News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., is a breach of contract case involving multiple eDiscovery disputes. According to the Plaintiff, the Defendant did the following:
Destroyed relevant email evidence, including an email server;
Failed to produce responsive documents in discovery due to the above failure; and
Failed to run appropriate ESI searches on Defendants’ computers.
News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs. v. Floorgraphics, Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76543, at *3 (D.N.J. May 30, 2012).
The Plaintiffs further argued the Defendants needed to produce additional discovery and sanctions were warranted. Additionally, the Plaintiffs sought a neutral computer forensic expert to conduct an evaluation of Defendants’ computer systems. Id.
e-Discovery Mea Culpa
The Defendants countered that no discovery had been destroyed, but admitted that their discovery production was deficient. News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., at *3-4.
The Defendants explained [conceded] that they searched the wrong computers and applied the wrong search terms. News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., at *4.
However, the Defendants stated they attempted to correct every deficiency and would continue to do so. Id.
Regarding the “destroyed” email server, the Defendants stated it was a “pass-through” server that had been reformatted. Id. The Defendants explained the server would push incoming emails through the server to individual computers. Id. According to the Defendants, there was no ESI on this pass-through server. Id.
As part of their mea culpa, the Defendants proclaimed they would make witnesses available to be re-deposed and pay the reasonable attorneys fees for the depositions. Id. Moreover, any motions to compel were premature, because they were producing hundreds of thousands of documents. News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., at *5.
The Court’s Findings
The case should be about the merits not some esoteric electronic discovery issue.
Magistrate Judge Mark Falk
The Court’s conclusions on the dispute were direct and to the point:
One, the request to compel discovery is premature. Defendants admit that they used incorrect ESI search terms and did not search all of the appropriate avenues of electronic information. They have represented to the Court that 230,000 documents are in the process of being produced and that the production is being checked and re-checked by Defendants’ computer experts to ensure its accuracy. Thus, there is no basis for an order compelling the production of documents until, at least, Defendants’ production is complete.
Two, it appears that Defendants failed to meet their Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(f) ESI obligations at the outset of the case. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(f)(3)(C). The briefing discloses that Defendants’ counsel was not aware of the structure of Defendants’ computer systems until recently. It is inappropriate for Defendants to only now—three years after the case was filed and after discovery has closed—investigate their electronic systems.
Three, the Court is unable to determine whether information was contained on Defendants’ “reformatted,” “pass through” server. The parties’ positions on this are diametrically different and consist of unsupported conclusions laced with hyperbole.
Four, it is unclear whether ESI allegedly destroyed (or “passed through” Defendants’ server) may be recovered and, if so, the cost of doing so. This important issue is not adequately addressed in the papers.
Five, it is unclear whether the burden and expense of conducting the electronic discovery outweighs the benefit of doing so. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)(C)(iii). The Court cannot discern from the papers whether a deep forensic search is justified.
Six, the appointment of a neutral computer expert is not called for at this time. In effect, it would transfer the ESI obligations of the parties to the Court. Stated another way, the issues are not sufficiently articulated for the Court to appoint an expert to embark on an unlimited search.
Seven, there is no basis for the Court to consider spoilation sanctions (or any sanctions) until, at least, Defendants complete their discovery production and the questions raised above are answered.
News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., at *5-7, (emphasis added).
The Court allowed the Plaintiff to take the 30(b)(6) deposition of the Defendants’ eDiscovery PMK that would be binding on the Defendant. The parties were directed to meet and confer on the deponent. Additionally, the PMK needed to be able to address whether any ESI could be recovered and the specific cost to do so. News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., at *7.
In the event there were still eDiscovery disputes after the deposition, the Court stated:
[T]he parties may simultaneously submit letters (double spaced, not to exceed ten pages) explaining the relevance and importance of the discovery and the benefits and burdens associated with the discovery—e.g., whether the costs and effort of securing the discovery is proportional to the expected result. Any letter from counsel must be accompanied by an affidavit from the party’s ESI expert which addresses the technical aspects of the dispute. The ESI expert’s affidavit must discuss the projected costs of proceeding with as much specificity as possible. General, conclusory statements—e.g., “it will be prohibitively expensive”—are unacceptable.
