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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
“Recycle,” “conserve,” “waste,” and “pollution” are terms that were implanted into the minds of each of us at a young age and are now they are being instilled into companies worldwide as a measure to reduce operational costs. Companies such as JPC Equestrian, Inc. have begun recycling and reusing “cleaned” electronic devices from former employees, which would normally not be an issue if companies had a company-wide server or cloud-based software that held all of the information stored within the device. However, since JPC Equestrian, Inc. does not have a company-wide server, once an employee leaves, the company has a procedure in place to “scub” the computer and reassign it to another without care for the electronic information within the device. In Kearney v. JPC Equestrian, Inc., Mark Kearney, a former employee, sued JPC Equestrian, Inc. (“JPC”) for the failure to produce emails relevant to the claim he is asserting. Kearney commenced this lawsuit against JPC when they wrongfully terminated his employment, and breached his sales agreements by either failing to pay him sales commissions or by paying reduced commissions that did not satisfy contractual obligations. Kearney through the discovery process received email documentation from numerous employees and executives dating back to 2005. The discovery submission included JPS turning over 250 pages of documents relevant to the parties and situations involved. However, Kearney requested information for "all relevant emails," which in his original discovery requests, were defined as "[a]ll emails that mention, or refer to the Plaintiff, however, marginally, in any way shape or form from 2002 through 2010." Kearney v. JPC Equestrian, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 153975, *5 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 30, 2014). Kearney was missing three years of discovery. Kearney only received documentation dating back to 2005 because the information dating back to 2002 did not exist or does not exist anymore and cannot be recovered. JPS claims that the information cannot be recovered because the computers that would have held that data were wiped clean and erased before the device was transitioned to another employee. JPS has found loopholes around document retention and the court agreed. The court held that JPS’ procedure of document retention was acceptable and the court has, “no basis to conclude that the defendants have withheld responsive documents, or that there is any basis to compel a further response regarding potentially relevant email communication.” Id. at *7. Unfortunately, this holding allows companies an avenue to discard potential and relevant information pertaining to potential litigation that otherwise would have been saved if not for the guise of recycling and employee cost saving. This holding should be reversed and JPS should be penalized for its failure to maintain adequate records for an appropriate period of time. The court should not excuse a company, no matter the size or market capitalization, for not maintaining the electronic information of employees who work within the company. Not only is that bad preservation practice, its poor business practice. Recycling and the protection of our planet is important but those ideals should not give rise to loopholes of common electronic document preservation practices, which are becoming as worldwide and important as protecting the planet itself. Timothy received his B.A. from Rutgers University in 2011. He began his post-college life working in Trenton, New Jersey, at a lobbying and non-profit management organization before attending law school in the fall of 2012. He will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015. Timothy has had a diverse set of experiences during his time in law school and has found his calling in Tax Law. Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.
Parties requesting e-discovery speak up or forever be subject to possible cost-shifting. Generally, the responding party bears its own costs of complying with discovery requests; however, the rules of discovery allow a trial judge to shift the cost to the requesting party in certain circumstances. Cost-shifting does not even become a possibility unless there is first a showing that the electronically stored information (“ESI”) is inaccessible. However, if neither party submits to the Court that the ESI is accessible, then courts can presume it to be inaccessible. This should be especially concerning to the requesting party, who typically does not bear the burden to pay for such costs. In Zeller v. South Central Emergency Medical Services, Inc., Richard Zeller (“Employee”) filed an action against his former employer, South Central Emergency Medical Services (“Employer”) alleging an unlawful and retaliatory discharge under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). The Employee was out of work pursuant to the FMLA for approximately a month. He alleged that, upon his return to work, the Employer did not restore him to his previous position and retaliated against him for using the FMLA. The Employer claimed that the Employee was fired for excessive absenteeism. The e-discovery issue in this case involved the allocation of costs to recover e-mails between the Employee and his doctors. In this matter, there was no formal motion for a cost-shifting protective order, rather the issue was raised by both parties in their submissions to the court on outstanding discovery issues. Typically, the rule is for cost-shifting to be possible, there must first be a showing of inaccessibility. Here, the court presumed that the parties agreed the information sought was inaccessible because neither party submitted that the ESI was accessible. Once the court presumed that the ESI was inaccessible, the court then analyzed whether discovery costs should be shifted by applying the seven-factor test from the Zubulake Court. In Zeller, the court held that some cost-shifting to the Employer, the requesting party, was appropriate. Although the ESI in Zeller was most likely inaccessible, parties requesting e-discovery can still learn a valuable lesson from this case. The requesting party should submit to the court that the ESI sought is accessible to avoid both a presumption of inaccessibility and the possibility of cost-shifting. Requesting parties should not leave it up to the producing party to bear the burden of showing that the ESI is inaccessible because the courts are now willing to presume this finding if neither party contends otherwise. Gary Discovery received a B.S. in Business Administration, with a concentration in Finance from the Bartley School of Business at Villanova University. He will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015. After graduation, Gary will clerk for a presiding civil judge in the Superior Court of New Jersey. Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.
