Excel-ing at eDiscovery (Guest Post on Everlaw)

spreadsheetMany litigation support professionals think Excel files are the bane of discovery.

Attorneys with a fixation of wanting a Bates Stamp on electronically stored information demand Excel files be converted from their native application to a static image, causing one Excel file to explode into a 500 page PDF.

To learn more about a recent case with an Excel file that would not open, and advantages of reviewing Excel files in native file format, check out my guest post on Everlaw.

Nebraska, Where Proportionality is Alive and Well in Discovery

Nebraska stampOne lesson from United States v. Univ. of Neb. at Kearney, is that maybe you should take depositions of key parties and use interrogatories to find out relevant information to your case before asking for over 40,000 records that contain the personal information of unrelated third-parties to a lawsuit.

The case is a Fair Housing Act suit involving claims that students were prohibited or hindered from having “emotional assistance animals in university housing when such animals were needed to accommodate the requesting students’ mental disabilities.” United States v. Univ. of Neb. at Kearney, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118073, 2 (D. Neb. Aug. 25, 2014).

A protracted battle over the scope of discovery broke out between the parties. The Defendants argued the search, retrieval, and review for responsive discovery was too expansive and would have been unduly burdensome. Kearney, at *5-6. As the Government’s search requests included “document* w/25 policy,” you can see the Defendant’s point on having broad hits to search terms. Kearney, at *20.

The Government’s revised search terms would have 51,131 record hits, which would have cost $155,574 for the Defendants to retrieve, review, and produce the responsive ESI. Kearney, at *5-6. This would have been on top of the $122,006 already spent for processing the Government’s requests for production. Kearney, at *7.

The Court noted that the Government’s search terms would have required production of ESI for every person with disability, whether they were students or contractors. Kearney, at *6-7. The Government argued the information was necessary, and justified, in order to show discriminatory intent by the Defendants. Id.

The Defendants wanted the scope of the discovery requests narrowed to the “housing” or “residential” content, which would have resulted in 10,997 responsive records. Kearney, at *7.

The Government did not want to limit the scope of discovery and recommended producing all the ESI subject to a clawback agreement [notice not a protective order] for the Government to search the ESI. The Defendants argued such an agreement would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act by disclosing student personal identifiable information without their notice and consent. Kearney, at *8.

Motion practice followed with the Defendant requesting cost shifting to the Government for conducting searches, the use of predictive coding software, and review hosting fees. Kearney, at *8-9.

The Court ordered the parties to answer specific discovery questions, which the Government did not answer, on “information comparing the cost of its proposed document retrieval method and amount at issue in the case, any cost/benefit analysis of the discovery methods proposed, or a statement of who should bear those costs.” Kearney, at *9.

The Court was not keen on the Government outright searching the personal data of others unrelated to the case. As the Court stated:

The public and the university’s student population may be understandably reluctant to request accommodations or voice their concerns about disparate or discriminatory treatment if, by doing so, their private files can be scoured through by the federal government for a wholly unrelated case. The government’s reach cannot extend that far under the auspices of civil discovery; at least not without first affording all nonparties impacted with an opportunity to consent or object to disclosure of information from or related to their files.

Kearney, at *18-19.

The Court stated it would not order the production of over 51,000 files with a clawback order. Moreover, the cost to review all of the ESI exceeded the value of the request. Kearney, at *19.

The Court did not accept the Government’s claim that it needed to conduct an expansive search. Kearney, at *19-20. The Court stated the following on the fundamentals of civil discovery:

Searching for ESI is only one discovery tool. It should not be deemed a replacement for interrogatories, production requests, requests for admissions and depositions, and it should not be ordered solely as a method to confirm the opposing party’s discovery is complete. For example, the government proposes search terms such as “document* w/25 policy.” The broadly used words “document” and “policy” will no doubt retrieve documents the government wants to see, along with thousands of documents that have no bearing on this case. And to what end? Through other discovery means, the government has already received copies of UNK’s policies for the claims at issue.

Kearney, at *20.

