Owners/Executives

Can a Court Sanction a Pro Se Party for Deleting Evidence? The Third Circuit Will, So Do Not Delete Your Data!

Whenever sanctions are involved, you can expect to see questionable behavior from one or more parties.  In this particular case, a pro se litigant tried to be cute and the court called him out for it.  The Appellant here used to own a company which provided consulting services to the Appellee.  Since the company became defunct, the owner became the only remaining party being sued. The district court had entered a discovery preservation order in which the parties agreed the appellant would return a laptop computer along with all of its data.  However, the appellant deleted data off the laptop minutes before signing the agreement.  Then the appellee initiated post-settlement litigation to obtain sanctions.  The appellant’s attorney then withdrew and the appellant continued pro se.  The judge found the appellant to be in civil contempt and awarded sanctions of over $50,000. The appellant raised three contentions on appeal.  First he argued sanctions under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 could only be awarded against attorneys, not pro se individuals.  Circuits are split on this issue.  The Third Circuit navigated around the issue, asserting that the district court judge could have justified its sanction under other grounds. Second, the appellant argues that monetary sanctions should not have been awarded because the information was deleted before the discovery agreement was signed.  The Third Circuit called out the argument as being a bit too clever and was not persuaded.  It all but accused the appellant of deliberately misleading the district court.  More damning was the actual language of the agreement.  It exposed the appellant to liability arising from the agreement itself, which governed the return of the laptop. Third, the appellant challenges the award for all attorneys' fees.  On this issue the Third Circuit remanded for a determination of what fees fairly reflect compensation for the appellant's contumacious conduct.  What is more vital here is the punishment for deleting data off the computer.  Those who try to outsmart the court will get their just deserts and acting pro se does not provide any sort of loophole.

Should One IT Person Hold the Keys to the Kingdom? How the “Philippine Love Bug” Case Highlights the Vulnerability of Such a Policy

Background Omega Engineering Corporation, an international company based in New Jersey, was once the employer of Timothy Lloyd. To put Omega’s importance into perspective, the U.S. Navy and NASA were two of their clients for highly specialized and sophisticated industrial process measurement devices. According to testimony during the trial, Lloyd worked at Omega as its sole system administrator from 1985 through 1996. In 1995, Lloyd had undergone Novell network training and installed Novell software on Omega’s computer system. Additionally, Lloyd was the only person who maintained and had top-level access to the Omega network. Between 1994 and 1995, Lloyd became belligerent and increasingly truculent. Due to his poor interpersonal skills, he was demoted in May 1995 from manufacturing to  support engineer. A woman who had once been Lloyd’s subordinate and had engaged in a romantic relationship with Lloyd, was the individual responsible for replacing Lloyd as manufacturing supervisor. In June 1996, Lloyd instituted a policy to “clean up” all of the individual computers in Omega’s manufacturing department. It was unclear as to why Lloyd was implementing company policies after his demotion. Nonetheless, the policy required employees to save their files to the company’s file server and prohibited them from making their own backups. Lloyd’s manager became suspicious of this policy and requested from Lloyd access to the file server. Lloyd never complied. By the end of June, upper management had enough of Lloyd’s behavior and terminated him in early July 1996. On July 31, Omega’s file server would not boot up. All of Omega’s manufacturing programs on the server, which contained instructions for operating the machines, were gone. Multiple computer experts were brought in to recover the files, but to no avail. The files had not only been deleted, but also had been “purged,” meaning that they were rendered unrecoverable.  A leading expert on Novell networking testified at trial that this could only have been done intentionally and by someone with supervisory-level access. The government’s theory included that on July 30, anyone who would log on to the server at any time after that date would “detonate” a program installed by Lloyd that would destroy the information on the Omega file server. The government’s theory was bolstered by the fact that the Secret Service recovered missing Omega backup tapes that had been reformatted as well as a master hard drive from the file server. This had the same string of commands that had functioned as the time bomb program found on the Omega file server. The Decision Ultimately, Lloyd was found guilty of computer sabotage. The jury had deliberated for over twelve hours over the span of three days and had requested testimony in the jury room before they reached their verdict. However, three days after the verdict, one juror said that she had seen on the news, during the trial, about a computer virus called the Philippine “love bug” which allowed the perpetrator to cause great harm by flooding the victim computers and causing them to crash. Whether this affected her decision is unclear; however, the defendant claimed that his 6th Amendment rights had been violated. The district court agreed, granting a new trial. On review, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s holding. After a lengthy discussion, the court said that there were significant dissimilarities between the “love bug” and the “time bomb” and most jurors would not confuse the two. Therefore, the appellate court found, the defendant was not prejudiced. Lloyd’s managers should never have allowed a single employee hold as much power as they did. This case highlights the vulnerabilities the company subjects itself to if that is allowed to happen. For example, Omega lost over 1,200 programs and many current and potential clients as well. Akiva Shepard received his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2014. Akiva has worked for a New York State Supreme Court Judge in Kings County, and for a NJ real estate firm. 

