whether lost email was relevant to case as much as changing a diaper.

The Court found that some of the Plaintiff’s lost email messages would have related to the business transaction between the parties. However, there was no extrinsic evidence of the relevance specifically. Sjs Distrib. Sys., at *11-13.

The Court had to determine a sanction that would (1) deter parties from engaging in spoliation; (2) place the risk of an erroneous judgment on the party who wrongfully created the risk; and (3) restore “the prejudiced party to the same position [it] would have been in absent the wrongful destruction of evidence by the opposing party.” Sjs Distrib. Sys., at *13-14, citing Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 167 F.3d at 779.

The Court refused to issue a preclusion order on the Plaintiff from using any documentary evidence after a specific date relevant to the lawsuit. The Defendant had recovered some of the Plaintiff’s communications from 3rd parties and their own records. Sjs Distrib. Sys., at *14. Preclusion was simply too drastic a sanction, given the fact there were other ways to find some of the relevant email communications.

The Court held the proper sanction was an adverse inference against plaintiff that it negligently deleted emails in the fall of 2010 that would have been relevant and favorable to defendant. The Court reasoned that such an order would restore the Defendant to the same position it would have been absent the destruction of ESI by the Plaintiff. Sjs Distrib. Sys., at *15-16. 

The Court also ordered an award of fees to be determined after reviewing the Defendant’s time billed for the motion. Id. 

Bow Tie Thoughts 

Attorneys have to take litigation holds seriously. That means having a set plan for communicating to a client’s custodians, identifying data sources and ensuring ESI is being properly preserved. The duty to preserve is not something that can be said in passing to a HR manager in the hopes it is done correctly. Have a plan and take action.

There are many tools on the market for issuing litigation holds. I have many friends at Legal Hold Pro that have a great cloud solution for issuing holds, tracking interview responses and documenting compliance. There are other options available.

The cost to use one of these tools is not prohibitive. Cloud solutions help keep fees reasonable. Moreover, the cost to a firm’s reputation because a Judge said a firm was “grossly negligent” in their duty to preserve is far more costly than properly issuing a litigation hold.

Control of Personal Email Accounts & Litigation Holds

Puerto Rico once again has issued a thought provoking eDiscovery opinion. It’s about time we hold a conference there.

FlagPuertoRico

The Court found the Plaintiff had offered sufficient evidence that the Defendant had a duty to preserve the personal email accounts of its former officers. The Court explained the email accounts were within the Defendant’s control because the officers had used the accounts for as along as seven years to manage the company. P.R. Tel. Co. v. San Juan Cable Llc, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146081, at *4-5 (D.P.R. Oct. 7, 2013). Since the Defendant likely knew its managing officers were using personal email to conduct business, the duty to preserve included those accounts. Id. 

Sending smsThe Court did not grant the Plaintiff’s motion for adverse inference instructions, because there was no bad faith nor a showing of prejudice. P.R. Tel. Co., at *5.

The Defendant had issued a litigation hold within a month of the lawsuit.

Moreover, it appeared that only three email chains were “lost.” P.R. Tel. Co., at *6. 

While the Plaintiff could show three email chains were missing, it could not offer a clear theory on how it suffered any prejudice. P.R. Tel. Co., at *7.

Judge Bruce J. McGiverin ended the opinion with this legal foreshadowing:

Upon further discovery, more information regarding the extent of spoliation may come to light. Forensic analysis of these three former employees’ personal email accounts and computers may be appropriate to determine whether critical emails have been deleted. Nacco Materials Handling Grp., Inc. v. Lilly Co., 278 F.R.D. 395, 406 (W.D. Tenn. 2011) (“The only way to determine if relevant evidence currently exists or previously existed and was lost destroyed is to conduct a forensic examination to see if such evidence exists.”). At that time, plaintiff may renew its motion for sanctions if circumstances so warrant.

P.R. Tel. Co., at *7.

Bow Tie Thoughts

This case makes me think of one big issue: BYOD.

If an employer knowingly enables an employee to use a personal device for work, there is a duty to preserve what is relevant off of the device in a lawsuit. This could get ugly fast in litigation, as attorneys and experts debate doing targeted collections off of a personal device vs a mirror image.

