Proportionality Prevents Mirror Imaging of Family Computers

The Defendants in employment litigation sought the mirror imaging of the Plaintiff’s personal computers three years after she had been terminated. The crux of the eDiscovery centered on the former employee forwarding emails from her supervisors email to her personal account, which the Defendants claimed were lost by the Plaintiff. The Court denied the motion to compel. Downs v. Va. Health Sys., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74415, 6-11 (W.D. Va. June 2, 2014).

Young woman with a laptop on her head

Judge James G. Welsh did a very nice job of summarizing ESI relevant to a case, proportionality, and the rules for conducting forensic analysis on an opposing party’s hard drive. The Court held the following:

(1) Nothing in the record suggests any willful failure, fault or bad faith by the plaintiff on her discovery obligations that would justify the requested computer forensics examination;

(2) The “mirror-imaging” of the plaintiff’s family computers three years after her termination raises significant issues of confidentiality and privacy;

(3) There was no duty on the part of the plaintiff to preserve her family computers as evidence;

(4) Principles of proportionality direct that the requested discovery is not sufficiently important to warrant the potential burden or expense in this case; and

(5) On the current record that the defendants have failed to justify a broad, and frankly drastic, forensic computer examination of the plaintiff’s two family computers. 

Downs, at *9-10, referencing McCurdy Group v. Am. Biomedical Group, Inc., 9 Fed. Appx. 822, 831 (10th Cir, 2001); see also Basile Baumann Prost Cole & Assocs., Inc. v. BBP & Assocs. LLC, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51264, *8 (DMd. Apr. 9, 2013).

Bow Tie Thoughts 

Conducting forensic analysis by an opposing party on personal computers is one of the most touchy subjects in eDiscovery. The United States Supreme Court drove home how much personal data can be on a smart phone, so that information only explodes on a personal computer. Tax records, vacation photos with children, and a host of other non-relevant or privileged information can be on a personal computer. The idea of a Court ordering the mirror imaging of personal computer by an opposing party is as invasive as ordering a physical examination of a party. It is not something done lightly.

I think it is part of a lawyer’s duty of competency to ensure relevant information on a client’s personal computers is preserved at the beginning of litigation. However, that does not mean that the entire contents would ever be produced, only what is relevant.

Targeted collections are one way to ensure ESI is preserved. There is also self-executing technology that can be used, as well as remote collections. I would avoid self-collection at all costs.

That being said, I would hold the line and fight against an opposing party that wanted to rummage through a personal hard drive without significant legal justification.

Stuck in the Predictive Coding Pipeline

ExxonMobil Pipeline had a problem in discovery: their discovery responses were overdue. The requests for production was served in November 2013 and due after one extension in January 2014. The Plaintiffs rightly brought a motion to compel.

The Defendants had enough discovery to give most eDiscovery attorneys a migraine with a nosebleed: 16 separate lawsuits, with 165 discovery requests in one case, a total of 392 requests in all the related cases, and 83 custodians with approximately 2.7 million electronic documents. Other discovery going back to 1988 had over 63,000 paper documents that were scanned and to be searched with keywords. Additionally, there were approximately 630,000-800,000 documents that had to be reviewed for responsiveness, confidentiality, and privilege. The Defendants had produced 53,253 documents consisting of over 191,994 pages. United States v. ExxonMobil Pipeline Co., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81607, 5-8 (E.D. Ark. June 9, 2014).

pipeline

The Defendants suggested using predictive coding in light of the large volume of discovery, but the Plaintiff the United States did not agree with the use of predictive coding (at least since the filing of the motions). ExxonMobil Pipeline, at *6. Moreover, the parties did not seek relief from the Court on the use of predictive coding, other than to order the parties meet and confer. ExxonMobil Pipeline, at *6-7.

The Defendants explained that using traditional review with 50 attorneys that document review could be completed by the end of June 24 and production by the end of August 2014. ExxonMobil Pipeline, at *6.

The United States disagreed with the Defendants assumption of lawyers only reviewing 250 documents/files a day. Moreover, the Defendants did not raise concerns about document review when they entered an agreed upon scheduling order in October 2013. ExxonMobil Pipeline, at *6-7.

