Can You Ask the Court to Order a Party to Follow the Duty to Preserve?

videopresentationmanA Pro Se Plaintiff in a prison inmate case requested the Court order the Defendants not to destroy any relevant video surveillance footage from a specific date. The Court declined,  because the Defendant was already subject to the duty to preserve. Ross v. Conner, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146887, at *17-18.

The Plaintiff [rightly] was concerned that the Defendants had a document destruction policy of one-year. However, the Court found it unnecessary to issue an order for the Defendants to preserve information that was already subject to the duty to preserve. 

The Court explained as follows:

Under the doctrine of spoliation, parties have a duty to preserve (including a duty to not destroy) evidence when litigation is filed or becomes reasonably anticipated. To fulfill the duty to preserve relevant evidence, “[o]nce a party reasonably anticipates litigation, it is obligated to suspend its routine document retention/destruction policy and implement a “litigation hold” to ensure the preservation of relevant documents.” Here, if Defendants destroy any exculpatory evidence they will be subject to sanctions. However, because they are already under a duty to preserve evidence, an order from this Court is not necessary. 

Ross, at *18.

Bow Tie Thoughts 

There are no shortage of cases where the duty to preserve has gotten attorneys and parties a like in trouble. However, it is difficult to ask a Court to order a party to “follow the rules,” because the party already has a duty to so. However, if there is evidence of wrongdoing by the party that was subject to the duty to preserve, the outcome could be different.

Plaintiffs are well served to include a “preservation letter” to the opposing party early in the case. Some attorneys include this letter with their complaint. This acts as both a shot across the bow on the importance of preserving ESI, but puts the opposing party on notice of what sources of ESI are relevant in the case.

The Duty to Preserve on Island Time

No vacation should end with people becoming Plaintiffs. Sadly, that happened on a trip to Hawaii when someone had a slip and fall in a hotel garage after exiting an elevator. Riley v. Marriott Int’l, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135728 (W.D.N.Y.Sept. 25, 2014).

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The Defendant hotel maintained both video surveillance of the area and “sweep logs” when the area was swept. However, the Defendant lost both. Neither the Plaintiffs or Court said “Mahalo” over this loss.

Be Prepared to Explain What Happened

The Defendant’s Loss Prevention Manager responsible for preserving information for the Hotel explained that the video system records 24-hours a day, is stored on a hard drive, and those records are maintained for 30-days. Riley, at *2-3. The Manager watched the security footage after being told of the Plaintiff’s fall, her removal from the area in a wheelchair, followed by hotel employees placing wet floor signs, and then sweeping up the water. Riley, at *3. The video was turned over the hotel’s liability insurance company. Id.

The Defendant failed to explain any reason for its loss of the video evidence and opined the sweep logs were destroyed per the document retention policy. Riley, at *10-11. The Court went on to state the following on the loss of the video:

Although facing a serious motion for sanctions with potentially significant consequences, Marriott apparently did not investigate the destruction of the relevant evidence or, if it did, explain the results of the investigation. Thus, the only information that this Court has concerning the destruction of the evidence are the assertions of Marriott’s counsel made during oral argument. Even then, Marriott’s counsel was unable to provide any facts concerning the circumstances under which the video footage was destroyed. The failure to provide the Court with any sworn facts from persons with knowledge of the destruction of the challenged evidence demonstrates such a lack of diligence that it suggests bad faith destruction. In any event, Marriott’s failure to preserve the entire video footage relating to Linda’s accident and the sweep logs for the day in question despite the Hotel’s loss prevention employee’s testimony that he knew that he had a duty to preserve relevant evidence constitutes, at a minimum, gross negligence.

Riley, at *11-12.

The Court found that the lost evidence prejudiced the Plaintiffs and the Defendant’s failure to explain how the information was destroyed amounted to gross negligence, thus allowing an inference the information was unfavorable to the Defendant. Riley, at *14.

Be Precise in The Remedy You Request

The Plaintiff’s request for relief asked the Court to “remedy the injustice caused by defendants by ruling the evidence in [p]laintiffs’ favor and by granting summary judgment.” Riley, at *17.

The Court interpreted the requested relief as to strike the Defendant’s answer or an adverse inference instruction. The Court held striking the answer was “too drastic” and instead issued an adverse inference instruction to “permit, but not require, the factfinder to infer that the missing video footage would have been favorable to the [Plaintiffs] and unfavorable to [the Defendant].” Riley, at *19.

Bow Tie Thoughts

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The Duty to Preserve never goes on vacation. Moreover, no lawyer should be sent into Court armed only with a Ukulele to sing a song on not knowing what happened to relevant electronically stored information.

If a party has actual notice of a triggering event and has reviewed relevant evidence, that information absolutely has to be preserved. This requires the information to be defensibly copied, which could mean a mirror image or a targeted collection, depending on the needs of the case. What then follows are chain of custody forms that document each step of preserving the information. The data should be maintained in a secure medium, which could be an evidence locker with biometric security (again, depending on the needs of the case).

This case is interesting because despite the inability to explain what happened, the Court refused to strike the Defendant’s answer. I agree this is the right call, especially considering the fact the Court found gross negligence for the lost data.

Don’t Phone in Adverse Inference Allegations

I have a nut on the phoneCan a Plaintiff win adverse inference instructions for the destruction of a phone recording destroyed after a one-year retention policy and whose relevance (or existence) was not known by the Defendants for two years after the event happened?

Short answer is no.

The test for establishing adverse inference instructions for the destruction of evidence is:

(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 destroyed 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.

Candy Marcum v. Scioto County, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 112100, 42-43 (S.D. Ohio Aug. 13, 2014).

The case involved the Plaintiff seeking adverse inference instructions for the recording of a phone call in November 2008. The deceased called his wife from the county jail. The recording was deleted per the one-year document retention.

The Magistrate Judge initially found that the phone recording was destroyed per the Defendant’s document destruction policy, but granted adverse inference instructions because of the Defendants’ “negligence.” The Magistrate Judge looked to the facts that the Sheriff requested an investigation into the death of the victim and the Plaintiff had hired an attorney. Marcum, at *43.

The District Court Judge found these facts did not constitute enough for an adverse inference instruction for the phone recording. The Defendants did not know of the recording, which goes against the “culpable state of mind” requirement for adverse inference instructions. Marcum, at *43-44.

The Plaintiff further declined an interview with the investigator in 2008 and did not notify the Defendant of the existence of the phone call. Moreover, the Plaintiff waited two years to file a lawsuit and request the recording. Marcum, at *44. The existence of the recording was not made until 2010. Id.

The Defendants did retain relevant video, but claimed they never knew of the phone call or its relevance. As such, the District Court modified the Magistrate Judge’s order regarding adverse inference instructions. Marcum, at *48.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Attorneys cannot phone in spoliation allegations. If one side believes information exists that should be preserved, include that in your preservation letter to the opposing party. It is difficult for one party to be attacked for the destruction of evidence if they were never on notice of its existence. Moreover, discuss possible sources of relevant ESI during the meet and confer to ensure the electronic information is both identified and preserved.

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.