If a company has Bring Your Own Device policies, they better have litigation plan that includes preserving any relevant information. It might be easier to simply have a work issued smartphone.

As to the personal email account issue, this would raise interesting collection issues. Email messages with eBay alerts, online dating or kid’s soccer games are highly unlikely to be relevant to a lawsuit. A data collection strategy could include targeting messages with work topics, specific individuals, date ranges and other narrowing methodologies. Early Case Assessment or data clustering technology would be very helpful in identifying relevant ESI.

You just need to compel the employee to turn over their passwords.

Understanding the Scope of the Duty to Preserve

The important litigation hold cases are not the ones that issue monstrous sanction awards; The important cases are the ones that demonstrate the analytical framework to understand how the law works. These are the opinions that help us represent our clients in knowing what to do when litigation is reasonably anticipated.

Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal’s opinion in AMC Tech., LLC v. Cisco Sys., is such a case that breaks down the duty to preserve, triggering events and the timeline of facts. I think it is extremely helpful in understanding the scope of the duty to preserve.

Judge Grewal opened his opinion with the following:

Ten years after Judge Scheindlin woke up the legal world from its electronic discovery slumber in the Zubulake series, plenty of other courts now have weighed in on when the duty to preserve electronic evidence attaches. With varying degrees of sophistication, most parties have gotten the basic message: the duty begins at least no later than the day they are sued and told about it. Less understood is exactly what a party must then do and by when. For example, while a suit against a particular CEO for sexual harassment would pretty clearly require that his relevant data be locked down at least by the time the company gets wind of the complaint, what must counsel do about less obvious players in a more abstract dispute? The motion before the court presents just such a question.

AMC Tech., LLC v. Cisco Sys., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101372, 1-2 (N.D. Cal. July 15, 2013) [Emphasis added].

Here is the basic factual scenario of the case:

Defendant had a team negotiating a contract and royalty payments;

Employee not on the team contributed sales data for lead negotiator’s royalty payment schedule;

Employee kept his sales data on his computer and email;

Employee communicated by phone and email to negotiator;

Employee retired four days before Plaintiff files lawsuit;

Employee’s computer was wiped within the 30-day policy after someone leaves the company;

Neither party listed Employee as a custodian;

Defendant sought information from Employee slightly over one year from the filing of the lawsuit.

AMC Tech., LLC at *3-4.

BusinessMeeting

The Plaintiff sought adverse inference instruction against the Defendant for what it called “reckless destruction of documents created by a key decisionmaker.” AMC Tech., LLC at *5.

The Court summarized its inherent authority over spoiliation as follows:

The court has “inherent discretionary power to make appropriate evidence rulings in response to the destruction or spoiliation of relevant evidence,” which arises out of its inherent power to direct “orderly and expeditious disposition of cases.” The range of appropriate sanctions is broad, and may take form in relatively minor sanctions, such as the award of attorney’s fees, to more serious sanctions, such as dismissal of claims or instructing the jury that it may draw an adverse inference. The court’s discretion is not, however, unbounded — it must weigh a number of factors to determine whether to grant sanctions, and if so, tailor the remedy according to the conduct that triggered the sanction. To determine whether to award spoiliation sanctions, the court considers whether the moving party has established: “(1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) that the evidence was ‘relevant’ to the party’s claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense.”

AMC Tech., at *6-7.

The Court had to answer the following question: Did the Defendant have an obligation to preserve the Employee’s computer/email at the time the ESI was destroyed?

The Court explained that there was “no question” that the ESI had to be preserved when the Plaintiff requested the ESI. This was not possible, since the ESI had been destroyed approximately 11 months earlier as part of the Defendant’s routine policy when an employee left the company. AMC Tech., at *7.

Had the duty to preserve already attached to the ESI prior to its deletion?

The Court explained the scope of the duty to preserve as follows:

A general duty to preserve evidence relevant to the litigation arises from the moment that litigation is reasonably anticipated. Because Cisco received notice of the complaint before McKeon’s documents were destroyed, and concedes that it had notice of the suit even before AMC filed the complaint on July 11, 2011, Cisco had a general duty to preserve evidence when it destroyed McKeon’s documents.

