Welcome to the new eLessons Learned

eDiscovery Written by Law Students

eDiscovery Written by Law Students

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.

Law + Technology + Human Error

Law + Technology + Human Error

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.

New to the eDiscovery world?

New to the eDiscovery world?

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

Contribute to eLessons Learned

Contribute to eLessons Learned

Interested students may apply for the opportunity to write for e-Lessons Learned by filling out the simple application. Go There

DESI VI Workshop on Using Machine Learning and Other Advanced Techniques to Address Legal Problems in E-Discovery and Information Governance

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.

What Conduct is Necessary for the Court to Impose a Dispositive Sanction?

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. 

Want to Keep Your Dirty Laundry Private? Don’t Air It On An Employer-Issued Communications Device

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. 

Want to Produce Documents? Produce Something Else First.

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.

Does the Government Need a Warrant to Access Cell Phone Tracking Information? Third Circuit Says “No.”

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. 

How Can You Be Found Guilty of Computer Sabotage When You’re No Longer Working For the Company? Easy; Put A Timed Virus Into The System Before You Leave.

On July 31, 1996, plaintiff Omega Engineering Corp. ("Omega"), a New Jersey based company, lost its computer programs relating to design and production permanently from its system. Omega manufactured “highly specialized and sophisticated industrial process measurement devices and control equipment” for NASA and the United States Navy.  The deletion of these programs debilitated their ability for manufacturing as well as costed the company millions of dollars in contracts and sales. From 1985 to July 10, 1996, defendant Timothy Lloyd worked as the computer system administrator at Omega.  He trained with the Novell computer network and installed it to Omega’s computer system.  The program worked to ensure that all of Omega’s documents could be kept on a central file server. Lloyd was the only Omega employee to maintain the Novell client and have “top-level security access” to it; however, the defense asserted that others at the company had access.  According to a government expert, access "means that ... [an] account has full access to everything on the server."  Lloyd was also the only employee in charge of backing up the information to the server. In 1994 or 1995, Lloyd became difficult.  The company moved him laterally in hopes of improving his behavior. A government witness testified that even though it was a lateral move, it was in fact, considered a demotion by the company.  Lloyd’s new supervisor asked him about the back-up system and wanted him to loop a couple more people in but he never did.   Moreover, he instituted a company-wide policy that employees were no longer allowed to make personal backups of their files. On top of the above issues, there was also a “substandard performance review and raise.”  The combination of the two factors, according to the government, showed Lloyd that his employment with the company would soon be terminated.   This established Lloyd’s motive to sabotage the Omega computer system.  On July 10, 1006, Lloyd was terminated. On July 31, 1996, Omega’s file server would not start up.  On July 31, “Lloyd told a third party, that "everybody's job at Omega is in jeopardy.” days later it was realized that all of the information contained on it were permanently lost.  More than 1,200 of Omega’s programs were deleted and, as per Lloyd’s policy, none of the employees had their own personal backups.  There was no way for any of these programs to be recovered. A search warrant conducted on Lloyd’s house turned up some backup tapes and a file server master hard drive.  Experts hired by Omega found that the deletion of information was “intentional and only someone with supervisory-level access to the network could have accomplished such a feat.”  The commands necessary to pull off such a purge were characterized as a “time bomb” set to go off on July 31st when an employee logged into the system.   There was evidence found by these experts of Lloyd testing these specific commands three different times.  This string of commands was further found on the hard drive that was in Lloyd’s home. Lloyd was convicted of a federal count of computer sabotage.  It was remanded due to a jury member’s claimed use of outside knowledge during deliberations. Julie received her J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2014. Prior to law school, she was a 2008 magna cum laude graduate of Syracuse University, where she earned a B.A. in History and a minor in Religion and Society. After law school, Julie will serve as a law clerk to a judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey.

Proportionality Applies to International Trade Disputes As Well

In Timken Co. v. U.S., the plaintiff ("Timken" or "Plaintiff") challenged the decision of the Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration ("Commerce"), denying Plaintiff access to computer tapes submitted by defendant-intervenors (the "Defendant") in a complex trade case.  Timken sought the tapes notwithstanding that it had received the very same information in paper form. Plaintiff advocated its position by discussing the hardship that would be imposed if Plaintiff had to reproduce the tapes itself.  Plaintiff demonstrated that it would require 7,500 man-hours and a legion of "keypunchers," at a total cost of approximately $200,000 to duplicate what Commerce already had in its possession.  With respect to the need for the tapes, Plaintiff indicated that without the tapes it would not be able to identify factual errors in the data and other mathematical or methodological errors. Commerce countered the above points by arguing that if it had to supply the tapes, it would have to expend significant energy insuring that customer names had been deleted and assisting Plaintiff with mechanical problems that may arise.  Commerce also asserted that if it was compelled the tapes companies would be less likely to store information on tapes moving forward, to prevent disclosure. In reviewing the merits, the Court of International Review applied the standard expounded in the applicable legislative history; that is, "whether the need of the party requesting the information outweighs the need of the party submitting the information for continued confidential treatment."  The court first concluded that the cost factored weighed in favor of Plaintiffs. Not only were Plaintiff’s costs to reproduce high, but also Plaintiff was willing to offset any costs to Commerce.  This process also minimized the involvement, and therefore the burden, of Commerce.  With respect to the argument that the tapes were required by Plaintiff to independently analyze the data, the court found that access to the tapes was essential for effective advocacy, and that such work by Plaintiff would not constitute a "duplication of administrative functions."  Finally, the Court dismissed Commerce's argument that companies would no longer maintain data on tape: "[I]t is unlikely that the mere possibility of trade litigation in the United States would prompt foreign exporters to return to archaic business procedures." Although not articulated as such, the court engaged in a proportionality analysis typically applied to discovery disputes in federal courts.  Plaintiff's willingness to offset the costs to Commerce seemed to sway the court, just as it would in a typical discovery dispute.  Another principle to be extracted from this case is the value inherent in having data in a particular form.  This may be an area where practitioners miss the boat. A savvy e-disco attorney will know the ins and outs of how different forms of data can be manipulated, and the form most ideal for recovering (or inhibiting recovery) of particular information.  So practitioners should remember at their next meet and confer, just getting the information may not be enough—form may be critical. Adam L. Peterson is a graduate of Seton Hall University School of Law.  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. 