The Court acknowledged that the Defendants had a large volume of discovery to review. Moreover, it was unclear if the parties had agreed to a review methodology before the Court issued its order. Regardless, the Court ordered the Defendants to complete their review and production by July 10, 2014, absent good cause. ExxonMobil Pipeline, at *7-8.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Most attorneys do not think about document review strategies at the beginning of a case. They should. Discovery is the backbone of civil litigation. Unless you know the information you have to review, strategies to maximize efficiency, and reviewing for claims or defenses, document review can be a nightmare experience.

This case does not go into why the Defendants sought agreement from the Plaintiff on the use of predictive coding. I do not agree with that strategy, unless a specific review protocol was ordered at the Rule 16 conference that the producing party wanted to change.

The issue with a document production is whether or not the production is adequate. Lawyers should agree to the subject matter of the case, custodians, data ranges, and other objective information that goes to the merits of the lawsuit. When lawyers start asking each other for permission on whether they can use predictive coding, visual analytics, clustering, email threading, or any other technology, civil litigation becomes uncivil. Case in point: the Plaintiffs argued the Defendants could review more than 250 documents a day in this case. Such disputes turn into an academic fight over how much lawyers can read and analyze in a 9-hour workday. The end result of such motion practice would be a Judge ordering lawyers to read faster.

My advice is to focus on the merits and not derail the case with a fight over what review technology can be used. Fight over whether the production is adequate, not what whether you can use predictive coding.

Don’t Forget to Produce Email Attachments

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A defendant law firm in a fee dispute were ordered to produce specific email communications. The law firm produced email messages in PDF format without attachments. The Defendants claimed in a meet and confer they could not produce attachments from the server, but did not explain why. Skepnek v. Roper & Twardowsky, LLC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11894, at *3-4 (D. Kan. Jan. 27, 2014)

LeslieCrystal_Really_EmailIt is never good to have a Judge state, “It is unclear why defendants claim that it is impossible to include every attachment to the produced e-mails but somehow, they are able to produce specific attachments upon request.” Skepnek, at *4.

The Defendants attempted to make the case about the Plaintiffs not stating the form of production in their request.

The Judge did not take the bait and focused on the real issue in the case: the failure to produce the responsive files. Skepnek, at *6.

The Court ordered the production of the attachments, explaining its order as follows:

Defendants offer no excuse for their failure to produce responsive documents except that plaintiffs never requested the documents in native format. Plaintiffs simply want the documents that the court ordered defendants to produce, regardless of format. Because plaintiffs failed to specify a form for producing the electronically stored e-mails and attachments, defendants were required under Rule 34(b)(2)(E)(ii) either to produce the e-mails and attachments in the form (1) in which they are ordinarily maintained, or (2) “in a reasonably usable form.” Defendants failed to produce the attachments at all. Defendants also failed to show PDF format is the form in which their e-mails and attachments are ordinarily maintained.

Skepnek, at *6.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Lawyers often get into trouble with the production of electronically stored information because they do not retain anyone to handle the collection, processing or production of data. Many think their client’s IT staff can somehow “just do it” and avoid the cost of hiring a service provider.

Problem with that logic: You’re doing it wrong.

That is a lot like thinking an auto mechanic charges too much for a break job, so just have your 10 year old do it instead. Since the kid made a great Pinewood Derby car, he should be able to fix the Audi. What could possibly go wrong?

The duty of competency requires lawyers to hire experts to solve technical issues. The collection of ESI and processing are two such areas. Moreover, the technology is constantly advancing. I have watched very impressive product demonstrations of many software applications. Producing email with attachments is something service providers have been doing for over a decade. There are even YouTube videos showing how the technology works. There really is not an excuse from a technological perspective on why email was not produced with attachments in native file format.

Proving the Negative in Discovery Productions

confusedA requesting party has a very difficult problem when a producing party has made a very small production that the requesting party believes is deficient.

This situation quickly turns into the requesting party trying to prove a negative to the Court that a production is inadequate, without any evidence to support the argument.

However, just because a requesting party cannot prove a production is inadequate, does not mean the production is adequate.