But the scope of this duty is not limitless. A litigant has an obligation to preserve only evidence “which it knows or reasonably should know is relevant to the action.” This duty requires a party to “identify, locate, and maintain, information that is relevant to specific, predictable, and identifiable litigation,” which includes identifying “key players” who may have relevant information and taking steps to ensure that they preserve their relevant documents. It is critical to underscore that the scope of this duty is confined to what is reasonably foreseeable to be relevant to the action. Requiring a litigant to preserve all documents, regardless of their relevance, would cripple parties who are often involved in litigation or are under the threat of litigation.

AMC Tech., at *7-9 [Emphasis added].

What did this mean for the Defendant and retired Employee? The Court explained the following:

AMC’s complaint plainly put Cisco on notice to identify and preserve documents that generally might reasonably be relevant to the AMC-Cisco Agreement, the Siebel Adapter, and the UCCX Connector. But should Cisco have known specifically that McKeon was a “key player,” such that his documents, just days before their demise, were relevant to the case? McKeon was an unlikely candidate to have documents relevant to the Agreement because he did not engage in negotiations of the Agreement in any way. Nor did he work on any internal committees deciding whether to commence the UCCX Connector project. He was merely the product manager for the underlying Cisco UCCX product. Although McKeon’s input might have informed Nijenhuis’ computation of the royalty schedule in the Agreement, which might be relevant to the issue of damages, these documents are only tangentially related to even that question because AMC does not allege that the royalty payment schedule was incorrect. Nothing in the complaint suggests that AMC would be making such a claim. Because Cisco could not reasonably have known that McKeon’s documents would be at all relevant to the litigation when those documents were destroyed, there was no duty to preserve them at that time.

AMC Tech., at *9-10.

The Court rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that the retired Employee was a “key player” that justified harsh sanctions. The Court zeroed in on the fact the Employee was just a project manager who had no role in the contract negotiations. Moreover, his data was not unique, because the Defendant produced its internal financial spreadsheets pertaining to the sales of the subject devices. Those files likely were created by the Employee. AMC Tech., at *12-13.

The Court held there was no prejudice to the Plaintiff and that the sanctions sought establishing full liability for the breach of the agreement to be “wholly inappropriate.” As such, the Court denied the Plaintiff’s motion.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Many litigation hold cases often have a theme where a party seeks to have the opposing party drawn and quartered for missing a tangential custodian. While Courts are supposed to get to the truth of a matter, they are not supposed to be a medieval battleground whenever a custodian is missed, but the relevant data still appears to have been produced. This is not the time to release the dragon to rain fire.

Litigation hold cases are fact intensive. They require asking the age old questions, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” This can require not just custodian interviews, but using ECA technology to see communication patterns to identify the key players involved in the dispute.

Judge Grewal conducted very detailed analysis on the timeline on this case and applying those facts to the law. This case is an excellent way to teach the scope of the duty to preserve. I encourage attorneys to read the full opinion.

Grocery Shopping for Spoliation of Audio Evidence

GoingShoppingA Plaintiff was fired from her job at a grocery store that she held for 21 years for allegedly adjusting her own pay.

Prior to be fired, a representative from the Defendant grocery store secretly recorded an interview with her that was used as part of the decision making process in the Plaintiff’s termination.

However, the recording was destroyed during a four month period between when the Defendants were on notice of an imminent lawsuit and issuing of a litigation hold. Hart v. Dillon Cos., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95441, 1-5 (D. Colo. 2013).

The destruction of the recording enabled the Plaintiff to win a spoliation shopping spree at the Federal Courthouse.

To prove spoliation of evidence, a party must prove:

1. The evidence relevant to an issue at trial;

2. The party have a duty to preserve the evidence because it knew or should have known, that litigation  was imminent;

3. The other party prejudiced by the destruction of the evidence.

Hart, at *2-3, citing E.E.O.C. v. Dillon Companies, Inc., 839 F. Supp. 2d 1141 (D. Colo. 2011).

