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In Brown v. Tellermate Holdings Ltd., Tellermate Holdings, the defendant company, terminated two employees for allegedly failing to meet sales targets over several years. The employees, feeling that they were wrongfully terminated due to their age, filed an employment discrimination action against the company as well as other entities and individuals associated with Tellermate. Throughout pre-trial proceedings, the case was plagued with numerous discovery mishaps. The plaintiffs requested from the defendant company data stored and maintained by Salesforce.com, which would, in theory, evidence plaintiffs’ sales records over the last few years in addition to allowing the plaintiffs to compare their sales figures with other (younger) employees. However, even though numerous discovery conferences were held, numerous discovery motions filed with the court, and several discovery orders issued by the court, the defendant corporation failed to produce the requested data and documents. Ultimately, the plaintiffs filed for judgment and sanctions under Federal Rule 37(b)(2); the court held a three-day evidentiary hearing on the matter. The presiding judge, United States Magistrate Judge Terence P. Kemp, identified three areas in which the defendant company or its counsel failed in its obligations to the plaintiffs and the court in relation to production of documents and data: Defendant’s counsel failed to understand how Tellermate’s data stored with Salesforce.com could be obtained and produced to plaintiffs, which resulted in counsel making false statements to the plaintiffs’ counsel and the court; By failing to understand how the defendant’s data was stored and maintained, defendant’s counsel took no steps to preserve the integrity of the information in Tellermate’s database located with Salesforce.com; Defendant’s counsel failed to learn of the existence of documents relating to a prior age discrimination charge until almost a year after plaintiffs requested the documents; Defendant’s counsel produced a “document dump” resulting from counsel’s use of an overly-broad keyword search that yielded around 50,000 irrelevant documents, which plaintiffs’ counsel could not review within the time period ordered by the court. The Salesforce.com Data Judge Kemp found that Tellermate’s failure to preserve and produce the data logged on Salesforce.com’s website irreparably deprived the plaintiffs of reliable information necessary in supporting their claims. Although defendant’s counsel initially stated that Tellermate “does not maintain salesforce.com information in hard copy format,” “cannot print out accurate historical records from salesforce.com,” and that “discovery of salesforce.com information should be directed at salesforce.com, not Tellermate,” the court found such statements to be on their face false. In fact, Tellermate did have access to the information sought by the plaintiffs as one, and sometimes two, of Tellermate's employees enjoyed the highest level of access to the Salesforce.com information. The court determined that the information eventually produced by the defendants could not be trusted as “even a forensic computer expert has no way to detect hat changes, deletions[,] or additions were made to the database on an historical basis.” Because of Tellermate’s failure to preserve the Salesforce.com data, Judge Kamp precluded Tellermate from providing evidence showing that the plaintiff-employees were terminated for their alleged underperformance. Counsel’s Obligations With Respect to ESI The court found that the defense’s counsel fell short of their well-established obligations to critically examine the documents and data Tellermate provided to them. Tellermate made false representations to its counsel about the data’s availability and therefore caused undue delay in document production as well as false and misleading arguments to be made to plaintiffs’ counsel and to the court. Subsequently, the plaintiffs were forced to file discovery motions before the court to address these discovery issues which produced the Salesforce.com data that was never properly preserved albeit its significance to the plaintiffs’ case. Judge Kemp ultimately determined that counsel for the defendant conducted an inadequate investigation of Tellermate’s electronic data while simultaneously failing to understand the most basic concepts of cloud computing and cloud storage, which led to counsel’s failing to preserve key electronic data. Control of Data Stored in the Cloud As mentioned above, Tellermate and its counsel repeatedly represented to the plaintiffs and to the court that it did not possess and could not produce any of the Salesforce.com data requested by plaintiffs. Additionally, the defendants asserted that in light of those facts, the defendants could not preserve the data stored on Salesforce.com’s databases at any point prior to litigation. Judge Kemp dismissed these claims. The court concluded that, without any factual basis whatsoever, no substantive argument could be made that Tellermate was prohibited from accessing the information stored on the Salesforce.com databases or that Salesforce.com was responsible for preserving Tellermate’s information and data as it was the entity that maintained possession and control of the data. In reality, Tellermate was the custodian of the data stored on the Salesforce.com databases. While information