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Welcome to the new eLessons Learned
eLessons Learned features insightful content authored primarily by law students from throughout the country. The posts are written to appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, including those with little eDiscovery knowledge.
Each blog post: (a) identifies cases that address technology mishaps; (b) exposes the specific conduct that caused a problem; (c) explains how and why the conduct was improper; and (d) offers suggestions on how to learn from these mistakes and prevent similar ones from reoccurring.
Visit our signature feature, e-Discovery Origins: Zubulake, designed to give readers a primer on the e-discovery movement through blog posts about the Zubulake series of court opinions which helped form the foundation for e-discovery. Go There
Interested students may apply for the opportunity to write for e-Lessons Learned by filling out the simple application. Go There
Companies issue laptops to their employees to be used for business purposes both in the office and at home. A company’s distributing laptops is joined with the company’s responsibility to preserve the electronically stored information (ESI) when litigation is reasonably anticipated. Every company has its own “ordinary business protocol” to be used in relation to these laptops when a situation requires it, but sometimes these protocols lead to bigger issues. In Hawley v. Mphasis Corp., the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted an adverse inference instruction regarding a supervisor’s laptop, but not for the employee laptop. In Hawley, an employee of the defendant company brought an employment discrimination claim and moved for sanctions against the defendant for alleged discovery violations; those of which, in particular, were violations regarding spoliation of information on two company laptops. The employee alleged that the company deleted all information from his work laptop, as well as his supervisor’s information, and did not produce records vital to the defendant’s case. The company countered, arguing that clearing the hard drive of a former employee’s laptop was the business protocol. In evaluating the request for an adverse inference sanction, the district court explained that the plaintiff must demonstrate: “(1) that the party having control over the evidence 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.” Hawley v. Mphasis Corp., No. 12 Civ. 592 (DAB) (JLC), 2014 WL 3610946, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. July 22, 2014) (quoting Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., 306 F.3d 99, 107 (2d Cir. 2002)). As to the supervisor’s computer, the court held for an adverse inference sanction because the company had a duty to preserve the supervisor’s data from the time of the EEOC filing. Furthermore, the company negligently destroyed the records on the laptop , which were found to be highly relevant to the employee’s case. In regards to the employee’s computer, the court found both a duty and the requisite culpability; however, the court did not believe that the employee sufficiently proved how relevant the information was to his case. The lesson to extract from this case is that the courts do not care if your company’s protocol requires one procedure to be followed (i.e., wiping a hard drive) when it comes to the spoliation of relevant evidence. The company’s wiping the hard drives is trumped by a duty to preserve data when a lawsuit is reasonably anticipated. The ruling in Hawley demonstrates that, in an employment case, the receipt of an EEOC charge triggers the obligation to preserve all data, but it could arise earlier depending on the circumstances. Be aware of when a lawsuit is reasonably anticipated and do not hesitate to act and preserve. Such awareness will help your company in the long run. With that, be on top of the individuals responsible for preserving company data and ensure those individuals are complying with company policy. One does not want to need a hard drive that has no data saved on it. Evidence must be preserved until litigation is resolved or no longer reasonably anticipated, and as courts become stricter with this rule of law, so should every company. A look at the circumstances and a possible deviation from ordinary protocols may be needed. For more information on the case used as precedent, Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., click here: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-2nd-circuit/1003010.html. Amanda is a third year student at Seton Hall University School of Law, where she is pursuing a J.D. with a certificate in Health Law. Prior to law school, she was a 2011 magna cum laude graduate of Seton Hall University, where she earned Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Philosophy. Presently, she is a law clerk at a small firm handling real estate and bankruptcy matters. After graduation this native New Yorker hopes to work at a mid-sized firm in the Big Apple. Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.