The Court found that 1) the recording was relevant, because the Defendant used the recording as part of reason for firing the Plaintiff and 2) there was a duty to preserve the recording because the Defendant knew litigation was imminent from the filing of the EEOC complaint, the demand to arbitrate and the Plaintiff had a lawyer. Hart, at *3.

Vintage Reel-to-Reel Tape Player

The Court also held the Plaintiff had been prejudiced by the destruction of the recording, because the deposition testimony of the investigator who recorded the interview and Plaintiff had 14 alleged discrepancies between the two accounts, which included a key fact on how the Plaintiff entered the pay adjustment the way she knew how. Hart, at *4.

The Court stated:

The Court finds that Plaintiff has met her burden to establish a reasonable possibility based on concrete evidence rather than a fertile imagination that access to the lost material would have produced evidence favorable to her cause.

Hart, at *4, citing McCargo v. Texas Roadhouse, Inc., Civil Action No. 09-CV-02889-WYD-KMT and Gates Rubber Co. v. Bando Chem. Indus. Ltd., 167 FRD 90, 104 (D. Colo. 1996).

The Court further held that the failure to collect the audio recording was grossly negligent or willful behavior. Hart, at *4-5. The Court set a hearing for what sanctions should be imposed on the Defendant. Id. 

Bow Tie Thoughts

Identifying electronically stored information for preservation is a challenge to many attorneys. It is extremely important to ask a client in an interview “what technology do you use? How do you use it?”

The Court hit a very good point about proving spoliation: Showing concrete evidence instead of a “fertile imagination that access to the lost material would have produced evidence favorable to her cause.” Many times claims of spoliation seem to be swinging wildly at a bad pitch because a litigation hold letter was not communicated to a party in a timely fashion. That is a sign for alarm, but not proof evidence was lost.

This case was different. The facts favored the Plaintiff and met all the elements for spoliation. It will be interesting to watch what sanctions are entered against the Defendant.

Triggering the Duty to Preserve

Plaintiffs requested email sent to or from the Defendants on November 4, 2011 in their April 10, 2012 discovery requests. The Plaintiffs had filed the lawsuit and an emergency preliminary injunction on November 7, 2011, which was attended by Defense counsel. The Defendants claimed producing the emails was impossible, because the Defendant had a 90 day retention policy and the Plaintiff did not serve the discovery requests until April 10, 2012, more than 150 days after the date in question. Stiriling v. St. Louis County Police Dep’t, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71435, 1-5 (D. Mo. 2013).

The Court rejected the Defendants’ “impossibility” argument.

PocketWatchmotherBoardThe Court explained that the “obligation to preserve evidence arises when the party has notice that the evidence is relevant to litigation – most commonly when suit has already been filed, providing the party responsible for the destruction with express notice, but also on occasion in other circumstances, as for example when a party should have known that the evidence may be relevant to future litigation.” Stiriling, at *3, citing  Kronisch v. United States, 150 F.3d 112, 126 (2nd Cir. 1998) (emphasis added), overruled on other grounds by Rotella v. Wood, 528 U.S. 549 (2000).

The Court held that the duty to preserve evidence began on November 7, 2011, because of the filing of the lawsuit and emergency preliminary injunction hearing, putting the Defendants on notice of the lawsuit and the relevant subject matter. Stiriling, at *3-4.

The Court further held:

As such, Defendants are directed immediately to determine all sources, including back-up computer files, where such emails may still exist. Defendants shall thereafter file a notice with the Court advising of any and all sources from which said emails may be retrieved, and shall show cause why they should not be required to retrieve and produce said documents.

///

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendants shall immediately make a thorough and complete determination of all sources, including hard copy files and electronic files, and including any and all back-up files, and make a good faith effort to uncover all responsive information in their possession, custody or control.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that on or before May 31, 2013, Defendants shall file a notice with the Court advising of any and all sources from which the requested emails may be retrieved, and shall show cause why they should not be compelled to retrieve and produce said emails from those sources.

Stiriling, at *4-5.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Determining the triggering date of the duty to preserve can be fact intensive. Most situations do not have a dispute date followed by the filing of a lawsuit three days later, complete with an emergency hearing for a preliminary injunction. These facts have bright lines to show a triggering date for issuing a litigation hold.

