Put the Brakes on Self-Collection

There is no question that automotive product liability litigation is complex. However, self-collection is never a good idea. The Ford Unintended Acceleration Litigation is a case study on why it is a good idea to use archiving solutions and have expert witnesses conduct data collection.

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The Plaintiffs argued that Ford did not have a reasonable search and collection methodology, because the data from custodians was all “self-collected.” Moreover, the self-collection appeared to be conducted by custodians using search terms in the internal email system, which were then stored on the company server. Burd v. Ford Motor Co., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88518, *9-11 (S.D. W. Va. July 8, 2015).

The case continued down a bumpy road with bi-weekly conference calls with the Court. As the Court was faced with contradictory statements from both sides, the Plaintiffs were directed to take depositions of the custodians to investigate whether the search methodology was reasonable. Burd, at *13. Deposition testimony showed that key employees performed limited searches or no searches at all. Burd, at *35-36.

The parties also attempted to meet and confer over how to search for the responsive ESI. The Defendant took the position they would not share their search terms because 1) the search terms were work product; and 2) there actually was no list of search terms used, because each custodian developed their own search terms after discussing the case with counsel. Burd, at *14-15.

Ford argued against producing their own document retention policies as being irrelevant “non-merits” discovery. Burd, at *30. Moreover, Ford argued that information regarding their collection and production methodology was irrelevant “discovery on discovery” that invaded attorney work product. Burd, at *30-31.

The Court stated that the generic objections to “discovery on discovery” and “non-merits” discovery are outmoded and unpersuasive. Burd, at *34 (emphasis added). The Court went on to state:

Here, there have been repeated concerns voiced by Plaintiffs regarding the thoroughness of Ford’s document search, retrieval, and production. Although Ford deflects these concerns with frequent complaints of overly broad and burdensome requests, it has failed to supply any detailed information to support its position. Indeed, Ford has resisted sharing any specific facts regarding its collection of relevant and responsive materials. At the same time that Ford acknowledges the existence of variations in the search terms and processes used by its custodians, along with limitations in some of the searches, it refuses to expressly state the nature of the variations and limitations, instead asserting work product protection. Ford has cloaked the circumstances surrounding its document search and retrieval in secrecy, leading to skepticism about the thoroughness and accuracy of that process. This practice violates “the principles of an open, transparent discovery process.”

Burd, at *34.

The Court explained that document retention policies can be discovered through a Rule 30(b)(6) witness and were not contingent on a claim of spoliation. Burd, at *34-35. Moreover, the Court rejected the claim that the search terms used to identify responsive discovery was protected by the work product doctrine. Burd, at *36. Simply because an attorney discussed how to search with a custodian does not make the search terms and the results protected by the work product doctrine. Burd, at *36-37. The search terms could be produced without disclosing any substances of discussion with an attorney. Id.

The Court granted the Plaintiff’s motion for a deposition of a Rule 30(b)(6) witness on the Defendant’s search and collection methodology for a more transparent process and their collection methods. Burd, at *40-41. However, the Court did not rule on the issue of whether the Defendant had a reasonable collection process or adequate production, because the issue was premature. Id. Witnesses still had to be deposed. That being said, the Plaintiffs could file a new motion if the facts justified it. Id.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Self-collection is like driving a car without brakes. Defensibility requires that litigants document how electronically stored information is identified for collection. This traditionally is done by expert witnesses who use a chain of custody form, documenting search terms, processes, and results as they conduct their investigation. Custodians who are simply looking for ESI in Outlook, not documenting their process with any form of notes, run the huge risk of having an indefensible collection methodology. Moreover, one can argue that a lawyer could not certify the production under Rule 26(g) because the collection process was unreasonable.

Archiving solutions are a huge help to large organization in enacting litigation holds. Many have the ability to sequester custodians by date range and keywords. Alternatively, an expert witness can develop the proper collection methodology for the computer system in use. Once the data is defensibly collected, it can be reviewed for relevance by attorneys.

There is always a justified desire to control litigation costs. However, the discovery workflow of preservation, collection, review, and analysis cannot be shifted to custodians performing self-collection. Litigation requires forensic software used by experts and eDiscovery software used by attorneys to competently practice law.

My advice: put the brakes on self-collection.

You Don’t Want Discovery Overdraft Charges

Discovery deadlines matter. Wells Fargo learned that the hard way with producing a relevant email 8 months after the close of discovery. Given the nature of the relevancy to the lawsuit, limited additional discovery was reopened.

Opps_iStock_Here is the short overview of the case: Plaintiff’s asked Wells Fargo if the other Defendants (now dismissed) were a legitimate business engaged in securities sales. The bank said yes and the Plaintiff transferred $80,000 to the Defendant’s bank account in order to purchase securities that would yield a return of $280,000.