When lawsuits arise, litigants are usually hesitant to cooperate with their adversaries. However, this way of thinking usually does nothing more than delay the inevitable. More often than not, adversaries choose to “fight to the death” rather than work together and speed up the lengthy litigation process. Margel v. E.G.L. Gem Lab Ltd. involves a suit between Guy Margel, the plaintiff, and E.G.L Gem Labs, a gem grading business that Margel initially started and later sold. The defendants claim that the plaintiffs have failed to provide certain pieces of discovery after the plaintiffs retained new counsel, produced 800 pages of documents, and represented that all responsive, non-privileged documents had been produced. The defendants, however, offered no proof to substantiate their claims. The court mentions that suspicions alone will not substantiate the imposition of sanctions. Under ordinary circumstances, a party’s good faith averment that the items sought simply do not exist, or are not in his possession, custody or control, should resolve the issue of failure of production. Zervos v. S.S. Sam Houston, 79 F.R.D. 593, 595 (S.D.N.Y.1978). Based on these circumstances, the court found no basis for imposing sanctions on the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs also bring a motion against the defendants seeking the production of documents relating to the grading certificates or reports issued by EGL–USA for the period from January 1, 2000, to present [the date of litigation]. The defendants contend that some of these documents predate the claim in questions and are therefore non-discoverable. The court noted that it is not appropriate for a party to use the discovery provisions to determine whether or not it has a claim. “A party must already have a claim for which it seeks additional discovery, as discovery is not meant to allow a party to find out if it has a claim.” (quotations and citations omitted). This being the case, the court held that there is no reason to provide records for the period that pre-dates the litigation. However, the plaintiffs also sought to compel the production of electronic information relating to the claim, which the defendants contend fell outside the scope of the term “documents.” The court noted that simply because an item is stored electronically does not mean it is not considered a “document.” Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 217 F.R.D. 309, 317 (S.D.N.Y.2003) (“[E]lectronic documents are no less subject to disclosure than paper records.”). Therefore, the court held that the defendants were to produce the electronically stored information within ten days. In summation, Margel demonstrates the fact that it is usually easier to work together than constantly compete. Additionally, when a party puts forth a good faith effort to provide the entire discovery requested, and that party represents that the information provided is the full extent of discovery, absent evidence to the contrary additional documents will not be compelled. Finally, it is important to note that electronic information is considered to be a fully discoverable document not subject to any additional protection simply because of the electronic format.
Preserving electronic data can be a challenge for companies with multiple data centers. However, what we have here is a failure to communicate. The case at issue is an ERISA class action against UnumProvident. On November 26, plaintiffs' counsel wrote to request a conference to present their request for a preservation. The court then outlined principles that would serve as the basis for the parties' draft of a proposed order. The court observed, without contradiction from UnumProvident, that UnumProvident already had a duty to preserve any tapes containing emails as of November 4, the date litigation commenced. The order required all back-up tapes or other back-up hard drives, disks or other hardware containing material back-up by the defendants regarding Y2K, regardless of the date or dates of the internal or external e-mails, computer information, or electronic media contained thereon to be preserved. Specifically the plaintiffs requested all internal and external e-mails, generated, created, or dated October 14, 15, and 16 of 2002, and November 18, 19, and 20 of 2002. If the defendants alleged these e-mails were no longer in existence due to routine destruction or otherwise, the defendants had to provide an affidavit explaining circumstances of the unavailability. UnumProvident’s Enterprise Security Architect decided instead of preserved the data to implement a special “snapshot” back-up which would back-up those emails that were on the system as of the day or days the snapshot was taken. UnumProvident could also have directed IBM, their data vendor, to copy email back-up tapes from existing unexpired tapes to other back-up tapes that would contain no expiration date. Similarly, it could have copied the data onto a hard drive or into other computer media. Instead, this snapshot inadvertently caused all of the data on the back-up tapes to be overwritten. The court found that no enterprise officers of UnumProvident had sufficient expertise to discuss the preservation project in a meaningful way. Neither of them took the steps that they needed to take to get sufficiently informed advice on the issues involved. Similarly, there was insufficient supervision of the Enterprise Software Architect's efforts. The officer had also never ordered IBM to preserve emails regarding the six dates. Additionally, the law department of UnumProvident never instructed its officers to confirm that email for the six days had been preserved by IBM. As this issue developed relatively early in discovery, the court found it difficult to determine the extent to which the plaintiffs have suffered any prejudice from the failure to capture all of the UnumProvident emails for the six days. Throughout the whole opinion, the court was very skeptical of the testimony of UnumProvident’s officers. The court determined most of UnumProvident’s actions were inadequate. However, it also determined the accelerated expiration problem that occurred because of the creation of the snapshot was inadvertent and unintended. Therefore, the court did not award any sanctions. It can still be assumed the court would be less trusting of UnumProvident after this debacle and less likely to give them the benefit of the doubt.