ComputerFreeze

There are several ways to comply with the duty to preserve (Note, freezing the custodian is not one of them).

If dealing with simply one laptop, having a mirror image of the hard drive might only cost $500 (which compared to motion practice is cheap).

Alternatively, if the relevant content is very specific (i.e., there was an emergency hearing on it), a party might have an expert perform a targeted collection on a laptop, to avoid collecting non-relevant files. Which technology to use will turn heavily on the facts of the lawsuit.

Attorneys would be remised to only think in terms of laptops. Relevant data might be on smartphones or tablet PC’s, so asking their clients what computer devices they use is highly recommended.

How to Get A Judge to Say “Stern Measures Are Called For”

DigitalCalendarHow do you know there is a duty to preserve?

When two managing officers involved in the termination of an employee are repeatedly asked by an attorney for their electronic calendars, including a letter threatening an EEOC complaint if there was not an amicable resolution, and then followed by formal discovery requests.

How do you get sanctions?

When after repeated statements that the Defendants did not have electronic calendars, one of the managing officers states in deposition that he kept a daily electronic calendar and routinely deleted the entries after the date has passed. Making matters more complicated, the witness admitted “he was told a week before his deposition to retain his calendars but he nonetheless continued his practice of deleting” his electronic calendars. Kirgan v. Fca Llc, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51747, at *1-2 (C.D. Ill. Apr. 10, 2013).

Overview of Sanctions

A party must enact a litigation when it reasonably anticipates litigation, which generally requires the suspension of its document destruction policy.  Kirgan, at *3.

Courts analyze three factors in determining sanctions for the failure to preserve evidence:

(1) A breach of the duty to preserve or produce documents;

(2) The level of culpability for the breach; and

3) The prejudice that results from the breach.

Kirgan, at *3, citing Danis v USN Communications Inc., 2000 WL 1694325, at *31 (NDIL).

Case law states that sanctions must be proportionate to the offending conduct. Kirgan, at *3. A party also had to know or had reason to know that litigation was forthcoming. Kirgan, at *3 citing Morton v Motel 6 Operating L.P., 534 F3d 672, 681 (7th Cir 2008). Sanctions can be imposed on a finding of bad faith, willfulness, or fault. Kirgan, at *3 citing Brandt v Vulcan, Inc., 30 F3d 752, 756 (7th Cir 1994).

The Court’s Findings 

The Court held that the Defendants breached their duty to preserve the daily calendars and that the Plaintiff had been prejudiced by the destruction of the electronic evidence. Moreover, the Court found that the Defendants’ conduct was misleading and intentional. Kirgan, at *5.

The Court stated the following on determining sanctions:

I do not believe that the sanction of default is warranted. I do, however, believe that stern measures are called for. The Defendant’s direct and vicarious conduct was willful and intentional, and it cannot be condoned. 

Kirgan, at *7.

PinocchioThe Court noted that the destruction of the calendars was the only reported instance of misconduct.

However, that misconduct included untruthful statements that the calendars did not exist, with one of the parties deleting the ESI. Kirgan, at *6.

This conduct created a “clear impression that [the officer] had deliberately decided to thwart Plaintiff’s efforts to obtain them.” Id.

Based on the above, the Court entered the following sanctions order:

 

1. The jury is to be given a spoliation instruction, which permits the jury to draw a negative inference from its failure to preserve and its destruction of relevant documents.

2. Defendant may not use — at summary judgment or at trial — any evidence or argument that may have been contained in Borsdorf’s destroyed calendars, unless that evidence or argument is corroborated by other documentary evidence or by testimony of witnesses independent of the Defendant.

3. Defendant shall pay attorney’s fees to the Plaintiff for the fees his counsel incurred in preparing this motion. That amount shall be doubled, in a rough effort to compensate Plaintiff for the efforts that were made in her counsel’s attempts to obtain the calendars.

Kirgan, at *7.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Judges do not like lies. Attorneys have a duty of candor to the Court and witnesses take an oath to tell the truth. Judges get upset when anything less than the truth is told.