can be stored in locations outside the immediate control of the corporate entity by third party providers, it can still be under the legal control of the owner of the data and therefore must be produced by the owner under Federal Rule 34(a)(1)(A). Additionally, had Tellermate’s counsel critically examined the agreement between Tellermate and Salesforce.com, it would have realized that Tellermate was the owner of all data created by its employees and that Tellermate could, at any time, download the data stored on the Salesforce.com databases for preservation and production purposes. Limitations on Document Production to Avoid “Document Dumps” Tellermate produced to the plaintiffs 50,000 pages of irrelevant documents, classified by Judge Kemp as a “document dump.” Tellermate’s counsel refused to disclose which search terms it used in deciding which documents to produce to the plaintiffs, claiming that the search terms were privileged. In actuality, the court discovered, Tellermate’s counsel only used the full names and nicknames of employees as its search terms, which obviously yielded irrelevant documents. Without reviewing the returned documents, and because the court’s deadline for producing relevant documents was rapidly approaching, Tellermate’s counsel produced to the plaintiffs the documents as “Attorney’s Eyes Only.” The court recognized that a protective order was permitted only when counsel held a good faith belief that such information constituted a “trade secret or other confidential research, development, or proprietary business information, and that such material was entitled to a higher level of protection than otherwise provided in the protective order.” Tellermate could not demonstrate entitlement to this level of protection with respect to the search terms used in procuring documentation for discovery: The alleged burden imposed by a high volume production does not provide the producing party or its counsel free reign to choose a given designation and ignore the Court’s order pertaining to that designation. First, the court looked to whether competitive harm would result from the disclosure of the types of documents produced by Tellermate to a competitor; however, Tellermate’s memorandum on the issue did not contain any evidence about the harm which might result if the plaintiffs were permitted to review any particular document that was labeled “Attorney’s Eyes Only.” Second, Tellermate’s argument as to the harm it would experience was entirely conclusory and was not supported by evidence: Apart from the general concept that disclosure of some types of sensitive information to a competitor may result in harm, it contains no particularized argument which is specific to [the plaintiff], the way in which he was competing with Tellermate, and how the disclosure of any one of the 50,000 pages marked as attorneys-eyes-only would harm Tellermate’s interests. The court was astounded that Tellermate continually failed to meet the burden required to designate the documents as “Attorney’s Eyes Only” and, up until the hearing date, made no effort the redesignate a single page of the 50,000 produced in order to permit the plaintiffs from viewing the documents. Sanctions The court had absolutely no qualms with an award of attorneys’ fees for all motion practice connected to the preservation and production of the Salesforce.com data. “Had Tellermate and its counsel simply fulfilled their basic discovery obligations, neither of these matters would have come before the Court, or at least not in the posture they did.” The court took great concern to the extraordinary lengths the plaintiffs had to go to in order to obtain the documents maintained by the defendant and, even after several rounds of motions, were not able to obtain all of them. The “Attorney’s Eyes Only” designation on the 50,000 documents produced was also unfounded, the court held, and unduly precluded plaintiffs from necessary evidence that supported their case, which warranted fees under Federal Rule 37(a)(5)(A). Conclusion Tellermate provides a warning to all attorneys that the realm of technology in which their clients are constantly interact with is always changing. Therefore, so does the practice of electronic discovery. Counsel must always meet its duties with respect to ESI by engaging in discussions with its clients and opposing counsel about ESI; being aware, and perhaps even knowledgeable, of new and emerging technologies; and investigating and assessing with its clients the sources and status of potentially relevant ESI. By forgoing these practices, counsel opens itself and its clients to easily avoided and costly sanctions. Daniel is the Editor-in-Chief of eLessions Learned and a third-year law student at Duquesne University. To read more about him, click here.  Salesforce.com is a cloud-based customer relationship management system with more than 100,000 corporate customers around the world. Tellermate and its employees used Salesforce.com to track their sales and other interaction with customers. The court recognized that each sales person using the Salesforce.com management system could add, remove, or otherwise change data on their sales account.  See Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 382 F.Supp.2d 536 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (counsel had an affirmative duty to monitor preservation an d ensure all sources of discovery information were identified).