The second transaction involved reinvesting $250,000 of the promised $280,000 to fund a $500,000 loan to renovate an office building, plus an additional $50,000 transaction fee. Gazian v. Wells Fargo Bank Na, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69701, *2-3.

The Plaintiffs attempted to withdraw $30,000 and transfer the $250,000 to the Defendants. Wells Fargo informed the Plaintiffs that the dismissed Defendants accounts had been emptied and no money would be transferred to the Plaintiffs. Id.

The Plaintiff’s sued Wells Fargo on the theory the bank “knowingly or negligently made false representations to Plaintiffs” about the dismissed Defendants. Gazian, at *3.

Enter the late-produced email message:

From: BROWN, Patrick [Wells Fargo]

Sent: Tue 8/2/2011 5:36:42 PM

Re: HSBC Bank Guarantee Registration Number BH5843[.]

I have conducted a review on the signor, Craig Cason, for this account, [redacted]7443 — Increase Capital Investments LLC and found several items of concern . . .

This individual has been investigated by the SEC for securities violations and accusations of fraud.

The address on the account is a virtual office that can be rented for $50/month, used frequently by shell companies to give the appearance of legitimacy even though no actual business is conducted there.

The client has filed multiple bankruptcies and has several outstanding judgments (some in excess of $100K), which is not consistent with someone purporting to have $250mil in assets.

Please do not process the receipt of this security. We will be restricting the account and referring the matter to our Security Fraud group. Additionally, please DO NOT disclose this information to the client or the outcome of our review. Please advise the client that we cannot assist him with his request.

Gazian, at *4.

The Defendants claimed this messaged pertained to another securities deal and was not relevant. Gazian, at *5. The Plaintiff and the Court did not agree.

The Court reopened discovery so the Plaintiffs could conduct 5 additional depositions of no more than 20 hours of depo time; 10 additional requests for production; and 10 additional interrogatories. The Court went further to say that the additional depositions and written discovery could inquire into the preservation of emails sent to and from one of the Wells Fargo custodians. Gazian, at *7-8.

Bow Tie Thoughts

A lawsuit can hinge on one smoking gun email that was produced late. This sort of situation is one that needs to be avoided by litigants. The problem when this happens is often one of not having an effective information governance solution, or not issuing a litigation hold correctly, or not collecting ESI, or not knowing how to leverage early case assessment tools to find potentially relevant information. To put it mildly, disaster can happen for many reasons.

How can parties avoid these situations? Use sound technologies to manage data that can issue a litigation hold and preserve relevant ESI. This does require determining what is relevant, but these are problems that can be solved by knowing what actions to take and the tools to properly litigate a case.

Can You Ask the Court to Order a Party to Follow the Duty to Preserve?

videopresentationmanA Pro Se Plaintiff in a prison inmate case requested the Court order the Defendants not to destroy any relevant video surveillance footage from a specific date. The Court declined,  because the Defendant was already subject to the duty to preserve. Ross v. Conner, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146887, at *17-18.

The Plaintiff [rightly] was concerned that the Defendants had a document destruction policy of one-year. However, the Court found it unnecessary to issue an order for the Defendants to preserve information that was already subject to the duty to preserve. 

The Court explained as follows:

Under the doctrine of spoliation, parties have a duty to preserve (including a duty to not destroy) evidence when litigation is filed or becomes reasonably anticipated. To fulfill the duty to preserve relevant evidence, “[o]nce a party reasonably anticipates litigation, it is obligated to suspend its routine document retention/destruction policy and implement a “litigation hold” to ensure the preservation of relevant documents.” Here, if Defendants destroy any exculpatory evidence they will be subject to sanctions. However, because they are already under a duty to preserve evidence, an order from this Court is not necessary. 

Ross, at *18.

Bow Tie Thoughts 

There are no shortage of cases where the duty to preserve has gotten attorneys and parties a like in trouble. However, it is difficult to ask a Court to order a party to “follow the rules,” because the party already has a duty to so. However, if there is evidence of wrongdoing by the party that was subject to the duty to preserve, the outcome could be different.

Plaintiffs are well served to include a “preservation letter” to the opposing party early in the case. Some attorneys include this letter with their complaint. This acts as both a shot across the bow on the importance of preserving ESI, but puts the opposing party on notice of what sources of ESI are relevant in the case.

The Duty to Preserve on Island Time

No vacation should end with people becoming Plaintiffs. Sadly, that happened on a trip to Hawaii when someone had a slip and fall in a hotel garage after exiting an elevator. Riley v. Marriott Int’l, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135728 (W.D.N.Y.Sept. 25, 2014).

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The Defendant hotel maintained both video surveillance of the area and “sweep logs” when the area was swept. However, the Defendant lost both. Neither the Plaintiffs or Court said “Mahalo” over this loss.

