Is Review Software Not Reasonably Accessible Because of Cost?

W Holding Co. v. Chartis Ins. Co., is a case involving competing proposed discovery protocols. The parties include the FDIC as the receiver of a bank and the former bank directors & officers in a $176 million suit with claims of negligence in making loans. W Holding Co. v. Chartis Ins. Co., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52313, 4-9 (D.P.R. Apr. 3, 2013).

The universe of ESI began as approximately 6.8 terabytes of ESI and 921,000 paper documents. W Holding Co., at *6. $2.1 million was spent scanning paper into a searchable digital format. Id.

Woman Using Virtual Interface

The FDIC planned to migrate data from one hosted review application to another to give access to party opponents of specific data. The projected cost for the hosting included:

Data migration of $450 per gigabyte

$0.185 per page for scanning paper documents and generating searchable text;

$0.025 per page for Bates and confidentiality stamping;

$325 per gigabyte for imaging native-format ESI into TIFF files; and

$35 to $300 per labor-hour for technicians, quality control, and management staff.

W Holding Co., at *6-7.

…and where there is lots of money being spent, there are disputes.

What is Not Reasonably Accessible?

The FDIC claimed the bank’s ESI in a review database was not reasonably accessible under Rule 26(b)(2)(B), thus requiring cost shifting. W Holding Co., at *13-14.

The party claiming ESI is not reasonably accessible must demonstrate the undue burden. The claim cannot simply be the ESI is expensive to produce because of volume, but that the cost must be “associated with some technological feature that inhibits accessibility.” W Holding Co., at *14, citing Chen-Oster v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., 285 F.R.D. 294, 301 (S.D.N.Y. 2012).

In the words of the Court, the FDIC had not “hinted” at any technical problem that hinder searching the ESI. Moreover, the ESI was already in a database for search. W Holding Co., at *14.

Even though the FDIC argued that high production costs could make ESI not reasonably access under FRCP 26(b)(2)(B), the Court made an important distinction between accessibility and proportionality. As the Court explained:

In short, I reject the contention that Rule 26(b)(2)(B)—and its shifting burden to justify production requests—kicks in any time that discovery implicates both (1) electronically stored information and (2) large volumes of data, even where the volume renders review costly.

Because FDIC -R has not shown that access to the Westernbank data is hindered by any unique technological hurdles, it has failed to trigger Rule 26(b)(2)(B). It is therefore not entitled to categorically label the DMS databases “not reasonably accessible.”

W Holding Co., at *16.

Proportionality

The Court attempted to analyze the proportionality factors under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 26(b)(2)(C). However, as the Court stated, “But frankly, the parties’ broad claims about their respective discovery proposals are too speculative to merit a ruling at this time.” W Holding Co., at *18.

The Court noted that the FDIC’s affidavits explained the “bulk costs” of the work, but did not “shed any light on the effort in this case” or provide what it would take to build responsive searches. W Holding Co., at *18-19. The Court stated:

In sum, this is less a situation where the scales are evenly balanced, and more one where the court has been given nothing to place on either side. Until the parties take affirmative steps to conduct discovery—perhaps after test runs, for instance—there is no ground for the court to dramatically alter the defaults under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

W Holding Co., at *19-20.

After a lengthy opinion, the Court’s order can be summarized as follows:

FDIC will neither be categorically required to organize and label its productions, nor permitted to produce documents without adequate organization. 

No cost-shifting is justified at this time, though trial runs showing disproportionate costs, or abusive discovery tactics, could warrant reconsideration. 

The requesting party was to propose search terms first—however, since FDIC oversaw the loading of ESI into a database, it was expected to provide active assistance, and should anticipate consulting its technically-skilled staff or contractors as necessary.

Parties are to meet and confer over privilege issues, opposed to going to the Court initially.

W Holding Co., at *21-23.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Judges want to know the relevant details and reasons for any request for relief. Moreover, the Court is coming into the dispute cold. The Judge does not know the benefits of one review application over another, what is required to build search terms or likely the different search technologies that can be used.

There is a significant difference between accessibility under 26(b)(2)(B) vs proportionality under 26(b)(2)(C).  One way to look at the differences is accessibility is the cost of how you get the data; proportionality involves the benefit of the discovery vs cost. The commonality between the two is both require expert testimony to explain the technical issues to the Court, whether it is retrieving data from legacy systems or using a specific search software to review the data.

We are in a new world where attorneys must explain with expert affidavits why certain technology should be used, what costs are being incurred, why a search is (or is not) reasonable and the age old question of “why” a party is asking the Court for relief. A Judge does not want abstract hypotheticals on cost or searches; a Judge wants to know how the ESI in a lawsuit is being searched, what kind of data is being search and how the technology will make the searches more effective. This requires educating the Judge, which means detailed expert affidavits.

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