Employers—Got Resumes? Don’t Toss Them Just Yet

Plaintiff Erick Zayas joined with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to sue Ventura Corp. for employment discrimination on the basis of sex in 2007. In essence, Zavas complained that Ventura’s long-standing tradition of hiring women for the position he applied to was discriminatory. Furthermore, Zavas alleged that Ventura destroyed relevant evidence. In its answer, Ventura stated that the fact that no men have filed applications or have not met the position requirements did not support the plaintiffs’ assertion of discrimination. However, during limited discovery a list revealed that qualified men did in fact apply and accounted for 34.5 percent of qualified applicants. The central issue involved application materials received by Ventura. These included materials submitted by e-mail and hard copy resumes. The court first notes that spoliation is “the failure to preserve evidence that is relevant to pending or potential litigation.”  The duty to preserve relevant evidence arises once litigation is reasonably anticipated. The court noted that since Ventura was notified in 2007 that it was being charged with sexual discrimination, at that point Ventura should have reasonably anticipated litigation and was thus under the duty to preserve. Ventura attempted to make a statutory argument that resumes did not need to be preserved. The relevant statute, 29 CFR 1602.14 (see http://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/29/1602.14), makes reference to “application forms” and “test papers.” Ventura argued that it required neither application forms nor test papers and that resumes were not mentioned. However, the court rejected this argument. The court noted that the statute also includes the language, “other records having to do with hiring.” The court ultimately held that resumes therefore clearly applied. Ventura’s Human Resource Analyst testified that certain documents were shredded or taken to a warehouse as a result of an office restructuring in 2009. Furthermore, the HR Analyst wasn’t able to find the said documents. The plaintiffs were therefore able to establish that Ventura either lost or destroyed the resumes between 2007 and 2010. Because Ventura was on notice since 2007, the disappearance of these documents constituted a violation of its duty to preserve relevant evidence. Soft copies of resumes delivered by e-mail were also lost in the same time period. In fact, th plaintiffs were able to produce a relevant e-mail to and from Ventura, while Ventura was not able to produce the very same e-mail. This e-mail alone and the fact that other relevant e-mails likely existed in the 2007-2010 period but were nowhere to be found, was sufficient to infer that Ventura likely destroyed them. The court held that sanctions were in order for Ventura’s violation of its duty to preserve. As a result of Ventura’s failure to preserve relevant evidence, the court imposed a “spoliation instruction” or adverse inference instruction. Such an instruction allows the trier of fact to infer that the content of the destroyed relevant evidence was damaging to Ventura’s case. Lesson learned? If you intentionally or unintentionally destroy relevant evidence while under a duty to preserve, an adverse inference instruction will likely bring swift defeat and sway the trier of fact against you. It’s best to preserve evidence and maintain your credibility with the court and trier of fact even with bad facts. Rocco Seminerio is a Seton Hall University School of Law graduate (Class of 2014). Mr. Seminerio focuses in the areas of Estate Planning, Elder Law, and Health Law. He graduated from Seton Hall University in 2011 with a degree in Philosophy. He also has an interest in the life sciences.