In a case dealing with gender discrimination between female employees and a large advertising conglomerate, the plaintiffs filed claims against the defendants under Title VII of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and similar New York labor laws. After the plaintiffs objectioned to the defendants’ use of computer-assisted review and search method, United States Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Peck opined that computer-assisted review is an acceptable search method for relevant ESI in appropriate cases. Throughout his opinion, Judge Peck referred to articles and public statements he had made prior to the case on his beliefs of the value of computer-assisted review. Judge Peck explains his interactions with the two parties involved started at the first discovery conference, which took place on December 11, 2011. While, both parties had discussed ESI protocol, the plaintiffs were reluctant to accept the defendant’s utilization of predictive coding to gather the relevant documents among the three million electronic documents from the agreed-upon custodians. In a later discovery conference, the court refuted the defendants’ proposal to cutoff production at the most relevant 40,000 documents due to expense, explaining that proportionality must consider cost and results in gathering the most likely highly responsive documents. The court went on to agree with the defendants on other factors concerning document production and custodians due to the fact that the plaintiffs could not give meaningful reasons for the inclusion of other custodians and emails or assert a likelihood that the information could be found through other reasonable discovery procedures. On February 8, 2012, after going through the main issues that were holding up the discovery process, Judge Peck acknowledged that the defendants agreed to provide the plaintiffs with all seed documents and protocol in determining relevant ESI throughout the computer-assisted review process. With that knowledge, Judge Peck accepted the proposal that defendants submitted to the plaintiffs and the court for producing relevant ESI, and acknowledged that computer-assisted review was an efficient and officially judicially approved method for ESI protocol and production when given the appropriate case. On February 8, 2012, the plaintiffs filed an objection to the court’s ruling.
How many readers are familiar with a class action suit? Do class actions suits seem to be never ending and broad? What is the scope of such suits? In Oppenheimer Fund v. Sanders, the United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of a class action lawsuit in regards to compiling the names and addresses of the members of the class. A class action was brought against Oppenheimer Fund, an open-end diversified investment fund that sells shares to the public at their net asset value plus a sales charge. The respondents bought shares at various times and filed complaints that the shares in the Fund were artificially inflated as they had been overvalued on the Fund’s books. As a result a class action suit was filed. The respondents sought to require the Fund to help compile a list of the names and addresses of the members of the plaintiff class from records kept by using a transfer agent so that individual notices could be sent. The respondents essentially were seeking information about 121,000 people. Of this large number, 103,000 individuals still had shares in the Fund, while 18,000 others had sold their shares. Gathering this information would be time-consuming, as the transfer agent would have to manually sort through paper files. The Second Circuit held that the discovery rules authorized the district court to order the petitioners to assist the respondents in compiling this list of members of the respondent class and to bear the expenses of compilation. The issue was brought before the Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s holding, finding that it was an abuse of discretion of the court to require petitioners to bear the expenses of compilation. Here, the respondents could easily hire the transfer agent as a third party to compile the list by paying the agent the same amount that petitioners would have to pay. The Court reasoned that this information must be obtained to comply with the obligation of the respondents’ to prove notice to their class. Additionally, no special circumstances were presented to warrant requiring petitioners to bear the expense. The Court noted that a mere allegation of wrongdoing is an insufficient reason to require the Fund to undertake the financial burdens and risks in compiling the list. Overall, the lesson to be learned here is that in class action lawsuits, where the information sought can be obtained at the same cost to either party, it is the respondents who will bear these expenses to identify members of their own class. Jennifer Whritenour received her B.S. in Political Science and History in 2011 from the University of Scranton. In 2014, Ms. Whritenour graduated from Seton Hall University School of Law.