The Court further stated that “absent any evidence that the defendants hid or destroyed discovery and cannot be trusted to comply with written discovery requests, the court is convinced ESI is neither the only nor the best and most economical discovery method for, and depositions should suffice—and with far less cost and delay.” Kearney, at *21.

Bow Tie Thoughts

This case has significant privacy interests, but at its core the issue is one of proportionality. What was the cost of discovery and its benefit? In the end, the cost of expansive search terms that impacted the third party rights of others, outweighed the benefit of the discovery to the case.

The fact we have amazing search technology that can search electronic information does not mean we can forget how to litigate. The use of “search terms” cannot swallow the actual claims of a case.

It is heartening to see a Court say no to the data of unrelated third parties being enveloped into a discovery production. While there are many ways to show discrimination, requesting the electronically stored information, protected by Federal and most likely state law, of third parties should give any Court pause.

The use of predictive coding to focus the scope of discovery, or visual analytics to identify relevant information, or clustering to organizing similar information is fantastic technology to expedite review. However, the fact that technology exists still means lawyers have to use requests for admissions, interrogatories, and have requests narrowly tailored for responsive ESI.

 

Let’s Not Print Social Media For Productions

Here are two tips on social media discovery:

Tip One: Get an expert who knows how to collect the electronically stored information on social media.

Tip Two: Downloading a Facebook profile, printing it, and conducting document review for redactions is not the best way to produce social media.

SocialMediaExamples_iStock

The Defendants in Stallings v. City of Johnston City, requested the Plaintiff produce the following social media:

Each and every social media posting by Stallings from 2011 to the present concerning her employment at Johnston City, allegations of wrongdoing against her, her suspension or termination, the investigation into missing money or wrongdoing in the Water Department, her lawsuit, her emotional or physical well-being, or any other matter identified in her Amended Complaint. This request includes all postings made by Stallings at any time on a Facebook account, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media site.

Stallings v. City of Johnston City, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68566, at *7 (S.D. Ill. May 19, 2014).

The Plaintiff stated that Facebook only allows for a download of data in its entirety. As such, the Plaintiff’s attorney and paralegal spent a week printing and redacting the 500 pages of the Plaintiff’s Facebook account. Stallings, at *7-8.

The Court was not thrilled with the Plaintiff’s claimed technological hardships. The first Court ordered the Plaintiff to produce the un-redacted pages of the Facebook profile, then to produce the entire un-redacted file from 2007 to present day. Id.

The Plaintiff did not identify with whom she had relevant discussions with on Facebook or whether any privileged attached to those conversations. Moreover, the Plaintiff argued that she had conversations with minors on Facebook, but not whether any of those discussions were relevant to the lawsuit. Stallings, at *8.

The Court stated it was clear that the Plaintiff had relevant conversations on Facebook about the litigation. Id. Moreover, the Court recognized that the communications could have admissions against interest and impeachment value. As such, the Plaintiff had to provide the names and residences of the individuals she communicated with on Facebook. Stallings, at *8-9.

The Court ultimately ordered the Plaintiff to produce a redacted hard copy of all relevant Facebook pages from 2011 to the present. The Plaintiff also had to provide defendants with the names and towns of residence of the individuals with whom the Plaintiff had relevant conversations. The Court defined the relevant Facebook pages as those containing statements about this case or the litigation, including discussions of her physical or mental health. The Plaintiff did not have to provide the names and location of minors without a Court order. Stallings, at *9-10.

Bow Tie Thoughts

I thought the requesting party did a good job with their request, because it sought what was relevant to the case, not a social media fishing expedition.

This case highlights the challenges lawyers have in not retaining experts to perform collections. While not directly stated, it seemed the Plaintiff’s attorney was trying to collect the Facebook profile through the download option without an expert and then conduct a manual review. I would encourage a law firm client to try a different approach.

There are products on the market that can be used to collect social media profiles. Some products can capture the data directly, search it, tag it, and produce it. X1 Social Discovery is one such product, but there are other product solutions as well. One of these tools could have made situations like this case much easier to litigation. I would encourage lawyers to look at their different options and find a partner who could assist them. No one should have to print entire social media profiles with the technology we have today.