Greater Rights in Contract Mean Greater Obligations in Discovery

In Haskins v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., the court was asked whether a title insurance company (the "Insurer") is in "control" of documents that are in not in the Insurer's possession, but where the Insurer has the contractual right to direct those with possession to produce the documents.  The district court found in the affirmative, demonstrating that in some circumstances, the more extensive one's contractual rights, the more extensive its obligations in discovery. The plaintiffs sought class certification, which defined the class as all New Jersey consumers who paid premiums in excess of regulated title insurance refinance rates during the class period.  The plaintiffs alleged that the Insurer had overcharged for title insurance over a period of several years.  During discovery, plaintiffs sought certain documents in the possession of certain independent title agents, who were not employees of the Insurer, but with whom the Insurer had a contractual relationship.  The representative contracts made all documents "available for inspection and examination by [the Insurer] at any reasonable time."  The court inquired as to whether such documents are in the "control" of the Insurer, because pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 34(a), a party may request another party to produce documents within that party's "possession, custody, or control."  Thus, if such documents were in the "control" of the Insurer, the plaintiffs could properly request that they be produced in discovery. The Insurer argued that it should not be required to produce documents in the physical possession of its agents because it does not possess or control the requested documents.  However, the court did not struggle to conclude that the Insurer's agency contracts plainly indicate that it has control over and access to the documents.  It drew this conclusion based on the premise that there is control if a party “has the legal right or ability to obtain the documents from another source upon demand.” Haskins demonstrates the potential for increased discovery obligations for those that have negotiated extensive rights in contract.  That is, the greater rights in contract, the potential for broader obligations in discovery.  While this factor may not drive the decision making for those negotiating contracts, contract parties should at least be aware of this consequence Adam L. Peterson 2014 graduate of Seton Hall University School of Law.  While at Seton Hall, Adam was a member of the Seton Hall Law Review and prior to law school Adam was an Environmental Analyst with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 

Independent Contractors Beware, You’re Not Protected

Richard Fraser was an independent contractor working for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company when he was fired in 1998. Although Fraser argued that he was fired for reporting illegal policies that Nationwide had implemented, Nationwide stated he was fired because he was disloyal to the company. Nationwide found that plaintiff had drafted (but not sent) two letters to two Nationwide competitors, Erie Insurance Company and Zurich American Insurance, expressing Contractors Association members' dissatisfaction with Nationwide and seeking to determine whether Erie and Zurich would be interested in acquiring the policyholders of the agents in the Contractors Association. After discovering the letters, Nationwide also searched its mail file server and found e-mails revealing company trade secrets. Fraser filed a wrongful termination suit against Nationwide, arguing that Nationwide’s accessing Fraser’s e-mail account without permission violated the Electronic Communication Privacy Act and a parallel Pennsylvania statute. The trial court granted Nationwide’s motion for summary judgment and Fraser appealed. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Nationwide had access to the independent contractor’s emails. Nationwide was found to not have violated the ECPA because Nationwide had provided the independent contractor with the e-mail account, the e-mail was hosted on Nationwide’s servers, and the e-mails were acquired after transmission of the e-mails. Therefore, the court held that the e-mails were not intercepted by Nationwide. Title 1 of the ECPA prohibits the interception of e-mails, but Nationwide argued that since the e-mails were reviewed after the transmission of the e-mail, that no interception had occurred. The court agreed and found that for one to intercept e-mail, he must occur contemporaneously, at the time of the transmission. Therefore, as long as the seizure of e-mail occurs after the e-mail is transmitted, a company does not need permission to access the independent contractor’s e-mails. Salim received his B.A. in Applied Communications, with a minor in Legal Studies, from Monmouth University. He received his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2014. Salim’s past experiences include interning for a personal injury law firm prior to attending law school, as well as judicial internships in the Civil and Family Divisions.