When a party’s violation of discovery rules causes added legal expenses to its adversarial, courts appear to be very generous in approving fee applications. An application only needs to provide itemized ledger entries of attorney/paralegal hours with simple explanation of the relation of the corresponding work to the discovery violation. Courts are going to exercise broad discretion and place the burden on the violating party to show with particularity why each logged hour is unreasonable. It appears that courts will only disprove hours that are obviously excessive or clearly redundant on the face of the ledger. In Tangible Value v. Town Sports International, Inc., Tangible Value (“TV”) sued the defendants for not paying for services provided according to an oral contract, which the defendants denied. The bulk of its claim was reflected in an invoice stating an unpaid balance of about $800,000. Upon discovery request by the defendant, TV, refused to produce metadata and other documents related to the invoice. The court then ordered such production. During the course of the discovery, TV repeatedly provided insufficient documentation as requested and the defendant had to examine the documents and determine their sufficiency, converse with counsels of TV, and initiate court conferences multiple times to compel additional documents. It was later discovered that the invoice was not real but was created by TV after the fact to justify a damage claim. At that point, the defendant filed a motion for contempt and sanction. The court granted the motion. The defendants then filed their fee application seeking to recoup legal expenses as a result of TV’s discovery violation, which totaled 423.2 hours at rates varying between $180-$562 for attorneys (associates and partners) and $95-$153 for paralegals. The Magistrate Judge of the District Court for the District of New Jersey generously awarded the defendants 384 hours. Several observations can be made on how the court dealt with various legal charges. First, court deemed all charging rates reasonable by comparing the proposed rates to the rates approved previously by the court in other matters. Second, the court automatically approved any hours that were not objected to by TV. Third, once specific objections of hours were made, the court used a great deal of discretion and required particular showing why the hours objected were unreasonable. Fourth, the court approved internal attorney conferences without much hesitation. Fifth, hours logged for preparation for court conference were approved 100%. Sixth, the court was only willing to consider obviously excessive or unnecessarily redundant work as unreasonable. Seventh and most astonishingly, the court was extremely generous in allowing hours associated with legal research and drafting of Motion for Sanction and Fee application, approving a whopping 250 hours, or over 6 weeks’ worth of work for a single attorney! For my fellow law students, that is half of one entire law school semester. Thus, for executives and legal counsels in similar situations, make a good faith effort to obey the discovery request. Otherwise, the other side will surely take full advantage of the generosity of the court and obtain a humongous reimbursement in legal fees. For easy reference, the table below summarizes the court’s disposition of all hours included in defendants’ fee application in the Tangible Value case. Note: DP stands for Document Production. Fee Items Hours Applied Court Comments Reduction of Hours by Court Assessment of deficiencies in initial DP 8.3 none Communications with TV Re deficiencies in initial DP 9.8 2 Court conference/preparation Re deficiencies in initial DP 1.8 none Communications with TV Re deficiencies in its 2nd DP 5.8 none Court conference/preparation Re deficiencies in 2nd DP 3.1 none Investigation of the invoice and assessment of documents related to the derivation of the invoice 19.2 Multiple paralegals on same task. 4.9 Communications with TV Re deficiencies in its DP concerning the invoice 10.7 Two entries on similar work. 4.4 Court conference Re the deficiencies in DP concerning the invoice 0.8 none Assessment of deficiencies in the 3rd DP 2.2 none Communications with TV Re the deficiencies in 3rd DP 2.4 none Assessment of the 4th DP 1.5 none Assessment of the 5th DP 7 Ledger is unclear. 0.5 Communications with TV Re deficiencies in the 5th DP 1 none Assessment of 6th DP and accuracy of TV certifications 5.9 none Communications Re deficiencies in 6th DP and accuracy of certifications 7.7 none Communication with TV Re deficiencies in 7th DP 1.3 none Communication with TV Re deficiencies in 8th DP 0.5 none Letter to Court summarizing DP deficiencies and seeking permission to move to compel 3.9 none Motion to Compel, including drafting, legal research. 23.5 none Oral argument Re Motion to Compel and Status Conference with court. 4.4 none Revision of Scheduling Orders throughout litigation due to discovery delays 4.2 none Letter request for permission to move for sanction, including review and legal research 9.8 Two attorneys repeated same task. 2 Review of TV response to the letter above 8.2 none Motion for Sanction, including legal research and drafting 80.8 none Review of TV response for the Motion for Sanction, preparation of reply, and review of Magistrate Report and Recommendations. 