Can One Government Agency Be Sanctioned For the Deletion of Emails That Belong to Another Government Agency?

Can One Government Agency Be Sanctioned For the Deletion of Emails That Belong to Another Government Agency?

In Wandering Dago Inc. v. New York State Office of General Services, Judge Randolph F. Treece, writing for the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, held that officials in one state government agency cannot be sanctioned for the destruction of emails belonging to another government agency. 

The facts in Wandering Dago are relatively lengthy: in July 2013, the Plaintiff, the owner of a food truck, applied to be a food vendor at a race course owned by the New York Racing Association (“NYRA”).  The Plaintiff’s application received several complaints, including an email that Bennett Leibman, the New York Deputy Secretary of Gaming and Racing, sent to the President of the NYRA.  In his email, Mr. Leibman indicated that the name of Plaintiff’s truck, “Wandering Dago,” was likely to offend members of the public.  Earlier in the year, the Plaintiff was denied an application to be a vendor for the New York Office of Governmental Services’ (“OGS”) Empire State Plaza Lunch Program for similar reasons. 

On July 22, 2013, news stories emerged, stating that an “unidentified state official” had complained to the NYRA.  On the same day, Mr. Leibman sent an email to several members of the Governor’s Executive Chamber to alert them of the reports.  Ultimately, the OGS rejected the Plaintiff’s application and the Plaintiff sued the NYRA and OGS for violation of his First Amendment right to free speech and Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection.  The Plaintiff, however, did not initially name Mr. Leibman, the New York State Gaming Commission, or any members of the Governor’s Executive Council, as Defendants.  Mr. Leibman subsequently sent an email to the Governor’s Executive Chamber stating that he “may be a witness to the suit.”

In October 2013, Mr. Leibman’s emails were deleted in accordance with a New York State email retention policy which automatically deleted emails older than 90 days.  Several months later, in May 2014, the Plaintiff added Mr. Leibman as a Defendant.  Mr. Leibman requested to be represented by the New York Attorney General (“NYAG”) and a litigation hold was instituted within the Governor’s Executive Chamber.  Unfortunately for the Plaintiff, however, by then, Mr. Leibman’s emails had been long gone. 

The Plaintiff sought sanctions against OGS arguing that the NYAG, which represented OGS, had a duty to preserve Mr. Liebman’s emails, as well as emails that emerged from the Governor’s Executive Chamber.  To support his argument, the Plaintiff pointed to the July 22, 2013 email from Mr. Leibman to the Governor’s Executive Chamber, and contended that the email demonstrated a “coordination effort” between the various state officials in the “multiple arms of State government.”

Despite the Plaintiff’s argument, Judge Treece remained unpersuaded.  Judge Treece began his analysis by stating that a party seeking an adverse inference instruction must establish: (1) that the other party had control over the evidence and 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.  Judge Treece held that the Plaintiff met none of these requirements.

First, Judge Treece held that the Defendants at the time litigation was instituted (OGS and NYRA) had no control over Mr. Leibman’s emails nor the emails of the Governor’s Executive Chambers and, therefore, had no duty to preserve them.  The Court rejected the Plaintiff’s “multiple arms” contention, noting that if the Court held that there was a duty, it would basically create a state-wide duty for every New York agency to preserve its documents whenever another New York agency is sued.  Judge Treece went on to state that Mr. Leibaman only had a duty to preserve once he was added as a Defendant and, although he knew he was likely to be called in as a witness, this was insufficient to establish a duty for him to preserve before he was added. 

Furthermore, although the NYAG represented both Mr. Leibman and the original Defendants, the Court stated that the NYAG did not have a duty to preserve Mr. Leibman’s emails until it was notified that an action has been filed against him.

Next, Judge Treece examined the culpability requirement.  Judge Treece stated that this factor is satisfied when there is a showing that the evidence was destroyed “knowingly, even without intent to breach a duty to preserve [the evidence], or negligently.”  However, the Court held that there was no such evidence in this case and, therefore, the culpability requirement was not met.  Furthermore, the Court noted that even if the Plaintiff could show culpability, he nevertheless failed to show a duty to preserve and, therefore, there was no breach of the duty to preserve.

Finally, Judge Treece addressed the relevance factor.  To show relevance, the Plaintiff must show sufficient evidence from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer that the destroyed evidence would have been favorable to the party seeking the adverse inference.  The Court held that the Plaintiff failed to establish that the evidence would have been favorable to him.

Wandering Dago is significant due to its holding that one government agency cannot be sanctioned for the destruction of emails belonging to another.  In light of the holding in Wandering Dago, plaintiffs suing state agencies should be particularly mindful of which agency they are suing and do a detailed inquiry to determine which other agencies may be involved and which may have needed e-documents.  If they add a government agency as a defendant after litigation has commenced, it may be too late to save crucial evidence from deletion and the plaintiff may not be able to obtain sanctions for that deletion.

Peter received his B.A. in Criminal Justice, cum laude, from Rutgers University in 2010 and will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2016.  Peter is the Senior Notes Editor of the Seton Hall Legislative Journal and will be clerking for the Honorable Sallyanne Floria, Assignment Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Essex Vicinage, upon graduation.

Leave a Reply

  • Find an eLesson

  • Register for Post Notifications

    Subscribe to receive updates whenever a new eLesson is published.

    Manage Subscriptions
  • Let Us Blog Your Event!

    eLessons Learned is fast becoming the site of choice for employers, employees, judges, lawyers, and journalists who are interested in learning more about these areas without being intimidated by the complexity of the topic. In fact, organizations and event coordinators often feature eLessons Learned as their official eDiscovery blog. Fill out our simple registration form to have eLessons Learned be the official blog of your organization or event.

    Register Now
  • Recent Praise

    The blog takes a clever approach to [e-discovery]. Each post discusses an e-discovery case that involves an e-discovery mishap, generally by a company employee. It discusses the conduct that constituted the mishap and then offers its ‘e-lesson’ — a suggestion on how to learn from the mistake and avoid it happening to you.

    Robert Ambrogi

    Legal Tech Blogger and creator of LawSites

    Although I may have missed some, yours is the first article that I have seen addressing Zubulake II. It is often the lost opinion amongst the others.

    Laura A. Zubulake

    Plaintiff, Zubulake v. UBS Warburg

    Click here to see more.