To Shred or Not To Shred

“Follow the document policy!” Those were the words repeated many a time by Arthur Anderson to Enron’s employees during the pending SEC investigation. Those simple words led to a jury’s finding Anderson guilty of witness tampering through the act of persuading his employees to destroy relevant documents. The jury found Anderson guilty of violating 18 U.S.C. §§ 1512(b)(2)(A) and (B), which makes it a crime to “knowingly us[e] intimidation or physical force, threate[n], or corruptly persuad[e] another person . . . with intent to . . . cause . . . ” that person to “withhold” documents from, or “alter” documents for use in, an “official proceeding.” The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this decision. However, the Supreme Court reversed this decision determining that the jury instructions were improper. The Court focused on “what it means to ‘knowingly . . . corruptly persuad[e]’ another person ‘with intent to ... cause’ that person to ‘withhold’ documents from, or ‘alter’ documents for use in, an ‘official proceeding.’” The Court held that this language required a proof of consciousness of wrongdoing. The Court additionally found that the jury instructions provided by the district court did not adequately outline the requirement for the consciousness of wrongdoing. Besides not including the proper intent, the district court also misapplied the “corruptly” definition by leaving out the word “dishonestly” and inputting “impede” in place of “subvert or undermine.” “These changes were significant. No longer was any type of “dishonest[y]” necessary to a finding of guilt, and it was enough for petitioner to have simply “impede[d] the Government's fact-finding ability.” In addition, the Court noted that jury instructions did not require any finding of a nexus between the “‘persua[sion]’ to destroy documents and any particular proceeding.” Even though it is illegal to directly persuade someone to destroy documents in the face of a pending litigation, the Court wanted to emphasize that there is a requirement of knowledge about both a pending proceeding and the materiality of the documents to be found guilty of violating the witness tampering statute. Overall, because of the inaccurate jury instructions, the Court here reversed the decision so another jury could hear the evidence along with proper instructions in making their decision. Though this decision seems to make some room to get out of the witness tampering statute, it is always best to have a proper document retention policy and to not persuade any form of destruction.

Defendant’s “Hands-Off” Approach Insufficient; Sanctions Ordered

In this case, Peerless Industries, Inc.  sued defendants Crimson AV, LLC claiming patent infringement and design patent infringement arising out of defendant’s manufacture and sale of certain TV mounts. While not a defending party, Sycamore Manufacturing Co., Ltd. (“Sycamore”) is plaintiff's former supplier of these TV mounts and played a vital role in the alleged infringement. Sycamore is located in China, while Peerless and Crimson are both located in the United States. Plaintiffs filed two motions: (1) a motion to compel the deposition of the Sycamore’s president, Tony Jin, and (2) a renewed motion for sanctions, both of which were granted. It was also determined in a previous case that Jin exercised managerial control over both Sycamore and Crimson. Therefore, plaintiff satisfied that Mr. Jin is a managing agent of Crimson. The court stated, “Plaintiff must simply show ‘that there is at least a close question as to whether the witness is a managing agent.’ We already found this to be the case. Furthermore, Mr. Jin clearly satisfies the ‘paramount test,’ which is whether the individual identifies with the corporation's interests as opposed to an adversary's.” The court further ordered that without any showing of hardship, Jin’s deposition would have to take place in the United States and not in China. As for the plaintiff’s renewed motion for sanctions, this motion marked the third time the plaintiff filed a motion regarding the same set of documents. The plaintiff argued that at the deposition of Crimson’s managing director, “it became clear that defendant did not conduct a reasonable investigation regarding Sycamore’s document production or Sycamore’s document retention for purposes of this litigation.” The plaintiff then filed a renewed motion for sanctions. The defendant and Sycamore asserted that certain documents in Sycamore’s possession had been produced. The plaintiff noted, that defendants did not represent that all requested documents were produced or that they were searched for but no longer existed. The plaintiff argued that the defendant wanted to rely on the same declarations as opposed to issuing more specific responses. The court stated that since it had determined Jin was principal of both Crimson and Sycamore and that he exercised a considerable amount of control over both corporations, that he was able to obtain all relevant documents from Sycamore. However, the court found that defendant took a “back seat” approach and instead used a third-party vendor to collect the documents. Finding that neither Crimson nor Jin had apart in the process of obtaining the requested discovery, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions. The court held that this “hands-off’ approach is insufficient. “Defendants cannot place the burden of compliance on an outside vendor and have no knowledge, or claim no control, over the process. Finally, the court held that defendants must show that they in fact searched for the requested documents and, if those documents no longer exist or cannot be located, they must specifically verify that it is they who cannot produce. Salim received his B.A. in Applied Communications, with a minor in Legal Studies, from Monmouth University. He received his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2014. Salim’s past experiences include interning for a personal injury law firm prior to attending law school, as well as judicial internships in the Civil and Family Divisions. Currently, Salim is taking part in the Immigrants’ Rights/International Human Rights Clinic at Seton Hall Law.