28.1 The 4 hours for reviewing Court Report excessive. 1 Fee application including review of records and case law research 89.9 Excessive only by 12.2 hours 12.2 Review of TV’s opposition to the Fee Application and draft reply 77.7 Excessive only by 12.2 hours 12.2 Gang Chen is a Senior Segment Manager in the Intellectual Property Business Group of Alcatel-Lucent, and a4th year evening student at Seton Hall University School of Law focusing on patent law. 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Following the recent ten year anniversary of the verdict in the Zubulake case (and the series of published court opinions preceding the verdict) that laid the groundwork for future eDiscovery cases, Ms. Zubulake took time from her busy schedule to meet with Seton Hall Law students. Ms. Zubulake discussed her book that presents a first-hand account of her harrowing experience that culminated in a historic outcome—and in the process forever changed the United States litigation landscape. Ms. Zubulake imparted her knowledge and experience from her three year lawsuit with a group of Seton Hall Law School students enrolled in Adjunct Law Professor Fernando M. Pinguelo’s eDiscovery: Where Technology Meets the Law course. Each student asked thoughtful and pointed questions concerning many of the experiences Ms. Zubulake revealed in her book. One of the central points Ms. Zubulake focused on was the importance of organization. She described the daunting task of reviewing, organizing, and searching through massive amounts of data, including emails and other evidence produced to her and her legal team as searching for the proverbial “needle in the haystack.” This was during a time when technology assisted review and other advancements in data review platforms were virtually nonexistent. To overcome this challenge, Ms. Zubulake believed organizing the evidence, including paper and electronic documents, was critical to preparing for depositions, drafting motion papers, preparing for trial, and presenting a clear timeline and sequence of events to the jury. Ms. Zubulake shared both her experiences that led to her decision to file suit alleging gender discrimination and retaliation and the fallout of her litigation, which carried over to her personal life. Ms. Zubulake confessed that she had been aware of allegations of gender discrimination in the financial industry early on in her career and acknowledged that she often felt that she had to work twice as hard as her male counterparts. However, that position never bothered Ms. Zubulake until the situation became uniquely personal, leading her to conclude that something needed to be done. Once she felt her personal career was being compromised, Ms. Zubulake admited that she “couldn’t in good faith walk away from it.” While her decision to act was not an easy one to make at the time, she thought it was the right one—particularly because she raised her concerns through internal corporate channels that she had been led to believe were designed to address delicate, intra-personnel matters discretely and effectively. Ms. Zubulake’s book is a personal account of a long, grueling litigation process that resulted in her finally getting vindication and justice. She speaks of the process and admits that it was not easy. Ms. Zubulake knew that she served as a good, strong candidate to not only take a stand against what had happened to her personally, but also to challenge what had been in many respects an institutional problem. Ms. Zubulake’s case did not serve merely to right a perceived wrong in the context of gender discrimination in the work place, but it also sparked the establishment of several groundbreaking precedents regarding electronic discovery. Her book is not only an account of her determination, but also her acknowledgement that she never imagined her case would have had such an impact on a legal process that was virtually nonexistent at the time. Ten years later, we continue to see the impact and the relevancy of the Zubulake decisions. To learn more about Laura Zubulake and Zubulake’s eDiscovery: The Untold Story of My Quest for Justice, visit: http://www.laurazubulake.com/. Fernando M. Pinguelo, Esq., is a U.S.-based trial lawyer and devotes his practice to complex lawsuits with an emphasis on business disputes, cyber security, media and employment matters. Kristen Tierney, a Chief Blog Correspondent for eLessons Learned, is a History and Political Science double-major at at Rutgers University in New Brunswick (Class of 2016). Do you have any feedback, thoughts, reactions or comments concerning this topic? Feel free to leave a comment below and follow the twitter accounts @ellblog_dot_com, @CyberPinguelo, and @eWHW_Blog. To learn more about electronic discovery and technology’s impact on lawsuits and corporate governance, visit eLessons Learned – Where Law, Technology, and Human Error Collide and register to receive timely updates. If you’re also interested in data privacy and security, visit eLLblog’s companion blog – eWhiteHouse Watch – Where Technology, Politics, and Privacy Collide (http://ewhwblog.com).
