Document Custodians

Is Negligent Spoliation of Evidence Sufficient to Warrant Permissive Adverse Jury Instruction?

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. 

Request for E-Discovery Restart Because Defendant Used Keyword Culling is Shot Down by Seventh Circuit Judge

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.

Preserve Immediately or be Sanctioned!

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. 

Defendant’s Shortcomings in Discovery Result in Sanctions

The plaintiff, Tony B. Clay, brought claims for employment discrimination and retaliation based on race under Title VII against Consol Pennsylvania Coal Company (“Consol”).

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Court Hesitant to Impose Discovery Sanctions Despite Defendant’s Delay and Non-Compliance With Court Order

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 you

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Gulf of Mexico Not all that was Spoliated as a Consequence of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

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Have a Reasonable Document Retention Policy? Then Follow it!

After finding out certain relevant e-mails had been deleted, PSC immediately motioned to compel discovery and impose sanctions on BIPI. The deleted e-mails were particularly relevant because they pertained to the drug-in-suit, Pradaxa, and were in the possession of an employee who supervised Pradaxa's development.

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Plaintiffs Should Seek to Clone Hard Drives If They Suspect Spoliation Shenanigans

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Fishin’ on Facebook: The Discoverability of Private Facebook Information

There is no question we live in a world consumed by social media where “Tweeting,” “Instagramming,” and “Facebooking” are commonplace. More specifically, people feel compelled to share intimate details, photographs and video of their lives with their “friends” on social media sites, such as Facebook. In the world of litigation, the question becomes “how should courts treat Facebook accounts for the purpose of discovery”?

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ATTENTION! Reporter’s Privilege is NOT a Laughing Matter

Discovery rules are very important in litigation, but in specific circumstances they do not apply. A reporter has the right and discretion to keep information private that was given to them in confidence. The court decision in Hatfill took this privilege very seriously and did not allow the plaintiff access to the privileged information.

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