Does a Litigation Hold Require the Preservation of Employee Text Messages? Big Problems in Little Packages: Lost Cell Phone Leads to Spoliation Sanctions

Big things can often come in small packages, especially in the field of eDiscovery.  In Christou v. Beatport, LLC, the defendants learned that something as small as a text message on a lost cell phone can lead to a bevy of headache-inducing preservation issues, even without proof that the lost texts actually contained relevant information. Originally, the two parties worked together to create Beatport, an online marketplace dedicated to promoting and selling electronic dance music.  When that relationship eventually fell apart, the plaintiff, a prominent nightclub owner, brought suit against Beatport and his former employee who, as a “talent buyer,” was responsible for attracting DJs to perform at the plaintiff’s venues.  The plaintiff claimed that since the falling-out, the former talent broker had been strong-arming DJs against performing at the plaintiff’s nightclubs by threatening to drop them from his now high-profile website. Soon after the case was filed, the plaintiff issued a litigation hold letter to the defendants seeking the preservation of electronically stored information.  Despite the fact that this letter specifically referenced text messages, the defendants made no effort whatsoever to preserve the text messages on the former employee’s cell phone.  Of course the phone was then lost, about a year and a half after the hold should have been instituted. The plaintiff sought spoliation sanctions in the form of an adverse jury instruction.  The defendants attempted to shelter themselves from punishment behind testimony that the former talent broker did not use texts to contact clients and no proof was offered that there was relevant evidence anywhere in the phone.  Thus, the defendants felt the plaintiff’s motion was entirely speculative. Given the disappearance of the phone, the court recognized that there was simply no way to know whether it contained any relevant evidence.  There was also no evidence that the defense had done their due diligence by reviewing the text messages to determine whether any were responsive to the plaintiff’s discovery requests. The court explained that spoliation sanctions are appropriate when “(1) a party has a duty to preserve evidence because it knew, or should have known that litigation was imminent, and (2) the adverse party was prejudiced by the destruction of the evidence.”  Here, there was no question that the defendants neglected their duties by failing to make any effort whatsoever to preserve the text messages. Because the loss of the phone was an accident, or at the most the result of negligence, an adverse jury instruction was unwarranted because it would be too harsh a punishment.   Instead, the court permitted the plaintiffs to present evidence at trial about the litigation hold and the defendant’s failure to abide by it.  Despite finding no foul play by the defendants, sanctions were necessary because “[a] commercial party represented by experienced and highly sophisticated counsel cannot disregard the duty to preserve potentially relevant documents when a case like this is filed.” The previous sentence best sums up the defendants’ actions.  They completely shirked all responsibility by failing to turn over the requested text messages or securing the phone itself.  Even though the phone was lost accidentally, spoliation sanctions were warranted because of the defendants’ complete disregard of their preservation duties.  The time and money spent belaboring this eDiscovery dispute could have  been completely avoided if the defendants simply preserved all of its electronically stored information, especially those documents specifically mentioned in a litigation hold.  Instead, the defendants suffered what probably turned out to be significant financial consequences fighting the motion and were left to combat incredibly damaging evidence at trial. Jeffrey, a Seton Hall University School of Law graduate (Class of 2014), focused his studies primarily in the area of civil practice but has also completed significant coursework concerning the interplay between technology and the legal profession.  He was a cum laude graduate of the University of Connecticut in 2011, where he received a B.S. in Business Administration with a concentration in Entrepreneurial Management. 