On March 10, 20108, Marc Liebeskind began working at Rutgers Facilities Business Administration Department. By March 28 of that year, Liebeskind was terminated for lacking the basic skill set needed to perform his job in addition to having a poor attitude while on the job. Liebeskind’s supervisors had suspected he was spending an unreasonable amount of time on non-work related activities on his work computer. Having doubts about Liebeskind’s work performance, his supervisors reviewed the browsing history on Liebeskind’s computer by using an application called IEHistoryView. It is important to note that this search only entailed browsing history, and there is no evidence that Liebeskind’s supervisors were granted any access to his personal or password-protected information and accounts. After his termination, Liebeskind filed suit against Rutgers University and his supervisors, claiming invasion of privacy, among other claims. On appeal, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s ruling, which ruling struck down all claims that Liebeskind’s privacy was violated as a result of his supervisors’ investigating the browser history on his computer. The appellate court referenced the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Stengart ruling, which had set the precedent for an employer’s right to monitor employee Internet activity and usage. Closely followed in previous eLessons Learned posts, the 2010 Stengart ruling held that an employee’s email communication with her attorney, using a company-issued computer, but via a personal, password-protected email account was held to be protected by the attorney-client privilege. However, the court’s decision to uphold Stengart’s privacy was not intended to forbid employers from monitoring employees’ actions on company-issued computers or devices in the future. In Stengart, New Jersey’s highest court stated: “Companies can adopt lawful policies relating to computer use to protect the assets, reputation, and productivity of a business and to ensure compliance with legitimate corporate policies.” As noted in Liebeskind, Rutgers’ “Acceptable Use Policy for Computing and Information Technology Resources” was in effect during the time of Liebeskind’s employment. This policy expressly stated that an employee’s privacy “may be superseded by the University’s requirement to protect the integrity of information technology resources, the rights of all users and the property of the University.” Additionally, Rutgers University “[r]eserve[d] the right to examine material stored on or transmitted through its facilities.” Unlike the findings in Stengart, the court established that Liebeskind did not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” In addition, the court agreed that Rutgers had a “legitimate interest in monitoring and regulating plaintiff’s workplace computer.” All companies can learn from this case and the policies in place at Rutgers that protected its right to monitor and search an employee’s computer. One of the most important lessons to be learned here is the need for a written internet usage policy. At the very least, these written policies should mandate that employees are expected to use the Internet and their work issued computers for work related activities only. Additionally, the possible disciplinary actions for any violation of this policy should be made available to employees. As seen in in this case, the existence of an internet usage policy and the reserved right of a company to monitor its employee’s Internet activity is the key to eliminate an employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
Many of you have been there. After months of discovery and the unavoidable disputes that accompany the process, you still need more. Do not make the same mistake that this lawyer made. In Herron v. Fannie Mae, the plaintiff sued the defendant Fannie Mae for alleged illegal termination. The plaintiff asserted that she was fired because she complained about the management and decisions, among other things. Throughout the proceedings of the case, there was a record filled with discovery disputes and discovery deadline extensions. The discovery process was dragging along until United States District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer put an end to all discovery in a single order titled, “ORDER ON ONE MILLIONTH DISCOVERY DISPUTE.” While there was not actually a million discovery disputes, the judge had become so fed up with the parties and their arguments that she was forced to take action. “Much as the Court admires the advocacy of counsel, it is exhausted with these disputes. Contrary to its usual practice, the Court will rule immediately.” The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was