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.

 

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