A Measured Response to Social Media Preservation

A Plaintiff in a civil lawsuit deactivated her Facebook profile on the advice of her attorney after the duty to preserve triggered. The Plaintiff claimed she used the account to primarily communicate with her family. Chapman v. Hiland Operating, LLC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74248, 4-7 (D.N.D. May 29, 2014).

Facebook-Alerts

The Court granted in part the Defendant’s motion to compel production of the profile, with very specific instructions:

1. Plaintiff and attorney were to make a reasonable, good faith attempt to reactivate the Facebook account. Plaintiffs did not have to permit defense counsel to be present during the attempt to reactivate the account, and if the account was reactivated, plaintiffs did not have to provide defense counsel the account login and password or full access to the account.

2. If the Facebook account was reactivated, plaintiffs had to produce in the form of a screen shot other similar format all information from the account referencing one plaintiff’s health since a specific date, his relationship with the other plaintiff, and defined activities related to the lawsuit. 

Chapman, at *6-7.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Attorneys should discuss with their clients what types of social media they use for preservation of relevant electronically stored information. No lawyer should tell a party to deactivate an account that could have relevant information for a lawsuit, but it might not be a bad idea to give instructions limiting use during a case. This would depend on the facts of the case.

There are many options for preserving social media. Screen shots and print outs are perfectly acceptable if time is of the essence. I know many attorneys in family law, DA’s who prosecute deadbeat dads, or those seeking TRO’s who have done this “low tech” approach to social media preservation.

Social media preservation technology is readily available and commercially affordable. I strongly encourage attorneys who need to preserve social media to retain an expert who can capture relevant Tweets, Instagram photos or similar social media. The reason is simple: an expert can testify to have the social media was identified and preserved for authentication. While a party can also testify to how they printed a Facebook page or took a screen shot of Instagram, no lawyer wants to turn themselves into a testifying witness for preserving social media evidence.

I agree with the Judge’s production order. The Judge was upfront in questioning if there would be any relevant social media in the case, however issued a balanced order focusing on dates and the subject matter of the case. The fact passwords did not need to be produced and the Plaintiffs could attempt to reactivate the profile without defense counsel was an excellent acknowledgement of reality that social media is not Voo Doo. Passwords should not be provided under normal circumstances, because it is the producing party’s obligation to identify responsive discovery, not the requesting party’s right to rummage through non-responsive data on a fishing expedition.

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.

No Sanctions for Following Records Retention Policy

ThinkMcFly_DocRetentionIt is not every day you see lawsuits about insurance policies from 1986 to 1987.

Add Judge  Paul Grimm’s powerhouse footnotes and you get a great lesson in document retention policies and litigation holds (plus a great footnote on the state of mind exception to hearsay for all the evidence fans).

This asbestos insurance coverage litigation was not filled until November 2012. As one could expect, there were significant gaps in documents from the passage of time. The Court stated the following regarding the destruction of documents in footnote 6:

Were there any evidence in the record to show that AC&R so much as had threatened legal action before the destruction of those documents, it might be sufficient to find that PMA acted improperly in destroying its documents and was not prejudiced by the passage of time. See Victor Stanley, Inc. v. Creative Pipe, Inc., 269 F.R.D. 497, 524 (D. Md. 2010) (“It generally is recognized that when a company or organization has a document retention or destruction policy, it ‘is obligated to suspend’ that policy and ‘implement a “litigation hold” to ensure the preservation of relevant documents’ once the preservation duty has been triggered.” (citation omitted) (emphasis added)). Because the duty to retain documents did not arise for PMA until after their destruction, it cannot be penalized for following its records retention policy.

Ac&R Insulation Co. v. Pa. Manufacturers’ Ass’n Ins. Co., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9063, 29-30 (D. Md. 2014).

Bow Tie Thoughts

You cannot sanction a party for following its normal document retention and destruction policy if there is no duty to preserve. Correspondence that took place during the Reagan years is highly unlikely to still exist as a simple matter of a company’s document destruction policy.

What will be an interesting question is litigation in the 2030s. Will electronically stored information on 20 year old external hard drives still be reasonably accessible if they still exist? Will such “old” information be proportional to the merits of a case? I only have to look at my old laptop from law school to imagine the challenge in recovering old civil procedure outlines.

My gut instinct is the answers to these questions will be “no.” However, let’s see what the future holds.

The Empire State Strikes Back (On the Form of Production)

In an insurance dispute over coverage, a Plaintiff sought production of electronically stored information in native file AND TIFF format after the Defendant produced discovery in hard-copy format. The Defendant opposed re-producing in native file format and sought cost-shifting if required to produce natively. Mancino v Fingar Ins. Agency, 2014 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 30 (N.Y. Misc. 2014).

EmpireStateBuildingNew York law allows the “full disclosure of all matter material and necessary” in a lawsuit. Mancino, at *3 citing CPLR §3101(a).

The Plaintiff sought the ESI in native file format with TIFF images in order to view objective metadata including the author(s), dates of creation, and dates of edits on a key file to know whether an “Activity Report” was changed after the initial creation or the start of the lawsuit.  Mancino, at *7.

The Defendant countered that issues of metadata were “not involved” in the lawsuit and such a production was unnecessary. Id. the Defendant further argued the Plaintiff should have incurred the $3,500 native production costs and that the TIFFing would be a “laborious task.” Mancino, at *8.

Judge Rakower quickly listed the Zubulake cost-shifting factors (cited in U.S. Bank Nat. Ass’n v. GreenPoint Mortgage Funding, Inc., 94 A.D. 3d 58, 63-64 [1st Dept 2012]) and held that cost-shifting was not justified and that the producing party was to pay their own production costs. The Court clearly ordered the production of the ESI in both native file format with TIFFs. Mancino, at *8-9.

Bow Tie Thoughts

State court litigation is often overlooked by eDiscovery commentators.  Mancino is a very good reminder that over 90% of litigation in this country is in state court about regular people. The Plaintiffs in this case had their home burglarized and the resulting litigation was over coverage to recover stolen property. The key discovery focused on a file over who changed what and when on an insurance document. Few examples better highlight the need for metadata.

One big difference between this case and Federal Court is that a producing party need only produce in one form. A producing party would have to produce in native file format or with TIFF and metadata, not both. That being said, a production cost of $3,500 on a case of this size might be on the high side (it is unclear how many computers were at issue, number of hours spent, cost of production media, etc). Moreover, most processing software could do such a production with a few keystrokes (and I would bet at a lower cost then argued to the Court, depending on the volume of data to be collected pertaining to one insured party and other relevant files). There are of course other factors that could drive up costs, but I would need more information to understand why there was a $3,500 production cost estimate for the specific discovery sought.

400th Bow Tie Law Post

I want to thank all of my readers who have enjoyed my blog over the years. I hope you enjoy my 400th post on eDiscovery.

I have seen amazing things in my 12 years as an attorney. I have traveled across all of North America; I have met amazing lawyers; and I have talked with judges committed to upholding justice.

I also have had a lot of fun. I recount some of my adventures and thoughts on the future in my video post. Again, thank you for reading Bow Tie Law.

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.

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.