Deleted Documents? Improper Withholding of Evidence?

Larry Klayman sued six separate journalist defendants for defamation. This case is about Klayman wanting more discovery from the defendants. Specifically, Klayman’s motion is to compel the production of documents and to hire a computer expert. In this case, Klayman has conceded the fact that he is a public figure. So, in order to win in a defamation suit, he must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the journalists published the statements about him with actual malice. Thus, Klayman made this discovery motion to try to obtain “any and all documents, discussions and/or publications that refer or relate in any way to Plaintiff Larry Klayman within the past five years,” as well as several other document requests. Klayman contends this information is relevant to state of mind of the journalists. However, the defendants represent that they have already provided Klayman with all relevant information. Based on this representation, the court denied Klayman’s request to compel document production. Klayman also petitioned for a computer retrieval expert to be hired to go through each defendant’s computer files. Klayman claimed that the defendants had improperly withheld documents. However, the court ruled that the plaintiff must show good cause in order to compel a forensic expert, and here he has failed to do so. The court further stated that his assertions were “conclusory and unpersuasive.” 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.

Protection For Blogs Can Stop Discovery On Personal Blogger Information!

This case involves ACT, a career guidance service firm that assists job seekers throughout their job search, suing Daniel Drasin, the administrator of a blog known as Random Convergence. According to ACT, Drasin exercises editorial control over the blog. ACT complains that the blog disparage ACT's services and damages ACT's business and reputation. On March 11, 2013, Magistrate Judge Kristin Mix granted ACT's motion to serve third party subpoenas on Drasin, demanding that he produce the name and contact information for each of the people who posted disparaging remarks on Drasin’s blog. On April 18, 2013, Drasin, then self-represented, filed a third-party motion to quash the subpoenas, stating that they violated the bloggers’ rights to First Amendment right to anonymous speech. He also argued that most individuals who posted comments on the Blog did so anonymously, and he explained that he had no records of those who chose to remain anonymous. The court sided with Drasin and quashed the subpoena. The court found that the Subpoena imposes two types of burden on Drasin. First, in order to comply with the subpoena, Drasin must surrender his personal hard drives to ACT for up to thirty days. Personal computers generally cannot function without their hard drives, so this requirement would force Drasin to spend up to thirty days without the use of his personal computer. Second, forcing Drasin to surrender his hard drives to ACT would give ACT access to Drasin's personal files. Moreover, ACT has alternative means to obtain the information it seeks, such as serving a subpoena on Google. The court also found persuasive that the benefits of the Subpoena appear to be minimal, as there is no indication in the record that Drasin possesses any information that would be relevant in the Colorado Action beyond that which he has already provided. The takeaway message is that subpoenas can be quashed if discovery imposes an undue burden, if the information is irrelevant to the action, and if there are other avenues from which the information can be obtained.   Rebecca Hsu, a Seton Hall University School of Law student (Class of 2015), focuses her studies in the area of Patent Law, with a concentration in Intellectual Property. She is also certified in Healthcare Compliance, and has worked in Compliance at Otsuka America Pharmaceuticals, Inc.  Prior to law school, she graduated cum laude from UCLA and completed graduate work in Biomedical Science. She has co-authored two medical science research articles, as well as completed fellowships through UCLA Medicine and the Medical College of Wisconsin. In addition to awards for her academic achievements, Rebecca has been honored by awards for her community service with disadvantaged communities. In her spare time, Rebecca regularly practices outdoor rock climbing, and can be found camping in the Adirondacks. Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here