An employer doesn’t need an attorney to tell him or her that destroying evidence relevant to litigation may make the court very unhappy. Often times, when a party acts in bad faith by intentionally destroying evidence, the court will impose a sanction such as an “adverse inference” jury instruction. This type of instruction orders the jury to infer that the missing evidence would have been detrimental to the guilty party. But what if a party did not intentionally destroy evidence in bad faith, but rather lost the evidence due to a negligent mistake? Should the same adverse inference instruction be used? In Pillay v. Millard Refrigerated Services, the court held that even if a party is merely negligent in destroying evidence, a jury may presume that the evidence would have been unfavorable to that party. This permissive adverse inference instruction differs from the circumstances where the court determines that the party acted in bad faith because the court gives the jury the option of making an adverse inference. Typically, when bad faith is present, the court will instruct the jury that it should presume the missing evidence is detrimental to the party who destroyed it. This instruction differs from the instruction in Pillay where the court gave the jury the option of making the adverse inference. The Pillay court imposed a permissive adverse inference jury instruction when an employer negligently deleted relevant information. The employer claimed that it terminated an employee because the employee’s production levels were down. The employee claimed that he was terminated for unlawful reasons and that the employer’s labor management system (“LMS”) would show that the employee’s production level exceeded expectations. The employer, however, no longer possessed the LMS data because of routine deletions of the data after one year. The data was deleted despite opposing counsel’s numerous requests to preserve all relevant documents and evidence. The employer argued sanctions were not warranted because the LMS data was not deleted intentionally or in bad faith. The court rejected this argument holding that even without a showing of bad faith, the court has the discretion to impose sanctions when a party’s negligence causes information to be lost. The court sanctioned the employer with the following permissive adverse jury instruction: Pillay contends that Millard at one time possessed data documenting [an employee’s] productivity and performance that was destroyed by Millard. Millard contends that the loss of data was accidental. You may assume that such evidence would have been unfavorable to Millard only if you find by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) Millard intentionally or recklessly caused the evidence to be destroyed; and (2) Millard caused the evidence to be destroyed in bad faith. Moving forward, this case means litigants must be extra careful in preserving evidence that may be relevant to litigation. One negligent misstep, even if done without any showing of bad faith, may be the cause of an adverse jury instruction that can potentially be the deciding factor in a lawsuit. E-DiscoParty, a Seton Hall University School of Law graduate (class of 2014), served on the executive board of the Seton Hall Law Review and is a member of the Interscholastic Moot Court Board. E-DiscoParty now clerks for a Justice on the Supreme Court of New Jersey.
By the time In re Biomet made it in front of a Seventh Circuit Judge for a ruling, 2.5 million documents and attachments were produced to the plaintiffs in this large class action case against Biomet. The plaintiffs wanted the judge to order the discovery of electronically stored information. The plaintiff’s Steering Committee was unhappy with the amount of documents produced and claimed that it should have been almost five times that amount. The plaintiffs challenged the electronic discovery procedure that Biomet had undertaken. Specifically, the plaintiffs wanted the judge to make a ruling that the defendant’s process was “tainted” by their use of keyword culling. The judge disagreed and refused to make such a ruling, which would have thrown Biomet back to almost square one. Biomet went through an extensive process to cultivate documents to produce for the plaintiffs. Biomet first used “electronic search options, then predictive coding, and finally personal review.” The plaintiff’s issue was primarily the first step that defendants irrevocably ruined the rest of their document production from the get-go. To first identify what documents would be relevant the defendant used a “combination of electronic search functions” which included keyword culling. The defendant’s original pool consisted of 19.5 million documents and attachments which the first step narrowed down to 3.9 million (eventually getting to 2.5 million documents). The plaintiffs thought they should have produced 10 million documents and said their keyword searches were the problem. The plaintiffs cited to a New York Law Journal article that said that keyword searches were “only 20 percent” responsive. According to the plaintiffs, Biomet’s approach was flawed because it used the “less accurate” method of keyword search in the beginning instead of predictive coding. They asked for the judge to rule that the defendants had to go back to the first step and use predictive coding with “plaintiffs and defendants jointly entering the ‘find more like this commands’. The judge found that the plaintiff’s journal article and one cited search claiming that Boolean and keyword searches are less effective at producing relevant documents were insufficient in proving that Biomet did not meet its discovery obligations. Instead, the judge found that its procedure did comply with FRCP 26(b) and 34(b)(2). The judge also refused to read into the rules that Biomet had to allow the plaintiffs to sift through possibly privileged documents with them. The judge also found that Biomet fulfilled their federal requirements as proven through their statistical sampling and confidence tests that they ran over their documents. This sampling found that less than 1.34 percent of the documents that weren’t selected would be responsive and that between 1.37 and 2.47 of the original 19.5 were. Biomet’s process singled out 16 percent out of that original. The judge cited heavily to FRCP 26 (b)(2)(C) and said that Plaintiffs’ request did not comport well with proportionality. Biomet had already spent $1.07 million and “will total between 2 million and 3.25 million.” Were Biomet to go back to their original bank of ESI, it would cost them in the low seven-figures. The judge said that it would not make Biomet do that just to test the plaintiffs’ theory that more responsive documents would be found through predictive coding instead of keyword searches.