A Court was faced with this issue in Am. Home Assur. Co. v. Greater Omaha Packing Co. The requesting party argued that the production of only 25 email messages in a case where discovery started in July 2012 was inadequate. However, the Court stated it “cannot compel the production of information that does not exist.” Am. Home Assur. Co. v. Greater Omaha Packing Co., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129638, at *17  (D. Neb. Sept. 11, 2013).

The Court ordered the following as a solution:

Discovery on this matter has been ongoing since July of 2012. It is unclear to the Court why ESI that has presumably been in GOPAC’s possession since the start of discovery has not been fully produced. To provide Cargill an adequate opportunity to contest discovery of ESI, the Court will order GOPAC to disclose the sources it has searched or intends to search and, for each source, the search terms used. The Court will also order all ESI based on the current search terms be produced by November 1, 2013. However, given Cargill’s failure to point to any specific information that has been withheld or additional sources that have not been searched, no further action by the Court is appropriate at this time.

Am. Home Assur. Co., at *17-18.

Bow Tie Thoughts

This is a hard issue for any Judge and requesting party. I believe the Court reached the best solution with what was known by the Court and parties.  Moreover, the Court knew when to stop with its order.

Will a small production always result in a producing party being compelled to disclosed what it searched, what it intends to search and search terms? Most likely no, but it is a good alternative to forcing a requesting party to prove a negative.

Plain Spoken Form of Production

My grandfather grew up a plain spoken farmer in Iowa. He had a bow tie wearing attorney uncle who also knew how to sum up an issue.

It is very nice to see a clearly stated order on the form of production from the Northern District of Iowa, Eastern Division that continues the tradition of telling it like it is.

Courthouse-1

Magistrate Judge Ross Walters concisely summarized the form of production:

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 34(b)(2)(E) requires that a party must produce electronically stored information (“ESI”) “in a form or forms in which it is ordinarily maintained or in a reasonably usable form or forms . . . .” Similarly the Advisory Committee Note to the 2006 rules amendment (“Advisory Committee Note”) explains that if the form of production has not been specified by agreement or court order “the responding party must produce electronically stored information either in a form or forms in which it is ordinarily maintained or in a form or forms that are reasonably useable.”

Readlyn Tel. Co. v. Qwest Communs. Corp., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45168, 2-3 (N.D. Iowa Mar. 29, 2013).

The producing party stated it had produced the ESI in a reasonably useable form. The Court saw no reason not to believe them and held that the producing party did not have to re-produce ESI already produced as native files or in a read-only but searchable format. Readlyn, at *3.

There was a big “however”: If there was any discovery that had to be produced subject to the motion to compel, the Court required the ESI to be produced in native format or read-only but searchable format.” Id. The Court stated:

Specifically, if Readlyn ordinarily maintains additional information subject to production by this ruling “in a way that makes it searchable by electronic means,” care shall be taken that the form of production will not “remove[] or significantly degrade[]” the searchable feature. Advisory Committee Note.

Readlyn, at *3.

Bow Tie Thoughts

BowTieGrandUncle1935I am not the first bow tie wearing lawyer in my family.

This is the first court order I have seen that used the phrase “read-only but searchable format.” There are many opinions stating “searchable format,” but this is the only one I have seen with that exact language. I believe this is a more accurate statement of the law regarding productions, because the use of “static images” or “TIFF’s” or “PDF’s” can result in “read-only” productions that are not searchable.

Judge Walters’ use of the phrase “read-only but searchable format” ensured compliance with the language of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Advisory Notes that prohibits degrading searchable features of electronically stored information in discovery. I hope others follow Judge Ross Walters’ lead in other discovery orders on the form of production.

What options are there for producing “read-only but searchable format”? The traditional options are 1) TIFF with extracted text/metadata and 2) Searchable PDF with extracted text/metadata. Parties not using a review platform can conduct basic word searches in a searchable PDF or the text file accompanying a TIFF production. Parties using a review platform can get the benefit of effectively having “free document review” because all the objective information is readily searchable by name, date and other basic information from the face of the document.

Meet & Confer at 10 Paces

role_play_thmThere are attorneys who believe the most effective Rule 26(f) meet and confer is simply meeting at dawn with dueling pistols.

The parties in Procongps, Inc. v. Skypatrol, LLC, fought over proclaimed inadequate productions, failures to adequately meet and confer and the defensibility of their productions. Procongps, Inc. v. Skypatrol, LLC, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47133, 9-12 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 1, 2013).