This is the first time I have seen a Court double an attorneys fee award as part of a sanction for the destruction of evidence (I am sure it has happened before). However, it is noteworthy, because the Court did it “in a rough effort to compensate Plaintiff for the efforts that were made in her counsel’s attempts to obtain the calendars.” 

Complying with the duty to preserve is rightly a hot topic in litigation. Attorneys must conduct detailed interviews with their clients to determine what technology is used in the ordinary course of business. Does the client text? Is there data outside the firewall in a “cloud,” such as a Google Calendar?

Attorneys must develop a preservation strategy after determining the relevant sources of information. Telling a custodian to “stop deleting” is a good first step, but the relevant data has to be collected in a defensible manner. This could range from content information management systems “locking down” the custodians’ communications, which are then exported for analysis and review. Other options include collecting data directly from the computers with computer forensic experts. Regardless of the strategy used, it is advisable to not allow custodians to self-collect their own data.

The Find a Litigation Hold App on An iPhone

iPhone-LegalHold1In a dispute involving claims of monopolistic violations regarding booking A-list DJ’s at nightclubs, the Defendants did not take any steps to preserve or review text messages on an iPhone for relevance that was lost.  Christou v. Beatport, LLC, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9034, 36-39 (D. Colo. Jan. 23, 2013).

While the ensuing motion practice did not have the fist-pumping energy of an A-list nightclub, the issue of spoliation sanctions is worthy of a late night freestyle eDiscovery rap battle.

Cueing Up a Litigation Hold

The Plaintiffs served a litigation hold letter on the Defendants at or about the same time as the beginning of the lawsuit in December 2010, which identified text messages as ESI to preserve. Christou, at *36-37.

The Plaintiffs sought an adverse jury instruction for the failed preservation of text messages, because 1) the Defendants took no steps to preserve the text messages on the Defendant’s iPhone; 2) Defendants did not disclose any text messages in their May 2011 discovery responses; and 3) The Defendant claimed that he lost his iPhone in August 2011, thus also loosing and any text messages saved on it. Christou, at *37.

Spinning Relevance and Review

DJ-Turntable-HandThe Defendants argued whether any relevant text messages were lost pertaining to the litigation was “sheer speculation,” because the Defendant did not use text messages to book DJ’s. Id.

The Defendants also argued that they “responded fully” to the May 19, 2011 discovery, thus “showing” that there were no responsive text messages. Id.

The Court stated that the Defendant’s claim he “did not use texting to book DJ’s is hardly proof that his text messages did not contain relevant evidence.” Id.

The Court turned up the volume on the fact that just because the Defendants stated that they “found no responsive text messages,” did not address whether defense counsel reviewed the Defendant’s text messages and determined that the text messages “contained nothing of relevance.” Christou, at *37-38.

Setting the Master Level on Sanctions 

The Court explained that spoliation sanctions are proper when “(1) a party has a duty to preserve evidence because it knew, or should have known, that litigation was imminent, and (2) the adverse party was prejudiced by the destruction of the evidence.” Christou, at *38, citing Turner v. Public Serv. Co. of Colorado, 563 F.3d 1136, 1149 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. Grant, 505 F.3d 1013, 1032 (10th Cir. 2007)).

iPhoneTextMessage

The Court found the Defendants had a duty to preserve the text messages, which they did not do. Christou, at *38.

Moreover, the Court held, “Those text messages, few as they might have been, should have been preserved and either provided to the plaintiffs or potentially made the subject of further proceedings before the Court.” Id. 

The Court had no reason to believe the phone was not lost on accident or the failure to preserve was just negligent. Christou, at *38-39.

However, the Court had to determine an appropriate sanction. The Court explained:

A commercial party represented by experienced and highly sophisticated counsel cannot disregard the duty to preserve potentially relevant documents when a case like this is filed. However, an adverse jury instruction is too harsh and is unwarranted as a sanction for the negligent “spoliation” of evidence in the circumstances presented here.

Christou, at *39.

The Court mixed the following sanction: The Plaintiffs could introduce the litigation hold letter and that the Defendants failed to preserve the text messages. Id.  Further, the Plaintiffs could “argue whatever inference they hope the jury will draw.” Id. Additionally, the Defendants could offer admissible evidence to explain the loss and argue that no “adverse inference should be drawn.” Id. 