two separate requests from the plaintiff. Instead of seeking specific and narrow discovery, the plaintiff asked for “highly overbroad” depositions and document requests. For example, the plaintiff asked for the entirety of “confidential internal presentations and deliberations on executive bonuses by the Board of Directors for all of Fannie Mae’s executive staff for two years.” This request, remember, is coming from a plaintiff that is seeking an illegal termination claim. Judge Collyer stated that “these topics could have, and should have, been laser focused. They were not and will not be enforced.” Due to the overbroad nature of one parties’ requests, all future discovery for both parties was terminated. The major practice lesson that comes from this is two-fold. First, when seeking additional discovery after months of disputes, stay narrow and focused. Taking the extra time to efficiently state exactly what you are looking for could keep discovery on track (think pleading specificity standards). Plus, the judge will appreciate the candor and targeted nature of the request. Second, make sure that the discovery you are requesting is on point with what your case issue will allow. As seen in Herron, reaching for too much discovery that may be beyond your cause of action is a sure fire way to anger a judge. Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.
We have entered the age of information! Every conversation, e-mail, text message, attachment, voicemail, and other electronic data are being stored all day, every day. These types of electronically stored information (a.k.a. “ESI”) are regularly used during litigation. So why is there a problem collecting information for trial? Lawyers need to search through these massive amounts of ESI in order to provide the materials to the opposing party before trial. This process is known as eDiscovery, or electronic discovery, and it has raised a number of issues regarding who, what, where, when, why, and how ESI is produced. The issue discussed here is what defines the scope of eDiscovery. In ChenOster v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., the court made it clear that the scope of discovery, whether electronic or not, is still defined by traditional discovery requests and demands. However, what brought forward this conclusion? Traditionally, the process of discovery is the period when lawyers exchange requests and demands for information, documents, and other materials that may be used in the case. Generally, this can be broken down into three steps: (1) Requesting party will make a discovery request; (2) the opposing party will use any means she deems appropriate to find the materials; and (3) the opposing party will respond to the request in the form of producing the materials or an objection. However, in Chen-Oster, the parties deviated slightly from this traditional process. Here, the requesting party, the plaintiffs, made traditional discovery requests for ESI. Then the plaintiffs negotiated with the opposing party, the defendants, in order to determine what search terms would be used to filter through the enormous amounts of ESI available. Now, why is this different from a traditional discovery process? This is different because both parties collaborated to determine how the ESI requested would be located. The issue presented in Chen-Oster begins upon production of the ESI by the defendants. The defendants only produced the ESI they deemed to be relevant to the discovery requests set forth by the plaintiffs. However, the plaintiffs intended to collect all ESI produced by the search terms they agreed upon. This brings us back to the main question: what defines the scope of eDiscovery? It is either all ESI located under the agreed upon search terms; or it is only ESI located under the search terms that are relevant to the original discovery request. According to Chen-Oster, an agreement to use specific search terms or discovery protocol does not override discovery demands and requests. In other words, search terms used to filter through electronic data do not define the scope of discovery. The scope of discovery is determined by the discovery requests rendered. Victoria O’Connor Blazeski received her B.S. form Stevens Institute of Technology, and she will receive her J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015. Prior to law school, she worked as an account manager in the Corporate Tax Provision department of Thomson Reuters, Tax & Accounting. Victoria is a former D3 college basketball player, and she has an interest in tax law and civil litigation. After graduating, she will clerk for the Hon. Joseph M. Andresini, J.T.C. in the Tax Courts of New Jersey. Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.