Throwback to 1986: Court of International Trade Gets Discovery Rules Right

It seems that courts were ruling on the intersection of new technology and discovery practice back in the day. In 1986, the United States Court of International Trade decided motions to compel discovery regarding new technologies in Daewoo Electronics Co., Ltd. v. U.S. The court even noted that “[t]his controversy is a good example of how the development of new technology for using, storing and transmitting information allows parties to test the rules of disclosure or discovery.” There, the court grappled with whether the Department of Commerce met their burden of producing certain documents. The Department of Commerce was accused of committing three faux pas: (1) the tapes provided to the plaintiff was recorded at a much greater density than was stated, (2) data regarding the sale of two separate companies was requested, but not provided, and (3) the government failed to provide material known as an SAS data set. The government argued that they were in strict compliance with an earlier order mandating that they turn over certain evidence. However, the court expressed that it was troubled “by indications that [the government] took an inordinately restrictive view of its obligations under the order.” The government, when ordered to turn over certain tapes, turned over the tapes themselves (which the plaintiff was unable to read), as opposed to the data contained on the tapes. “To say that the data sets into which the computer tapes were transferred are not governed by an order speaking of computer tapes is as if someone has said at the dawn of the era of typewriters that types documents are not governed by a court order speaking of ‘writings.’” Further, the court noted that if the government was acting in earnest, then they had “taken unfair advantage of the court’s lack of familiarity with the variety of further electronic refinements and embodiments of taped information.” Thus, the court granted the plaintiff’s Motion to Compel, setting a precedent for reasonable interpretation of words surrounding new technologies. Matthew G. Miller, a Seton Hall University School of Law graduate (Class of 2014), focuses his practice in the area of Intellectual Property. Matt holds his degree in Chemistry from the University of Chicago. During law school, Matt worked as a legal intern at Gearhart Law, LLC.

Mutual Motions to Compel

“Although not unlimited, relevance, for purposes of discovery, is an extremely broad concept.” See Condit v. Dunne, 225 F.R.D. 100, 105 (S.D.N.Y. 2004). The discovery process is essentially a fact-finding mission. In theory, opposing parties are supposed to work together to make the litigation process more efficient. When both sides refuse to comply, additional motions are required result in additional costs. In the case above, Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp. (“Assured”) wrote financial guaranty policies on three residential mortgage-backed securities (“RMBS”) sponsored by UBS Real Estate Securities Inc. (“UBS”). Id. Assured claimed that UBS breached their contractual obligations by providing false information in regards to credit. Assured filed a motion to compel the production of documents that were generated shortly after the transactions mentioned above. UBS claimed that the documents were irrelevant to the case at hand, and furthermore, such production would be unduly burdensome. The court mentioned that so long as the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, it will likely be permissible. The court also stated that only when the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit will the court limit discovery.  The court considered: the needs of the case; the amount in controversy; the parties' resources; the importance of the issues at stake in the action; and the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, will the court limit discovery. The court granted Assured’s motion to compel against UBS. Conversely, UBS claimed that Assured also failed to comply with discovery demands. Assured allegedly failed to provide three categories of documents they claim are not related to the transaction at issue. The documents sought were thought to contain information about Assured's knowledge of the originator's underwriting policies and its knowledge of the practices of the rating agencies. Assured wanted documents to be provided to them; however, Assured has refused to cooperate in return. The court held that the documents requested by UBS could contain information very relevant to the initial contract dispute. This being the case, the motion to compel discovery against Assured was granted. Finally, the parties seemed to have disagreement about the search terms that will be used to search various sources for relevant information. In this regard, the court declined to step in as no expert opinions were provided and the court did not have “technical expertise.” The court left the parties with three options: The parties could learn to cooperate and agree on certain criteria, the parties could re-file a motion to compel with expert affidavits, or the parties could seek the assistance of a neutral independent consultant. The court ultimately left this decision to the parties. In summation, this case demonstrates that failing to cooperate with discovery is essentially a huge waste of time. As we see here, in the end, the court granted both motions to compel. The documents the parties attempted to hide were eventually exchanged. In a profession where time is money, attorneys cannot afford to stall and prolong the very process that makes our system function efficiently.

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.

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    The blog takes a clever approach to [e-discovery]. Each post discusses an e-discovery case that involves an e-discovery mishap, generally by a company employee. It discusses the conduct that constituted the mishap and then offers its ‘e-lesson’ — a suggestion on how to learn from the mistake and avoid it happening to you.

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