The parties Spireon and Skypatrol had many dueling “they did/they did that first” claims before the Court.

Spireon took issue with a discovery production of “410,000 pages of documents” that contained duplicated information. Procongps, Inc., at *8.

According to Spireon, Skypatrol proposed discussing limiting the scope of ESI in the case. According to Spireon, they were willing to “discuss a search of a limited number of custodians using identified terms only after Skypatrol produced documents that could be identified through traditional methods of conferring with Skypatrol’s employees and agents to identify and produce responsive documents.” Procongps, Inc., at *7.

The parties exchanged discussions about discussing search terms, provided that Skypatrol first met is obligation to produce responsive discovery. Procongps, Inc., at *7-8. Skypatrol’s production followed after these exchanges. Spireon then sought an order from the Court for Skypatrol to identify its production by category pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 34(b)(2)(E)(i). Procongps, Inc., at *8.

Skypatrol claimed that they had requested to meet and confer over search terms for months. According to Skypatrol, Spireon refused to meet to discuss discovery productions and exchange search terms. Procongps, Inc., at *8.

Skypatrol argued, “Spireon insisted that Skypatrol conduct its own searches and produce documents from over 200 GB of data.” Procongps, Inc., at *8.

Skypatrol claimed that Spireon could not both refuse to cooperate over limiting the scope of discovery through cooperation, then claim Skypatrol produced “too many” documents. Procongps, Inc., at *8-9.

Furthermore, Skypatrol explained that they did run a de-duplication process over its production; the “duplicative” files were email attachments to messages they included for a complete production. Procongps, Inc., at *9-10.

Two crossed ancient pistols isolated on white

Skypatrol also argued that Spireon’s production was not forensically sound (defensible), because 1) Spireon could not identify any custodians from whom ESI has been collected; 2) Any search terms used to identify responsive ESI other than “Skypatrol;” and 3) The volume of ESI that had been collected or produced by another in the litigation. Procongps, Inc., at *10-11.

After the parties finished taking their respective shots at the other, the Court stated the following:

Based upon the record before the Court, it appears that the parties have not engaged in a meaningful meet and confer process with regard to ESI production. It is the Court’s view that the current document issues could have been avoided if the parties had cooperated with each other. The relief that the parties seek is essentially an order directing the other side to comply with their discovery obligations, and the Court believes such an order would not actually remedy any problems because both parties assert that they have and are fully complying with their discovery obligations. The Court finds that the most efficient solution is for counsel who are responsible for ESI production to engage in an in-person meet and confer regarding all outstanding ESI production issues in an effort to resolve those matters. If the meet and confer is unsuccessful, the Court will refer any disputes regarding ESI production to a Magistrate Judge for resolution.

Procongps, Inc., at *11-12.

Bow Tie Thoughts 

The Dreyfus Protocol should never be included in a meet and confer.

eDiscovery requires attorneys to not simply talk about cooperating, but to actually cooperate. Determining search methodologies, the scope of discovery and production formats do not require the same zeal as cross-examining an adverse witness. It is not supposed to be a game of “gotcha,” but determining the technical framework to get to the merits of the case. This requires attorneys to be tactical and have a strategic vision for how they will handle ESI in their cases. Moreover, parties must engage in more than pillow talk to actually reach agreement on eDiscovery protocols.

The adult supervision in eDiscovery often comes from eDiscovery attorneys in law firms and litigation support professionals. How data is collected, the scope of ESI in the lawsuit, data reduction strategies and review methodologies are vital to litigating a case pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 1. Fundamentally, these are the professionals who advise attorneys to not request “any and all” ESI, but “all unique ESI” to limit duplicate data in ESI productions. The value of these professionals cannot be overstated in helping litigators be cost efficient and effective.

Attorneys who want to learn effective eDiscovery strategy should read Michael Arkfeld’s Best Practices Guide for ESI Pretrial Discovery: Strategy & Tactics. It is one of the best books on the subject. In full disclosure, Michael is a good friend and I have helped on many webinars. The book offers a great overview of issues, checklists and discovery strategies every litigator should before a meet & confer.