Lessons From Drafting Overly Broad Requests

Paint_BrushesDrafting discovery is an art. While painting in oils or pastels is certainly more colorful than drafting requests in Times New Roman or Ariel, both require thought. And like any masterpiece, drafting a request for production can have its challenges.

A Requesting Party demanded an opposing party produce “[a]ll email and text messages sent or received on Mayo email and text messaging accounts.”

The Magistrate Judge found the request to be overly broad.

However, the Producing Party had produced responsive discovery with redactions, thus the Requesting Party challenged the overbroad ruling as unwarranted and moot. Elkharwily v. Mayo Holding Co., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53890, 8-10 (D. Minn. Apr. 18, 2014).

The Producing Party countered that discovery produced with redactions and claims of privilege were subject to the future consideration of the Magistrate Judge. Id.

The Court stated that the Magistrate Judge had “expressly excluded from his order any determination regarding redactions or assertions of privilege, reserving consideration of those topics. As a result, notwithstanding the magistrate judge’s conclusion of overbreadth, it appears that Elkharwily has no actual objection to a ruling by the magistrate judge regarding Requests for Production 1 or 2.” Id. 

The Requesting Party also challenged an overbroad ruling for a request for production of, “[a]ll documents, notes, communications, emails and text messages relating to or to any of the claims or defenses in this action prepared, sent or received by [various entities, departments and individuals].” Elkharwily, at *9-10.

The Producing Party stated that they had produced all responsive discovery, as such, the Court found there was not an objection to the Magistrate Judge’s ruling. Elkharwily, at *10.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Reviewing the requests for production and challenging the objections make me think of two different issues: drafting a narrowly tailored request and being able to prove a production was inadequate.

As to the first issue, a request for production should include more than identifying the sender and all communications. That could be overly broad on its face, given the number of emails and texts sent in a day. Attorneys are well served to ask for specific communications between individuals, date ranges, and on specific subjects. The trick is not having the request become too narrow, but you cannot simply ask for everything, because you might actually get everything. That could make document review a nightmarish quagmire, because you actually got what you asked for.

The second issue requires a different strategy. If you think a production is inadequate, because there “should be more” emails or text messages, you have to prove it. This is not a metaphysical discussion of whether something exists or not, but you need some evidence of production gaps. This can include missing files that the requesting party has that should have been produced (such as part of an email chain), if not outright days or weeks of missing email. If there is such a production gap, a party can demonstrate by affidavit that the production is not complete.

Social Media Request for Production That Got It Right

Requesting social media relevant to a lawsuit should be done as standard operating procedure now. However, some attorney have a difficult time with narrowing their requests beyond, “Produce your Facebook profile.” Such fishing expeditions are summarily denied. See, Tompkins v. Detroit Metro. Airport, 278 F.R.D. 387 ( E.D. Mich. 2012), Salvato v. Miley, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81784, 3-4 (D. Fla. 2013) and Potts v. Dollar Tree Stores, Inc., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38795, at *6-7(M.D. Tenn. Mar. 20, 2013).

Here is a case where the requesting party got it right. The Court ordered the producing party to respond to the following request for production:

“[A]ny notes, diaries, logs, journals, letters, electronic mail, text messages, calendars, Facebook postings, tweets, or other social media messages that relate or refer to your employment with the GDRTA, your alleged serious health condition, or your activities on days when you requested FMLA leave.

Wilkinson v. Greater Dayton Reg’l Transit Auth., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64522, 9 (S.D. Ohio May 9, 2014).

The Court stated that the request sought information about heath conditions that gave rise to the FMLA requests. Id.

In my opinion, the request was narrowly tailored for the issues that are the subject of the lawsuit. This is the sort of thought attorneys need to exercise when requesting social media. A party cannot simply ask for the opposing side’s password to Tumblr or Instagram. A request has to be for information relevant to the lawsuit, not a fishing trip across the adverse party’s Facebook Wall for whose status updates they “liked.”