In this case, the plaintiff, an inmate at Rikers Island, brought a motion for spoliation of evidence and alleged the defendants breached their duty to preserve evidence. The evidence in question is video footage relevant to the litigation regarding the assault on the plaintiff which occurred on May 24, 2011, by other prison inmates in a holding cell at the Bronx Criminal Courthouse. The defendants claim that they do not have a duty to preserve the surveillance footage because by the time they were given notice, the footage had been deleted. The defense states that even if they had a duty to preserve, they met this obligation by saving eight minutes of surveillance that they deemed to be relevant. On the day of the assault, the holding cell in which the plaintiff was placed in with approximately sixteen to seventeen other inmates was under twenty-four hour video surveillance. That same day, Jacqueline Brantley, the former Assistant Deputy Warden Executive Officer at the Bronx Criminal Courthouse, reviewed the video footage to determine the course of events specifically for a period of three hours. Brantley was the only person to view the three hours of footage and therefore she was the only one who could testify in court regarding this evidence. The three hours of video footage is extremely relevant to the case. The footage included evidence of not only the plaintiff’s injuries, but also how the Department of Corrections protected the inmates and how they responded to the incident. The tapes also show the presence and identity of possible witnesses to the assault and help create a visual timeline of events in the holding cell. The Southern District of New York stated that the defendants should have known within a week of the assault that the surveillance footage would be relevant to a future lawsuit. While the Department of Corrections destroyed the footage pursuant to the Department’s automatic video recycling procedures, prior to the filing of the claim by Taylor, the Department did manage to save eight minutes of footage. This begs the following question to be asked: Why did the department not preserve the entire three hours of footage? As a result, the plaintiff in this case sought sanctions for spoliation of evidence with the deletion of the footage. A party seeking sanctions for the spoliation of evidence must establish the following three elements: The party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; The records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and The destroyed evidence was relevant to the party’s claim… such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim. Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., 306 F.3d 99, 107 (2d. Cir. 2002). If the moving party can establish these three elements, then the court has the ability to impose sanctions under Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The defendants here should have anticipated that the plaintiff would file a lawsuit against the Department for its failure for protect the plaintiff in the holding cell. Therefore, the defendants should have reasonably known that any evidence depicting the plaintiff’s treatment in the holding cell would be relevant to the litigation. The obligation to preserve the video footage in this case attached at the time of the assault due to its relevance. The defendants should have known that the entire three hours of footage would be relevant and that two four minute video clips would be insufficient. Since the entire footage has been destroyed, the defendants breached their preservation duty. The destruction of evidence by the defendants was done in a culpable state of mind and destroyed knowingly. Therefore, the defendants were negligent in allowing the footage to be deleted. However, the defendants were not grossly negligent in their failure to preserve, as no relevant evidence here has been claimed to have been destroyed after the plaintiff filed his Notice of Claim, approximately sixty-five days after the assault occurred. Additionally, the destroyed evidence would have been favorable and relevant to the plaintiff’s claims and defenses in this case. This evidence would have shown the three hour period of time the plaintiff was left injured in the holding cell as well as the failure of the Corrections Officers to protect him and remove him from the cell when he was covered in blood after the assault. The Court found that for these reasons the destruction of evidence prejudiced the plaintiff. Therefore, the following sanctions were ordered by the court: 1) the preclusion of Brantley from testifying about what she saw when she reviewed the deleted footage; 2) the use of an adverse inference jury instruction; and 3) the award of attorney’s fees and costs to the plaintiff. To avoid having a similar outcome, potential defendants should immediately preserve any relevant evidence in matters that they know or should reasonably know will give rise to litigation. Jennifer Whritenour received her B.S. in Political Science and History in 2011 from the University of Scranton. She is received her J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in May 2014.
The plaintiff, Tony B. Clay, brought claims for employment discrimination and retaliation based on race under Title VII against Consol Pennsylvania Coal Company (“Consol”).Continue Reading
If I told you that your company delayed for nearly seven months to produce electronic documents critical to a pending lawsuit, you would think the judge presiding over your case may be a bit perturbed, right? What if I also told youContinue Reading
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