From June 8–12, 2015, the International Association for Artificial Intelligence and Law (IAAIL) will be holdings its 15th International Conference on Artificial Intelligence & Law (ICAIL). The conference will be held at the University of San Diego School of Law in San Diego, California. During that conference, on June 8, esteemed eDiscovery attorney Jason R. Baron, from Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, will be hosting the DESI VI Workshop. The Workshop aims to bring together researchers and practitioners to explore innovation and the development of best practices for application of search, classification, language processing, data management, visualization, and related techniques to institutional and organizational records in e-discovery, information governance, public records access, and other legal settings. Questions addressed include: What combinations of machine learning and other techniques can best categorize information in accordance with existing records management policies? Do effective methods exist for performing sentiment analysis and personal information identification in a legally useful way in e-mail and other records of interpersonal communication? How well can we estimate the end-to-end costs of workflows that combine artificial intelligence and human coding to accomplish legal tasks on a broad range of content types? Can proactive insider threat detection leverage information already being collected for records management purposes, and what would be the ethical and legal fallout of such approaches? Are approaches available to reduce the perceived conflicts between privilege and transparency in labeling data for Technology-Assisted Review (TAR) in e-discovery and public records access applications? What technical, procedural, and legal issues arise from recent proposals to shift the focus of e-discovery from relevance to materiality? Where do recent legal cases point to the need for new research to better inform the decision of courts and the practices of parties? What lessons can we draw from recent shared-task evaluations such as TREC and EDI, and how can future shared-task evaluations best be structured? How can current techniques for issue coding be applied to compliance tasks (e.g., in regulatory, enforcement, and investigations settings), and what capability gaps exist that call for new research? What implications do emerging technologies such as deep learning and fine-grained access to behavioral traces have for e-discovery, business intelligence, and records and information management purposes? Baron invites those interested in electronic discovery to submit a refereed or unrefereed paper to the Workshop; however, paper submission is not required to participate. More information about the DESI VI Workshop can be found here.
In cases involving a large amount of e-discovery, it is common for a litigant to be accused of misplacing or destroying relevant evidence. When evidence is lost, the court must evaluate whether sanctions are appropriate, and if so, what type of sanctions should be imposed. In making this determination, the court will consider the following factors: (1) the degree of fault of the spoliation party, (2) the degree of prejudice to the adverse party, and (3) whether there is a less severe punishment that would avoid substantial unfairness to the adverse party while still serving to deter similar spoliation by others in the future. In Micron Technology, Inc. v. Rambus Inc., the parties sued and countersued for claims relating to patent infringement. During discovery, the court determined that Rambus destroyed a significant amount of documents relevant to the lawsuit. Specifically, Rambus engaged in three “shred days” (also known within the company as a “shredding parties”) where evidence was destroyed pursuant to the company’s document retention policy. Much of this evidence, however, was lost after a litigation hold was in place. In order to determine if sanctions were appropriate, the court first analyzed whether there was any bad faith on the part of Rambus. The court explained that bad faith requires a showing that the “spoliating party intended to impair the ability of the potential defendant to defend itself.” The court found that during the shred days, employees were instructed to be selective about which documents they destroyed. Employees were told to “expunge documents questioning the patentability of Rambus inventions,” while at the same time to “look for things to keep that would help establish that Rambus had intellectual property.” Further, Rambus employees testified that they were destroying documents in preparation for the “upcoming battle” of litigation. Ultimately, the court determined that Rambus destroyed documents in bad faith. Next, the court examined whether Rambus’s bad faith shredding parties caused prejudice to its adversary. Prejudice “requires a showing that the spoliation materially affects the substantial rights of the adverse party and is prejudicial to the presentation of its case.” The court explained that when bad faith exists, the spoliating party bears the “heavy burden” of showing a lack of prejudice. The court explained that Rambus failed to meet this heavy burden and enumerated multiple claims and defenses that were prejudiced by Rambus’s bad faith destruction of evidence. Finally, the court considered whether a dispositive sanction is an appropriate sanction under these circumstances. The court explained that when there is “clear and convincing evidence that the spoliation was done in bad faith and was