Under what circumstances does a duty to preserve evidence and documents arise?

Before A Lawsuit Is Filed, Can A Company Be Required To Preserve Evidence? In NY, The Duty Can Be Triggered Even Without A Cause of Action

This case arose against the backdrop of a criminal trial involving a rabbi who was convicted of multiple counts of sexually related crimes against a girl beginning when she was twelve years old. During the rabbi’s trial, the presiding judge made several announcements notifying the audience that photography was stringently forbidden. This prohibition was also displayed on numerous signs in the courthouse and courtroom. Even though these notices were on display, numerous audience members took photographs of the juvenile victim during her testimony. Company Lemon Juice, the plaintiff, and two others, Joseph Fried and Yona Weissman, were arrested for violating the judge’s prohibition on photography. However, Lemon Juice was not sitting with Fried and Weissman in the courtroom, where an officer of the court discovered Fried and Weissman took pictures of the juvenile on their cellular phone.

The court officer later discovered a photograph on Twitter of the juvenile victim. The image on Twitter resembled the image he viewed on the cellular phone of Fried and Weissman earlier that day. The Twitter account used to upload the photograph to the internet was in the name of Lemon Juice. The Twitter account also showed a picture of Lemon Juice. Subsequently, Lemon Juice was arrested and charged with second-degree criminal contempt for acting in concert with Fried and Weissman. After fourteen court appearances to defend himself, the charges against Lemon Juice were dismissed after a prosecutorial investigation found that Lemon Juice had no connection to the Twitter account that was the subject of the charges.

The background leads to the case that is the subject of this article. After the charges against Lemon Juice were dropped, he sought a court order to compel Twitter “to disclose basic subscriber information, records, internet protocol addresses or similar information sufficient to identify the individual or individuals who owned or operated the subject account and logged into or tweeted on the subject account.” Lemon Juice also sought a court order compelling Twitter to preserve documents containing information relevant to the upload of the picture of the juvenile victim. Lemon Juice is seeking this information in order to secure the identity of the person who uploaded the image so he can name that person in a tort action.

An order for a pre-action disclosure to be ordered by a court, the requested information must be sought solely for the purpose of determining who should be named as the defendant. It is not allowable as a fishing expedition to gauge whether a cause of action truly exists. Despite this prohibition on fishing expeditions, a plaintiff need only provide a factual basis to show that a prima facie cause of action exists. These facts will be construed in a light most favorable to plaintiff as well. In this case, Lemon Juice provided a sufficient factual basis to prove a prima facie action for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Additionally, the court addressed a possible argument from the creator of the Twitter account. The argument would be that freedom of speech protects his or her behavior because anonymous speech via the internet is afforded First Amendment protection. In this case however, because Lemon Juice suffered tortious damage, the First Amendment does not protect the unnamed defendant’s speech. The court ordered Twitter to disclose the user information sought for the account pertinent to this motion.      

As to the preservation of evidence, the court ruled that Twitter must preserve the documents requested by Lemon Juice. The court stated, “prior to the commencement of an action [in New York state court], disclosure to preserve information may be obtained by court order pursuant to CPLR 3102(c). When a potential plaintiff invokes CPLR 3102(c) for the purpose of preserving information, the existence of a claim need not be demonstrated with certainty.” In this case, Lemon Juice greatly exceeded this threshold to compel preservation because he demonstrated a prima facie cause of action.

There are two lessons to be gleaned from this case. The first is that anonymous on internet posting will not necessarily preserve your anonymity. If you post something that potentially constitutes a tort on another individual, the First Amendment will not save you. The more relevant lesson is that the duty to preserve may be triggered even if a plaintiff cannot demonstrate the existence of a claim with certainty. Companies with possible pending litigation can be required to preserve documents and evidence even if a lawsuit has not yet been commenced.

Daniel received a B.A. in Criminology and Criminal Justice from The University of Maryland. He will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015. Presently Daniel is serving as a legal intern in Seton Hall’s Juvenile Justice Clinic. After graduation Daniel will clerk for a trial judge in the Superior Court of New Jersey.

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