We all have personal social media pages. No matter who you are, you likely have an online presence in the form of a profile on one of the many sites available on the Internet. One who simply forgets about a newly created social profile can be the subject of worldwide scrutiny—the page is available for all to see. Who cares, right? Most likely, you will not have anything important on there. However, what happens when you are facing a criminal charge and the prosecution uses your social media profile in order to prove your guilt? Meet Aliaksandr Zhyltsou, a Ukrainian native living his life in Brooklyn, New York. All was well until Zhyltsou allegedly furnished Vladyslav Timku with a forged birth certificate, which claimed that Timku was the father of a baby daughter. Timku, as a cooperating witness for the government, admitted that he had sought the forged birth certificate in order to skirt his responsibility to military service in his native Ukraine. During the trail, Timku offered testimony that Zhyltsou had sent him the forged document from the gmail account “firstname.lastname@example.org.” However, the prosecution was unable to offer any other evidence other than Timku’s testimony that tied Zhyltsou to this e-mail address. Therefore, more evidence was necessary in order to corroborate Timku’s claim. Special Agent Cline, from the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, provided the prosecution with the link between the e-mail address and the VK.com profile (the Russian equivalent of Facebook). Cline asserted that this profile on VK belonged to the defendant and was linked to the very same gmail account used to send the forged document to Timku. To prosecutors, it seemed like a slam-dunk: here was the evidence needed to corroborate Timku’s testimony and sufficiently tie Zhyltsou to the Gmail account in question. Everything seemed in order; the profile contained a picture of the defendant, his work experience, and most importantly the “azmadeuz” Gmail account. Furthermore, the district court agreed that this was the Zhyltsou’s profile page and therefore the prosecution could use it as evidence to establish the link between the defendant and the gmail account. However, one pesky evidence rule could ruin it all in an instant, Federal Rule 901. Simply, Federal Rule 901 requires that in order to “authenticate or identify” a piece of evidence, a proponent asserting any form of evidence “must produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the evidence is what the proponent claims it is.” Therefore, in the instant case, the prosecution had the duty to prove that this VK profile page belonged to Zhyltsou alone and was not created by any other person. However, in his haste to provide this vital piece of evidence, the prosecutor failed to adhere to this rule and the case was ultimately overturned on appeal. This case is a prime example of the need for all lawyers to have a firm understanding of electronic discovery. While it may be easy to access social media profiles and the like in order to obtain evidence against an opponent, that is only part of the process. It must be proven that the profile actually belongs to your opponent before you may use it against them as evidence in a court of law. In today’s world, it is not difficult to create fake profiles on such sites and therefore the court was correct in overturning this ruling. However, it is not outside of the realm of possibility that the prosecution could have tied Zhyltsou to this VK profile, it would have simply taken a little more digging and investigative work. A.S. Mitchell received his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Central Florida (2008). He will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015. Presently, A.S. clerks for the Monmouth County Office of the Public Defender. Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.
Willfully destroying evidence? Failing to preserve materially relevant evidence? These are just two of the allegations Lisa Alter has made against the Rocky Point School District. Prior to submitting her complaint, Ms. Alter had accused the school district of similar wrongdoings. Alter worked for the Rocky Point School District holding various positions over the years. While employed as the Coordinator of Central Registration/Administrative Assistant within the Human Resources department, Alter alleges that she was subject to a hostile work environment on the basis of her gender. Further, Alter claims that she was retaliated against for complaining to the School District about it. The opinion here is related to a matter regarding electronic discovery in this case. The plaintiff filed a motion to compel discovery and for sanctions. After taking several depositions, plaintiff claims to have discovered new testimony relevant to her most recent motion to compel discovery. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that: “(1) Defendants both failed to preserve and willfully destroyed evidence, and (2) Defendants continue to intentionally withhold relevant evidence despite repeated demands for production.” The school district had a system for overwriting backup drives. The plaintiff contended that by not stopping the overwriting of the backup drives that it constituted a breach of the defendant’s preservation obligation. The defendant claimed that all information relevant to this case (i.e., emails stored on the school’s employee email system). The duty to preserve arises when litigation is “reasonably foreseeable.” The party that has control over the evidence has an obligation to preserve it. Once evidence is lost, the court then looks to the obligor’s state of mind to determine culpability. Here, the court determined that the defendants did not intentionally lose the data. The burden then shifted to the plaintiff to prove that the lost data was relevant. In the instant case, the court did not find bad faith; thus, it was up to the plaintiff to then prove the relevance of the lost data. Ultimately, the court granted in part and denied in part the plaintiff’s motion. The court found that the plaintiff did not meet her burden of showing that the lost documents were relevant. However, the actions of the defendants that lead to losing materials placed the plaintiff in a position to have to file this motion. Thus, sanctions were awarded in the amount of $1,500.00. The moral of the story: When litigation is pending, or likely to begin, preserve or pay the price. Jessie is a third year student at Seton Hall University School of Law (Class of 2015). She graduated from Rutgers University, New Brunswick in 2012 with a B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science. Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.  When the breaching party acts in bad faith, relevance is assumed.