Take Discovery Seriously

The court first directed the defendant to produce the file of the plaintiff’s insurance claim in 2007, and needless to say, even in 2014 the defendant still had not produced everything.  Over one year later, the court granted the plaintiff’s first motion to compel.  When a flood of documents appeared at a deposition in 2011, discovery was reopened and the defendant was sanctioned.  Another motion to compel was granted in 2012, and this time it was for the deposition of a representative of the defendant who could testify about the efforts the defendant had taken to respond to discovery requests.  Yet another flood of documents appeared, and the representative deposed was unable to describe any of the defendant’s discovery efforts.  The plaintiff moved again for sanctions, which were granted in 2013.  At that time, the court also granted the plaintiff the costs and legal fees due to the late production of documents.  As relevant here, before the court in this motion was the assessment of legal fees and another production request.  The defendant did not want to produce more documents because by this time the defendant said the emails were on backup tapes that were purportedly not reasonably accessible because of undue burden or cost.  Can you guess what the court thought of that argument?  We’ll get to that in a moment. Without delving into specifics, the court painstakingly analyzed the plaintiff’s legal bill for the various motions, filings, etc. and awarded $81,997.60 in attorney’s fees.  Some of these costs were attributable to an IT specialist hired by the plaintiff that was to help the attorneys ask proper questions at the defendant’s representative’s deposition so they could ensure protocols were followed during discovery and that sufficient documentation was recovered (and if discovery was delayed because of an honest mistake, the explanation for that could be ascertained).  Even though the individual deposed actually had no knowledge of the defendant’s discovery practices, the defendants couldn’t escape paying for the IT specialist’s and attorney preparation time. On top of the nearly $82,000 awarded in legal fees, the defendant said it would cost $200,000 to recover the backup tapes containing emails.  While the actual cost is unclear, the defendant was ordered to turn over eight weeks of tapes, at its expense, of the thirteen individuals the plaintiff identified.  The judge even left the door open for the the plaintiff to get additional discovery if further exploration is necessary.  However, this isn’t the end. Sometimes, a single well-placed footnote can be unbelievably powerful.  This case illustrates just that, as the judge cleverly observed the defendant’s conduct as such: [c]onsistent with Hartford’s approach to discovery in this case, it has spent more time and resources challenging two entries totaling 1 hour than the amount requested by the plaintiff for those entries.  The court trusts that Hartford’s attorneys will notify their client how much they incurred in attorneys fees on these two entries. So please, take discovery seriously. Samuel is in the Seton Hall University School of Law Class of 2015 pursuing the Intellectual Property concentration. He received his master’s from the Rutgers Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and became a registered patent agent prior to entering law school. Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

When Does A Party Have to Produce ESI In Native Format?

The form of ESI production is specified in Rule 34, subject to court-approved agreement between the parties. If a particular format is important to a requesting party, it is critical to stipulate it unambiguously early on. If the party fails to make that stipulation, it will most likely be too late to ask for reproduction of documents that have already been produced although not in the format the requesting party expects, unless the producing party is in violation of the very flexible Rule 34. In Melian Labs v. Triology LLC., the parties filed a case management conference statement (referred as the “Joint Rule 26(f) Report”), and informed the district court that: With respect to the production of electronic data and information, the parties agree that the production of metadata beyond the following fields [is] not necessary in this lawsuit absent a showing of a compelling need: Date sent, Time Sent, Date Received, Time Received, To, From, CC, BCC, and Email Subject. The parties agree to produce documents electronic form in paper, PDF, or TIFF format, and spreadsheet and certain other electronic files in native format when it is more practicable to do so. During a 2-month period following the conference, Melian produced 1,218 pages of documents in PDF format. Triology complained about the format, claiming that these PDFs were stripped of all metadata in violation of the agreement of the parties and that the spreadsheets were not produced in their native format.  Melian disagreed and the parties filed joint letters to the court to address the sufficiency of Melian’s ESI production. As with the e-mail production, Triology contended that Melian’s production of large PDF image documents was violative of FRCR 34(b)(2)(E) because they were not produced in their native format and were not reasonably usable. The court pointed out that Rule 34(b) only requires that the parties produce documents as they are kept in the usual course of business or in the form ordinarily maintained unless otherwise stipulated. The Joint Rule 26(f) Report was a stipulation. But the Report did not require that all ESI be produced electronically. Instead, it stated that ESI may be produced in paper, PDF or TIFF. Production in electronically searchable format certainly would ease Triology’s review, but that was not required by the Report.  E-mails produced by Melian in paper or PDF contained text fields prescribed by the Report and the e-mail production was thus not deficient. To the extent that some e-mails had these fields cut off or it was not apparent from the face of the e-mail, the court instructed Triology to serve a request to Melian for further providing the missing information. As for the spreadsheets, Triology contended that Melian had failed to comply with the Joint Rule 26(f) Report by refusing to produce all spreadsheets in their native format. The court again held against Triology, stating that the Report did not require the production of ESI in their native format. In this case, when some of the spreadsheet printouts were difficult to read, it produced them in native format (Excel) upon request by Triology. The court approved of this remedial procedure and held that Melian did not need to produce all spreadsheets electronically in native format according to the stipulation of the Report. The court was noticeably agitated by this kind of complaint asking for the court’s involvement.  The court believed that these disputes could have been easily resolved by the parties without seeking court intervention. Here is a quote from the last sentence of the opinion: “the parties are ordered to meet and confer in good faith before seeking further court intervention.” The bottom line is that if a requesting party wants to have documents produced in their native format, it should make a clear and unambiguous stipulation as to the form of production in order to override the choices afforded to the producing party by Rule 34. Of course, the stipulation, usually reached at some case management conference, must be agreed upon by both parties and approved by the court after the burden and proportionality issues are considered by the court. And very importantly, stay on the good side of the court by trying to resolve these discovery issues without going to the Court for intervention. Gang Chen is a Senior Segment Manager in the Intellectual Property Business Group of Alcatel-Lucent, and a fourth-year evening student at Seton Hall University School of Law focusing on patent law. Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

Denial of Discovery Request: Can One Refuse to Produce Documents?