Be Prepared to Explain What Happened

The Defendant’s Loss Prevention Manager responsible for preserving information for the Hotel explained that the video system records 24-hours a day, is stored on a hard drive, and those records are maintained for 30-days. Riley, at *2-3. The Manager watched the security footage after being told of the Plaintiff’s fall, her removal from the area in a wheelchair, followed by hotel employees placing wet floor signs, and then sweeping up the water. Riley, at *3. The video was turned over the hotel’s liability insurance company. Id.

The Defendant failed to explain any reason for its loss of the video evidence and opined the sweep logs were destroyed per the document retention policy. Riley, at *10-11. The Court went on to state the following on the loss of the video:

Although facing a serious motion for sanctions with potentially significant consequences, Marriott apparently did not investigate the destruction of the relevant evidence or, if it did, explain the results of the investigation. Thus, the only information that this Court has concerning the destruction of the evidence are the assertions of Marriott’s counsel made during oral argument. Even then, Marriott’s counsel was unable to provide any facts concerning the circumstances under which the video footage was destroyed. The failure to provide the Court with any sworn facts from persons with knowledge of the destruction of the challenged evidence demonstrates such a lack of diligence that it suggests bad faith destruction. In any event, Marriott’s failure to preserve the entire video footage relating to Linda’s accident and the sweep logs for the day in question despite the Hotel’s loss prevention employee’s testimony that he knew that he had a duty to preserve relevant evidence constitutes, at a minimum, gross negligence.

Riley, at *11-12.

The Court found that the lost evidence prejudiced the Plaintiffs and the Defendant’s failure to explain how the information was destroyed amounted to gross negligence, thus allowing an inference the information was unfavorable to the Defendant. Riley, at *14.

Be Precise in The Remedy You Request

The Plaintiff’s request for relief asked the Court to “remedy the injustice caused by defendants by ruling the evidence in [p]laintiffs’ favor and by granting summary judgment.” Riley, at *17.

The Court interpreted the requested relief as to strike the Defendant’s answer or an adverse inference instruction. The Court held striking the answer was “too drastic” and instead issued an adverse inference instruction to “permit, but not require, the factfinder to infer that the missing video footage would have been favorable to the [Plaintiffs] and unfavorable to [the Defendant].” Riley, at *19.

Bow Tie Thoughts

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The Duty to Preserve never goes on vacation. Moreover, no lawyer should be sent into Court armed only with a Ukulele to sing a song on not knowing what happened to relevant electronically stored information.

If a party has actual notice of a triggering event and has reviewed relevant evidence, that information absolutely has to be preserved. This requires the information to be defensibly copied, which could mean a mirror image or a targeted collection, depending on the needs of the case. What then follows are chain of custody forms that document each step of preserving the information. The data should be maintained in a secure medium, which could be an evidence locker with biometric security (again, depending on the needs of the case).

This case is interesting because despite the inability to explain what happened, the Court refused to strike the Defendant’s answer. I agree this is the right call, especially considering the fact the Court found gross negligence for the lost data.

Don’t Phone in Adverse Inference Allegations

I have a nut on the phoneCan a Plaintiff win adverse inference instructions for the destruction of a phone recording destroyed after a one-year retention policy and whose relevance (or existence) was not known by the Defendants for two years after the event happened?

Short answer is no.

The test for establishing adverse inference instructions for the destruction of evidence is:

(1) That the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed;

(2) That the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and

(3) That the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party’s claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense.

Candy Marcum v. Scioto County, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 112100, 42-43 (S.D. Ohio Aug. 13, 2014).

The case involved the Plaintiff seeking adverse inference instructions for the recording of a phone call in November 2008. The deceased called his wife from the county jail. The recording was deleted per the one-year document retention.

The Magistrate Judge initially found that the phone recording was destroyed per the Defendant’s document destruction policy, but granted adverse inference instructions because of the Defendants’ “negligence.” The Magistrate Judge looked to the facts that the Sheriff requested an investigation into the death of the victim and the Plaintiff had hired an attorney. Marcum, at *43.

The District Court Judge found these facts did not constitute enough for an adverse inference instruction for the phone recording. The Defendants did not know of the recording, which goes against the “culpable state of mind” requirement for adverse inference instructions. Marcum, at *43-44.

The Plaintiff further declined an interview with the investigator in 2008 and did not notify the Defendant of the existence of the phone call. Moreover, the Plaintiff waited two years to file a lawsuit and request the recording. Marcum, at *44. The existence of the recording was not made until 2010. Id.

The Defendants did retain relevant video, but claimed they never knew of the phone call or its relevance. As such, the District Court modified the Magistrate Judge’s order regarding adverse inference instructions. Marcum, at *48.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Attorneys cannot phone in spoliation allegations. If one side believes information exists that should be preserved, include that in your preservation letter to the opposing party. It is difficult for one party to be attacked for the destruction of evidence if they were never on notice of its existence. Moreover, discuss possible sources of relevant ESI during the meet and confer to ensure the electronic information is both identified and preserved.