Federal Judge Sanctions Corporate Defendant and Its Counsel for Gross Negligence, Bad Faith, and Failure to Comply With Discovery Requests and Court Order

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,[1] 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[2] 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. [1]       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. [2]       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).

You Might Want to Rethink Your Next Fishing Expedition in Tennessee

The scope of discovery, as stated in Federal Rule 26, has been construed very broadly in its relevancy standard.  Any and all requesting parties can seek production of documents and information as long as “the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.”  And while this standard has the tendency of having the producing parties provide all requested, non-privileged documents within their control, some courts have determined there are exceptions. In Potts v. Dollar Tree Stores, Inc., the Middle District of Tennessee determined that requests for private Facebook pages require the rquesting party must meet a threshold showing that the information sought is likely to be found on the social media site and lead to admissible evidence. In Potts, the plaintiff filed suit against her former employer, Dollar Tree Stores, Inc., claiming harassment and discrimination based on the plaintiff’s race, a hostile work environment, and retaliation.  After discovery disputes, the defendant filed a motion to compel claiming that the plaintiff did not produce a number of requested items and documents, including: Facebook data, any and all computer and storage devices used during and after the plaintiff’s employment, tax returns, any relevant documents in online email accounts, as well as other items.  The plaintiff’s response to the defendant’s request asserted that she produced what documents were in her possession, that the defendant’s request for the physical production of her computer was unduly burdensome, and that the defendant is not entitled to access to her private Facebook account due to other court holdings requiring a threshold showing that the Facebook page would undermine the producing party’s claim(s). Since, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals had not yet ruled on requesting parties’ access to private Facebook pages, the Middle District of Tennessee relied on outside court rulings in Thompkins v. Detroit Metro. Airport, 278 F.R.D. 387, 388 (E.D. Mich. 2012) and McCann v. Harleysville Ins. Co. of N.Y., 910 N.Y.S.2d 614 (N.Y.App. Div. 2010).  Courts in Michigan and New York held that, while Facebook accounts are not considered privileged or necessarily protected by notions of privacy, requesting parties should not be allowed to go on fishing expeditions in hopes of finding relevant information to their case.  In resolving the issue of rummaging for information, the courts held that a requesting party seeking access to private Facebook accounts must meet a threshold showing that the social media page will likely lead to admissible evidence.  Adopting the idea of a “threshold showing,” the Potts court determined that the defendant fell short in showing that the information it gathered from the plaintiff’s public Facebook page would lead to admissible evidence if the plaintiff had given more access. The court determined that the defendant was entitled to certain documents in the defendant’s motion to compel that Plaintiff had not yet produced in discovery, but accepted the plaintiff’s assertion that she no longer had certain requested documents that would not have been relevant to the case.  When dealing with the physical production of the plaintiff’s computer, the court resolved that an agreed neutral party would search for relevant documents on the plaintiff’s computer, using both parties’ agreed-upon word search.  As for the the defendant seeking attorneys’ fees incurred in preparing the motion to compel, the court ruled that Federal Rule 26(b)(2) gives discretion to the court in relieving any undue burdens on responding parties during discovery.  The court did not require the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s attorneys’ fees due to the plaintiff having reasonable objections to the defendant’s discovery requests.