If you are involved in a lawsuit you may not destroy relevant evidence, inadvertently or purposefully, without facing consequences. In this lawsuit, the defendant, who is the owner of the company and a lawyer, destroyed possibly more than 10,000 relevant e-mails after receiving notice of a copyright infringement suit against him. The court found the defendant’s efforts to “remedy” the error disingenuous; the destruction of evidence was found to have been done maliciously and purposefully. When the litigation commenced, the plaintiffs sent the defendant a document request and repeatedly asked for any and all electronic files, e-mails included, that the defendant had created or sent to others. About a year after the suit had commenced, defendant’s counsel, who later withdrew from the case, notified the plaintiffs that the defendant had ended his account with a third-party web supplier and thus defendant’s website and e-mails were all destroyed. This was done two months before the account was set to expire even though it was already fully paid for. The defendant also admitted to deleting sent e-mails as part of his ordinary practice and did not change that practice after the lawsuit was filed. Furthermore, he also admitted to manually deleting e-mails after and in response to a cease and desist demand, after his deposition, and multiple times during the course of litigation. The court found that he had acted in such a manner to prevent plaintiffs from accessing the e-mails, which were an integral part to the litigation. The defendant’s actions were a clear violation of ethics and evidence rules. The court found particularly egregious that the defendant, a Cornell law and business graduate, claimed to not know that there was an obligation to maintain all documents. He claimed this even though he had passed the New York State Bar exam and received a document request from the plaintiffs stating which documents were needed for the litigation. Moreover, the third party web supplier testified that when the defendant originally closed the account, the defendant then called to ensure that the e-mails had been deleted. It was only after the defendant received a deposition notice on the spoliation (the destruction of evidence) that he then called the web supplier to ask if there was any way to retrieve the e-mails. This was nearly a month after he had called to ensure they were fully removed from the systems. The defendant then reactivated the account only to set it to automatically terminate in less than a month. The third party supplier testified that once the account was terminated there was no way to recover any e-mails…so why did defendant reactivate his account? The court determined that this was done to show a “selective repopulation” of e-mails from the first termination. The defendant conceded that he had manually repopulated the account with e-mails that he was able to obtain from one of his recipients. These e-mails that were now “found” in the reactivated account were merely the ones manually selected for repopulation by the defendant. The court was also thoroughly displeased with the defendant because after the second termination of the account, the defendant repeatedly called the third party supplier in an attempt to create a false record that the supplier had terminated the account and not he himself. Due to the defendant’s actions, the court not only found that spoliation of evidence had occurred and that the defendant had acted intentionally, but also that the plaintiff was clearly prejudiced by the defendant’s intentional destruction of evidence. The court thus imposed the harshest sentence allowed against the defendant: a terminating sanction. This sanction is the harshest penalty as it is a punishment for grossly improper litigation behavior that ends the offending party’s participation in suit, usually then dismissing or finding for the opposite side. In this case, judgment was granted to the plaintiff due to the defendant’s intentional destruction of evidence and attempt to create a false record. What the defendant should have done was save all the e-mails and turn them over to the plaintiffs. Instead, by intentionally destroying evidence and attempting to improperly lay blame, the court imposed the harshest punishment on the defendant. Knowing the risks and punishment involved with intentionally destroying evidence it is unclear why the defendant did what he did. Ms. Mansour is a Seton Hall University School of Law Student (Class of 2015). She has taken a sampling of courses across various disciplinary areas and participated in a variety of externship programs in addition to being on Legislative Journal. She graduated from Rutgers University with a concentration in Psychology and has her M.A. in Translation and Translation Studies from UNC – Charlotte. She currently is a legal intern for the King’s County District Attorney’s Office. Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.