Don’t Call Discovery Over Document Retention Policies Premature After You Admit Destroying Relevant Discovery

A Defendant sought reconsideration of a Court order allowing discovery on their document retention policies and litigation hold strategy on the grounds 1) the order was premature and 2) it was irrelevant and not discoverable. Cactus Drilling Co. v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45251, 11-14 (D. Okla. 2014).

The Court denied the motion.

The discovery at issue centered on a key player who left the Defendant’s company whose files were accidently destroyed. The Court stated:

Plaintiff is entitled to inquire into the circumstances of the destruction of such relevant files while this litigation is pending, whether defendants took proper precautions, and whether such precautions were actually exercised by defendants’ employees. Thus, clearly a discovery request on defendants’ document retention and litigation hold practices and policies and whether such policies were followed with respect to Ms. Valerio’s hard copy Cactus file is relevant and discoverable.

Cactus, at *13.

The Court also held that the order was not premature, as the Defendants requested a ruling on whether they had to produce the discovery and witness for deposition in their Joint Status Report. Cactus, at *12.

The parties were ordered to meet and confer over privilege and stipulation issues over the pending discovery. The Court “vented” over the parties prior cooperation in a footnote:

The Court has been disappointed with the parties’ inability to communicate in good faith and work out many discovery issues that could have been resolved between the parties. Such behavior has necessitated repeated intervention by the Court, unnecessarily and significantly depleting the Court and the parties’ valuable time and resources. Accordingly, the Court advises the parties that it will not look favorably on any party engaging in less than good faith behavior that leads to further abuse of the Court’s time and resources.

Cactus, at *14, fn 5.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Discussing the preservation of discovery, its scope and privilege is NEVER premature. These issues should be at the first meet and confer. Attorneys should be actively thinking about preservation the moment the case begins. Lawyers cannot afford to take a “let’s see how the motions go” before ensuring discovery is preserved.

Why do attorneys wait to exercise their duty of competency to ensure the preservation of discovery? Some might not know how to, others might not want to spend the money and others might think they can keep their clients happy by having the least amount of intrusion. These are all bad reasons.

An effective client interview and litigation hold strategy is less invasive then the joys of a person most knowledgeable deposition over how a litigation hold was enacted. Moreover, motion practice is not known for its low billable hours.

There are some lawyers who model their meet and confer strategies right out of Tombstone. This is not a good idea. There are issues worth fighting about, but methods of preservation, the scope of discovery, and other technical issues should stay objective. These issues are vital for moving the case forward, but are not worth brawling over. Save the fight for the merits.

You Need a Duty to Preserve Before Issuing Sanctions

In a case where the Court called the Defendants’ disclosures troubling, the Plaintiffs sought sanctions for the failure to back-up hard drives or issue a litigation hold.

There was one big problem with the Plaintiffs’ argument: they did not prove that the Defendant had a duty to preserve the email when it was destroyed. Magnuson v. Newman, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 138595, at *44 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 25, 2013).

The Court stated the earliest the Defendants could have been on notice of the duty to preserve was on August 18, 2010, when they were served the original complain. Magnuson, at *45. Additionally, the Defendants had a three-month email retention policy. Id. 

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The Plaintiffs did not even argue the timing of the destruction of the email, instead focusing exclusively on the fact the Defendants:

1) Did not back up their computers or;

2) Issue a litigation hold. Id.

In the Plaintiffs’ view, that amounted to per se gross negligence. Id. 

The Court noted that the Plaintiffs did not cite any authority requiring the Defendants to “back-up” their computers. Magnuson, at *45-46.

The Court stated the Second Circuit abrogated the holding of Pension Committee’s holding that it is gross negligence per se to not issue a litigation hold. Id. Moreover, whether a party failed to failed to issue a litigation hold is one factor in determining whether a party should be sanctioned for spoliation. Magnuson, at *46.

The Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the duty to preserve had yet triggered when relevant email was lost as a part of a routine data retention policy. As such, sanctioned were not warranted, however the Court warned that it would preclude any late emails from being introduced at trial. Id. 

Bow Tie Thoughts

The duty to preserve is the trickiest part of litigation for attorneys in my opinion. Lawyers have to give clients news they do not want to hear that can disrupt business. Often times lawyers are in denial about having to learn how clients communicate to identify relevant sources of ESI. Despite these challenges for many, there is simply no escaping the duty to preserve.

That being said, lawyers cannot argue sanctions are warranted if there was no duty to preserve. Moreover, the failure to issue a litigation hold is one factor in determining sanctions, not an outcome determinative fact.