prejudicial to the opposing party, then dismissal may be an appropriate sanction” as long as a lesser sanction would serve as an adequate deterrent. The court considered whether an award of attorney’s fees or other monetary sanctions would be appropriate, but ultimately rejected these “relatively mild sanctions [that were] disproportionate to the degree of fault and prejudice at hand.” Next, the court analyzed whether an adverse jury instruction would be a proper sanction. The court rejected this sanction as being inadequate punishment and deterrence in light of Rambus’s extensive bad faith spoliation. Lastly, the court considered whether an evidentiary sanction would be an adequate remedy. This sanction would foreclose Rambus from offering any evidence related to the subject matter of the destroyed documents. Once again, the court found this sanction to be unsatisfactory due to Rambus’s extensive destruction of evidence. Therefore, after considering the extraordinary circumstances of this case, along with the lesser sanctions available, the court found that the only appropriate sanction was to hold Rambus’s patent-in-suit claims unenforceable against its adversary. In sum, the court held that a dispositive sanction is appropriate when a party destroys evidence in bad faith, the destruction is prejudicial to the adversary, and no lesser sanction would be appropriate to punish and deter similar action. It should be noted that dispositive sanctions are rare, but nonetheless are warranted when “destruction of evidence is of the worst type: intentional, widespread, advantage-seeking, and concealed.” 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 currently clerks for a Justice on the Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Facts of the Case The employee in this case was not some floozy with limited knowledge of how the world works. Rather, he was a veteran sergeant of the Ontario, California, police force and a member of its S.W.A.T. team. In 2001, the Ontario Police Department (OPD) issued alpha-numeric pagers to his team in order to facilitate communications between members, which, as you can imagine, would be extremely useful in the field and efficient at the office. OPD then put in place a “Computer Usage, Internet and E–Mail Policy” which the employee signed a statement that said he had read and understood the policy. It expressly reserved the right to monitor all of the network activity, which included e-mail and Internet use. Additionally, the policy said that there should be no expectation of privacy when using the network. The problem was that the computer policy did not cover text messaging, at least expressly, since the pagers were contracted out to a company called Arch Wireless. Therefore, all communication passed through their network, and a copy of all communications was retained on their servers after delivery. However, the OPD made it clear to all of its employees, in a meeting that the employee attended, that the messages sent on the pagers were to be treated as e-mails, meaning that they were subject to the same computer policy. As it turned out, the employee exceeded his monthly text character allotment, almost immediately, and for a period of a few months. He paid for those overages, but the OPD decided that enough was enough. The police chief launched an investigation, ostensibly in order to determine whether the employees were being forced to pay out of pocket for overages on work-related messages due to an overly-restrictive character limit, or if the messages were personal. Transcripts of the messages from the previous 2 months were obtained, and revealed material that was personal, and some sexually explicit, in nature. The employee was then disciplined. Claims by the Employee The employee essentially brought two claims: 1) that the OPD violated the Stored Communications Act (SCA) and 2) his Fourth Amendment privacy rights, by obtaining and reviewing the transcripts of the messages. The first claims was not before the Supreme Court on its merits, since the lower court decided that Arch Wireless was forbidden to turn over the transcripts, and this was not contested. However, the Fourth Amendment claim was alive and well. As with most Fourth Amendment claims, the crux of the issue is whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy that was violated. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of people to secure against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government of their stuff. This has been applied to the government acting as an employer as well. The analysis of such claims, however, was the subject of dispute among the Supreme Court justices in a case called O’Connor v. Ortega. In that case, the plurality opinion of the Court said that the question of whether an employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy is to be decided on a case-by-case basis. If there is an expectation of privacy, is an intrusion on that reasonable under the circumstances. Justice Scalia said that there is a blanket expectation of privacy for government employees, but the employers can search to retrieve work-related materials, etc. Here, the Court expressly punted the issue of whether there was, or is, an expectation of privacy for communications made on electronic equipment owned by a government employer. The Court cited the difficulty in predicting how the expectation of privacy will be shaped by the rapid changes in the dynamics of communication and information transmission. Instead, the Court cautioned “prudence” to avoid deciding