News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., at *7-8.
The Court’s opinion sent a very strong message on the discovery disputes between the parties: The case should be about the merits not some esoteric electronic discovery issue. News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., at *8 (emphasis added).
The Court was blunt in advising the parties it was “wary of the use of broad and ambiguous electronic discovery requests as a litigation tactic or as a ‘fishing expedition.’” Id. Moreover, the Court stated it was “troubling” for this level of discovery dispute to surface after 18 months of discovery. Id. Additionally, the Court effectively sent an ethical message to the parties to “proceed in good faith, take reasonable positions, and attempt to resolve their dispute in accordance with the Guidelines For Litigation Conduct.” News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., at *7-8.
The opinion concludes with the warning the Court “not hesitate to award substantial fees to the non-prevailing party or any party found to be proceeding in bad faith.” News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., at *8-9.
Bow Tie Thoughts
I was impressed with Judge Mark Falk’s outlining of case issues and his order. Additionally, the Defendants attempts to correct their mistakes were very respectable.
This opinion highlights multiple eDiscovery issues that are taking place all over the United States: 1) The Duty of Competency in eDiscovery; 2) Providing the Court adequate information to make rulings; and 3) Do not forget the merits of the lawsuit with electronic discovery issues.
The Duty of Competency and eDiscovery has been slowly developing issue since December 2006. There are many attorneys who outright admit they do not understand preservation, review methodologies or discovery productions. One friend recently told me his firm just asks for paper productions because of the lack of knowledge in what to request.
In the current case, the Court stated, “It is inappropriate for Defendants to only now—three years after the case was filed and after discovery has closed—investigate their electronic systems.” News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., at *5-6. Moreover, the Court it was “troubling” to have this sort of discovery dispute after 18 months of discovery. News Am. Mktg. In-Store Servs., at *8.
How can attorneys best meet their duty of competency in eDiscovery? While every client is different, it is important to have a discovery plan from the inception of the case. This may include in-depth client interviews with the parties, custodians, and IT staff (to name a few), to learn how the client uses technology. How does their email system work? Do they text or iMessage? What sorts of computers do they use? Any tablets? Voicemail? Any personal devices used for business?
I believe the Duty of Competency requires attorneys to either understand their client’s technology themselves or at a minimum, hire a consultant to help the attorneys navigate the issues. Without such investigation, it is difficult to meet one’s ethical duty of candor to the court on the facts of the lawsuit and provide competent representation of their clients.
As to the second issue, lawyers cannot simply walk into court and tell a judge, “Your Honor, it’s expensive.” The first questions from the Court will be “why and how much.” The answer cannot simply be “Because it is.”
Attorneys need to argue ESI is not reasonably accessible because of undue burden or cost (Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)(B)) or that the burden and expense of conducting the electronic discovery outweighs the benefit of doing so (Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)(C)(iii)), with specific information, most likely from an eDiscovery expert or IT professional.
The unofficial standard for demonstrating undue burden or expense might be from Judge Facciola’s United States ex rel. McBride v. Halliburton Co., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6412, 1-2 (D.D.C. Jan. 24, 2011) opinion: “In excruciating, but highly educational and useful, detail.”
Judges want to have enough information that they can make the right decision. While there will be attorneys simply proclaiming searching a hard drive is expensive, the better litigation practice is to have a well documented affidavit outlining the process and cost to search for specific ESI.
Finally, Judge Falk’s statement “The case should be about the merits not some esoteric electronic discovery issue,” should go on t-shirts at e-Discovery conferences. It is easy to become enamored with search technology, collection methodologies and every other eDiscovery issue. However, every eDiscovery issue should be framed around the facts of the lawsuit, the causes of action and be relevant to competently move the case forward. The technology exists to enable lawyers to practice law, not to overshadow the merits of the case.