Search Term Fights Over Proportionality

Attorneys have been fighting over search terms for years. Many times this fight is without expert advice, search efficiency reports, or any evidence to support arguments for or against proportionality.

I also think fighting over “search terms” is actually the wrong fight. The focus should be on search concepts and leveraging advanced analytics to identify relevant ESI.


Take the recent whistle blower case of Lutzeier v. Citigroup Inc. The Plaintiff sought an order to compel additional searches with the following terms:

(1) “Executive training” and/or “leadership development training program”; 

(2) “PEP” and/or “program expenditure proposal” and/or “internal control”,

(3) “OCC,” “office of comptroller of currency,” “FRB,” “federal reserve board,” and/or “consent order”;

(4) “Insufficient assurance”; and

(5) “Whistleblower,” “retaliate,” “retaliation,” “SOX,” “Sarbanes Oxley,” and/or “Dodd Frank.”

Lutzeier v. Citigroup Inc., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11727, 20-21 (E.D. Mo. Feb. 2, 2015).

The Defendant argued that the search terms were “so common and generic” that the results would include a “significant volume of irrelevant documents that it is not sufficient to justify the additional burden.” Lutzeier, at *21. To be fair to the Defendant, they had a strong argument that on their face the Plaintiff’s search terms look broad.

The Defendant argued that the search terms for “Fred,” “Lutzeier,” “LOIS,” “COSMOS,” and “Champney” would produce the relevant ESI. Moreover, adding the proposed terms would add an additional 555,909 files, therefore the burden “greatly outweighs the likelihood that these searches will yield additional documents not already captured by Defendants’ search protocol.” Lutzeier at *21, citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(2)(C)(iii)).

The Court agreed with the Defendants that the search terms were generic, excepted at the search term “consent order.” As such, the Court denied the Plaintiff’s request for additional searches, with the exception of one additional search term. Lutzeier at *21-22.

I do not like second guessing Courts, but I really do not like this result. We have many types of advance analytics for searching that go far beyond “search terms.” We can see communication patterns; identify date ranges; and key players making relevant communications. Moreover, the issue of finding responsive information is not one of “search terms,” but of “search concepts.” What sort of information supports a party’s claims or defense? What is relevant to that case? This goes beyond determining specific words to use, but specific concepts to find relevant ESI.

One of the challenges I see from discussing eDiscovery with litigators, is that many lawyers think that because they can perform legal research that they are competent to conduct advance searches of electronically stored information. While a podiatrist is competent to treat an ingrown toenail, that doctor is not competent to perform brain surgery (and the brain surgeon is not the right doctor to perform surgery on a broken ankle). Each is an expert in their respective fields. The same applies to lawyers and eDiscovery experts.

My friends who are eDiscovery experts would have suggestions on the Plaintiff’s search terms and counter arguments to the Defense objections (after sufficient education on the facts of the case). I’d wager they would develop search strings to narrow the Plaintiff’s search terms based on the Defendant’s search terms.

Maybe the parties had expert reports supporting their positions, but I cannot tell from the Court order (the fact the Defendant had an exact count of ESI files shows a factual argument was made to the Court, perhaps based on a search efficiency report). Regardless, there are ways to leverage the technology we have to find relevant and responsive ESI. I believe other options could have been used in this case, but would need more information to recommend a strategy.


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