this important issue, and instead decided the case without it. The Court stated that even if the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his messages, and therefore protected by the Fourth Amendment, the “search” done by OPD didn’t necessarily violate it. The “special needs” of the workplace were said to be an exception to the rule that all warrantless searches are automatically unreasonable. There was a reasonable ground for assuming that the search was necessary for a work-related purpose, not just to invade the employee’s privacy. Rather, their interest was to ensure the employees were not paying out of pocket for work-related expenses. Therefore the review of the transcripts was reasonable. Also, the employee should not have expected that his messages were going to remain private under all circumstances, since he was told that the messages were subject to auditing. Additionally, the scope of the search was reasonable as well, since it did not reveal the details of the employee’s life, since the private messages in the search sample were redacted. Ultimately, the sergeant should have known better than to air his dirty laundry on a government-issued communications device. Although the Court avoided deciding whether there is an expectation of privacy, they made it pretty clear that if there was a well-distributed policy, and if the review of the messages is ostensibly for work-related issues, that such a “search” will be permissible. 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.
The plaintiff, Torrington Co., sought to challenge a final determination made by the International Trade Administration of the United States Department of Commerce. The case centered upon the discovery requests made by the plaintiff. The plaintiff argued that it was entitled to three things: 1) a computer tape of computer instructions, 2) a computer tape of SAS data sets, and 3) a hard copy for each file transmitted by tape. The plaintiff maintained that it was entitled to this discovery because it was part of the administrative record. The court disagreed. The court found that the computer tape of computer instructions, computer tape of the SAS data sets, and the hard copies were not a part of the administrative record because not only were they not “obtained by” or “presented to” the administrative agency (the International Trade Administration), but they did not even exist. If the materials did not exist (and never existed) they are clearly not part of the administrative record. In fact, the computer tapes and hard copies could only be created after the determination by the agency; they could not possibly be part of the administrative record at all. The defendant agreed to give the plaintiff microfilmed computer printouts which contained both the computer programming instructions and the SAS data sets. Note that these microfilmed computer printouts were not the same as computer tapes (which were requested by the plaintiff.) The court cited previous cases that established two principles. First, the court was not obliged to force a defendant to produce data in a format that was most convenient for a plaintiff. Second, the court should balance the plaintiff’s need for the specific type of information with the hardship placed upon the defendant. The court held that not only had plaintiff failed to show its need for the computer tapes, but that the defendant had shown that it would suffer “extreme hardship” if it were forced to produce the computer tapes. The plaintiff attempted to bolster its position by citing Daewoo v. United States, 10 CIT 754, 650 F. Supp. 1003, in which the court ordered that all computerized data be produced including “all further refined forms of electronic storage of the data involved.” However the court distinguished the case at hand from the facts in Daewoo by pointing out that in that case, the government did not demonstrate any kind of hardship. In the present case, the requested computer tapes did not exist and requiring the defendant to produce them would have been burdensome and expensive. The court notes that according to one source it would take 7,500 hours to create a computer tape containing 15,000 pages of the printout that was already created. By the account of one affidavit, it was estimated that it would take defendant’s department staff no less than a full two weeks to produce the computer tapes. Administrative agencies have many tasks and aim for efficiency – such a discovery request would doubtless be taxing on the agency’s resources. The plaintiff also claims that it would be equally burdened if it had to produce the tapes.] The court held that when the cost, burden, and time of creating the tapes is equal on both parties, then the burden of producing the tapes falls on the party making the request. Accordingly, the court held that the defendant did not have to make the computer tapes and that the parties were obliged to use the “more convenient, less expensive or less burdensome” computer printouts that were already in existence. What should have the plaintiff done in this scenario? It is unclear why the printouts were insufficient such that computer tapes were necessary. The plaintiff should have come prepared to show why production of the computer tapes would be more taxing on itself than on the defendant-agency. Rocco Seminerio is a Seton Hall University School of Law graduate (Class of 2014). Mr. Seminerio focused his studies in the areas of Estate Planning, Elder Law, and Health Law. He graduated from Seton Hall University in 2011 with a degree in Philosophy.