Bow Tie Thoughts

The duty to preserve and mobile devices can potentially give lawyers serious stress. Attorneys should discuss with clients how they use technology, how they communicate and involve consultants in ensuring the preservation of relevant ESI. Additionally, if a litigation hold letter specifies a type of data, it is advisable to conduct a reasonable investigation whether any relevant information exists on the identified media.

Litigation hold letters can be multiple page lists including every possible form of ESI known to man. While no one wants data to go missing, or to not include a possible data source, it is always a good plan for parties to meet and confer over possible data sources to narrow what data needs to be preserved and collected.

Finally, it is important to remember data can exist in multiple locations. While a smartphone such as an iPhone might be lost, the text messages might be backed-up on a computer when the iPhone was synced. It is also worth investigating whether the text messages were iMessages that possibly could be backed-up in iCloud.

Remote Control Duty to Preserve

Can a party issue a litigation hold to one of its contractual agents to preserve information by remote control?

The answer is yes, yes they can.

In Haskins v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., the first issue was whether the Defendant was in “possession, custody, or control” of documents held by its “independent title agents,” and second whether the Defendant had a duty to direct its agents to “preserve” the documents. Haskins v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149947 (D.N.J. Oct. 18, 2012).

By way of background, the lawsuit involved allegations of overcharging on title insurance. The “independent title agents” issued most of the policies. Haskins, at *1-2.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 34(a), a requesting party can request information within an opposing party’s “possession, custody, or control.” This does not actually require physical control. Haskins, at *3.

Moreover, the Court explained, “It logically follows that a litigating party has control of documents if a contractual obligation requires a non-party to provide requested documents to the litigating party upon demand.” Haskins, at *4.

Furthermore, a party has control if it has “a right to access the [requested] documents or obtain copies of them.” Haskins, at *4, citing Andrews v. Holloway, 256 F.R.D. 136, 145 n.13 (D.N.J. 2009).

The Court zeroed in on the Defendant’s contracts with its agents that gave the Defendant control of the files, because the Defendant the right to access and use of the files. Haskins, at *6-8.

Litigation Hold Overview

Case law holds that a party has a duty to preserve when a party “knows or reasonably should know” that litigation is foreseeable. Haskins, at *11-12, citing Mosaid Techs. Inc. v. Samsung Elecs. Co., Ltd. 348 F. Supp. 2d 332, 336 (D.N.J. 2004). Once there is a duty to preserve, a party must “put in place a litigation hold to ensure the preservation of relevant documents.” Haskins, at *12, citing Major Tours, Inc. v. Colorel, No. 05-3091(JBS/JS), 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68128, at *2 (D.N.J. Aug. 4, 2009).

In the age of smartphones and complex networks, the Court stated for a hold to be “suitable” (probably code for reasonable), “a party must identify potentially relevant sources of information, implement procedures to retain that information, and produce information responsive to discovery requests.” Haskins, at *12.

If there is a failure to preserve data and a party seeks spoliation sanctions, a party must demonstrate four factors:

1) The evidence must have been in the party’s control;

2) It must be relevant to claims or defenses in the case;

3) It must have actually been suppressed or withheld by the party; and

4) The duty to preserve evidence must have been reasonably foreseeable to the party.

Haskins, at *12-13, citing Bull v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 665 F.3d 68, 73-74 (3d Cir. 2012).

The Court held that the Defendant had a duty to preserve, because litigation was active and the material relevant. As such, the Defendant was required to issue a litigation hold of documents within its possession, custody or control. As the Court explained, control did not require physical control, but contractual control was enough to require the Defendants to issue a litigation hold to its independent agents.

Bow Tie Thoughts

The duty to preserve can become tricky with third parties bound by contractual obligations that show control over data. The issue of data stored in “cloud computing” could become extremely complicated, especially if data is hosted in different states or countries from the venue of a lawsuit.

In the end, control of “cloud storage” will be a review of  “Terms of Service” in contractual agreements, most of which are likely clickwrap agreements. These cases will be interesting to watch, especially as more companies host data in a “cloud.”