 

Don’t Argue Gmail is Not Reasonably Accessible

Can a producing party argue for cost-shifting to the defendant based on proportionality for the production of work-related emails on a plaintiff’s gmail account? Owens v. Clear Wireless LLC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26698, 4-6 (D. Minn. Mar. 3, 2014).

Short answer is no, because the emails are not inaccessible to the producing party.

The general rule in over the cost of producing discovery falls on the producing party. Owens, at *4, citing Oppenheimer Fund, Inc. v. Sanders, 437 U.S. 340, 358, 98 S. Ct. 2380, 57 L. Ed. 2d 253 (1978).

Discovery can be limited if “the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit, considering the needs of the case, the amount in controversy, the parties’ resources, the importance of the issues at stake in the action, and the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues.” Owens, at *5, citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)(C)(iii). Cost-shifting can be imposed if the data sought by the producing party is not reasonably accessible. Id, citing Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 216 F.R.D. 280, 283-84 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).

The Plaintiff’s emails in a gmail account were accessible by the Plaintiff. Data must be not reasonably accessible in order for any cost-shifting to be considered. Owens, at *6.

Bow Tie Thoughts 

Email messages stored in a Cloud, whether it is Yahoo, Gmail, or some other service provider, are not “not reasonably accessible” to the producing party.

Computer forensic experts have determined multiple ways to capture cloud-based email. This can include having the email messages downloaded to a computer in Outlook, to applications that preserve the email from the cloud. Just because a lawyer needs to retain someone to perform the work, does not make the email “not reasonably accessible.”

Scanning Paper Makes the Production ESI And Not a Document

Anderson Living Trust v. WPX Energy Prod., LLC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31025, 3-4 (D.N.M. Mar. 6, 2014), is a detailed review of production requirements under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 34(b)(2)(E). The crux of the case centered on whether scanning paper documents to PDF’s made the discovery “electronically stored information.” Moreover, if the paper discovery was now ESI under the Rules, did the producing party have to organize the production under the 34(b)(2)(E)(i)?

The Court found that the parties agreement to produce paper as PDF’s made the discovery ESI. As such, the organization requirement under 34(b)(2)(E)(i) did NOT apply to the former paper production. Rule 34(b)(2)(E)(ii) controlled instead, which requires ESI productions be in the form it is ordinarily maintained or in a reasonable useable form.


This case highlights the train wreck that can happen from fighting over the form of production. Moreover, the fact the Court found the paper was transmuted to ESI by scanning might be technically correct, but is problematic. Moreover, the case even included a discussion of whether reviewing ESI in a review platform for privileged eliminated the ability to produce ESI as in “the usual course of business,” because it had been in a review platform.

Scanned paper does not OCR 100%. It runs the risk of not being fully searchable. This will depend on the age of the paper, quality of the text on the pages, and the effectiveness of the OCR technology. Luckily, much of the OCR technology today is very good with high accuracy rates. However, OCR in litigation does yet scan handwriting. As such, one would expect scans of non-text paper to require some form of production labeling.

It costs an eDiscovery service provider the same amount to scan a piece of paper for being a PDF or TIFF as it does for printing. However, the printing costs can add more to the total cost than simply OCR-ing a scanned file (I have seen as much as 10 cents a page cost increase).

If the requesting party wants to be difficult, they can request both paper be produced as paper to drive up the production cost for the producing party AND demand the production be organized under 34(b)(2)(E)(i). This would fly in the face of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 1 to conduct cases in a “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination” of every action when scanned paper can be produced as an image with searchable tect. Furthermore, the requesting party would now have boxes of paper to review, driving up their own billable hours.

Review technology allows anyone conducting document review to “tag” files for production that correspond to discovery requests. Unfortunately, many attorneys do not do this, either based on time constraints, the lack of interest in organizing a production for the opposing party, or they do not know how to.

Personally, I prefer conducting document review to organize what files are responsive to specific requests. Moreover, the time it takes to tag “produce” could be done just as easily as clicking “RFP1” or “RFP4” as tagging options. This makes it easier to perform quality assurance testing and the basic need to look up what files are being produced to a specific request.