Big Brother is always watching and listening. If there’s one lesson to take away from the recent NSA scandals it’s that the government is not only capable of tracking your every digital move, but also acting on that capability. Now, according to the Third Circuit, the government can use the broad language of the Stored Communications Act to force cell phone providers to turn over a criminal suspect’s phone’s historical location data. In a lengthy and drawn-out criminal investigation, the Third Circuit became the first federal court of appeals to decide a crucial issue that required balancing a cell phone user's privacy rights with a law enforcement agency’s needs to acquire potentially vital information. The government attempted to use the Stored Communications Act to force a suspect's cell phone company to turnover cell site location information or CSLI. Hoping to prevent an unjust and unwarranted intrusion or breach of a citizen's privacy expectations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a response in opposition to the government’s efforts. The Third Circuit was then forced to determine whether or not the government could obtain this information without first establishing probable cause or acquiring a warrant. The information at issue in the matter is commonly kept by all phone companies and service providers as part of their routine business operations. Every time a call is made via a cell phone, signals are transmitted via nearby cell phone towers. These towers then collect and store data that can later be used to establish the general area where the individual was located when making the call at issue. The information would not provide the exact location of the cell phone at the time of the call, but would instead allow the government to infer as to where the party where was located. Even though this would seem like a minor distinction, in the eyes of the court it is incredibly important because it weakens any argument that the cell phone acts as a tracking device which would raise significant Fourth Amendment concerns under Supreme Court precedent. According to the exact language of the Stored Communications Act, a court can order the disclosure of this information if the government “offers specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or other records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” 18 U.S.C. § 2703. The government argued that it met this burden because the information it was seeking was relevant and material to an investigation of narcotics trafficking and other violent crimes. The EFF attempted to combat these claims by arguing that to obtain the information the government must obtain a warrant by establishing probable cause. Ultimately, however, the court held that the information was in fact obtainable by the government without a warrant or probable cause under the language of the Stored Communications Act. According to the court, the Act’s language provided a specific test to determine whether an order granting the discovery of such information should be granted. If Congress wanted to implement a warrant requirement, it could have specifically done so. Instead, Congress chose the lesser standard of specific and articulable facts. The court, however, also went on to hold that the Act’s language actually granted a magistrate judge discretion as to whether or not to require a warrant showing probable cause. Because the Act states that an order “may be issued” rather than requiring it, a judge deciding whether or not to allow access to such information could require a showing of probable cause. Additionally, the court established that a cell phone customer does not voluntarily share his or her location information with a service provider because the customer is probably unaware that their providers are in fact collecting and storing this historical information. Although the Third Circuit’s holding is strictly limited to the collecting of historical cell phone location information, the decision ultimately has far-reaching consequences. In the field of electronic discovery, privacy is an ongoing topic of debate, especially with the recent revelations of the massive amounts of data the government is in fact already collecting. Because electronically stored information can provide a bevy of potentially vital information in easily manipulated formats, law enforcement agencies will continue to access it wherever possible. Courts will continually be asked to balance individual privacy concerns with the broad policies of discovery. 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.