Executive Mgmt. Services, Inc. v. Fifth Third Bank is not a riveting case to read. It involves a rather mundane breach of contract claim by the plaintiff alleging wrongdoing by the defendant. Namely, Executive Management Services brought suit against Fifth Third Bank alleging that the bank had made misleading statements regarding interest-rate swaps. While the subject matter of the claim would fail to interest anyone, the procedural elements and motion practice offer a far more interesting and educational prospect. In building their defense, Fifth Third Bank sent Executive Management Services multiple discovery requests, which included tax returns, financial statements, and documents referring or relating to their (EMS) loan applications. However, Executive Management Services refused to produce the requested discovery on three grounds. First, EMS argued that the requested as they have "not claimed to be unsophisticated regarding standard commercial banking," only that they "did not understand the risks of the swap transactions." Second, the EMS argued that the defendant’s discovery requests were "overly board and unduly burdensome." Third, EMS claimed privilege regarding the requested documents under both attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine. The court rejected EMS’s first argument right out of the gate. EMS claimed that the documents sought were not relevant to the issue at bar and therefore did not need to be turned over to their adversary. EMS claimed these documents were irrelevant because they had "not claimed to be unsophisticated regarding standard commercial banking," but rather that "did not understand the risks of the swap transactions." However, the court was not persuaded by this argument because even though this was a new area of investment banking, it remained the same procedure and protocol as any form of investment banking. Therefore, EMS’s past actions in commercial banking provided them with a foundation by which to understand this new field of investment and thus the documents proving this foundation were relevant. The court also rejected EMS’s argument that the documents were privileged under attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine. While there may have been concerns regarding the confidentiality of these documents the court stated that the protective order in place addressed and negated all of the concerns posed by this argument. EMS’s second argument seems like it could have had the most impact out of the three; however, hardly any effort at all was put forth in crafting it. The plaintiffs simply stated that the production of such documents was unduly burdensome and overbroad and left it at that. There was no further development of this argument and therefore the court rejected it on its face. If the plaintiffs had put forth any evidence regarding why the request was overbroad or unduly burdensome the court may have limited the requested discovery. The plaintiffs should have offered evidence regarding why this request was unduly burdensome and overbroad; their failure to do so resulted in the court rejecting this argument on its face.   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.   Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

What Should A Party Do When It Receives A Confusing Discovery Response?

Were the defendants at fault for providing to the plaintiffs a CD containing information confusing to the plaintiffs? A court found that, no, the parties should have communicated with each other in order to facilitate the discovery process. The issue arose when the defendants provided a CD to the plaintiffs containing information the plaintiffs had requested. However, the plaintiffs did not know how the defendants collected the information on the CD, nor did the plaintiffs know how the contents were responsive to their discovery requests. Based on this incident, the plaintiffs filed this motion to appoint a neutral discovery master to oversee the discovery process. The plaintiffs also argued that the defendants had not been timely with their discovery submissions. However, as the court pointed out, the plaintiffs had not been timely. Ultimately, the court found that if the parties had merely taken the time to communicate with each other that this motion likely could have been avoided. The court further stated that the parties must, “meet and confer in good faith in order to communicate about issues of untimely or confusing production and resolve them without judicial intervention.” Thus, the court dismissed the motion. 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.

What Responsibility Does An ESI Producing Party Have in Reviewing the Documents for Responsiveness?

ESI is usually massive and its discovery burdensome. The proportionality consideration is thus often a deciding factor for courts to impose a particular document production protocol. The rules of ESI request and production do not offer a clear line as to the form of production and the obligation of a producing party in further culling for responsiveness by reviewing search hits produced by computers. That allows courts to order production procedures with considerable flexibility. ESI production is governed by Rule 34 of FRCP, which states that a request of ESI production “may specify the form or forms in which electronically stored information is to be produced” (emphasis added). However, rule 34(b)(2)(E) specifies that: (E) Producing the Documents or Electronically Stored Information. Unless otherwise stipulated or ordered by the court, these procedures apply to producing documents or electronically stored information: (i) A party must produce documents as they are kept in the usual course of business or must organize and label them to correspond to the categories in the request; (ii) If a request does not specify a form for producing electronically stored information, a party must produce it in a form or forms in which it is ordinarily maintained or in a reasonably usable form or forms; and (iii) A party need not produce the same electronically stored information in more than one form. As to the responsiveness review, nowhere in Rule 34 is it expressly stipulated how the review should be carried out and how the electronic search should be conducted, particularly in the context of ESI. The court in FDIC v. Bowden, by referencing other cases, developed some practical guide in applying the ESI production rules as to production forms and responsiveness review responsibility. In FDIC v. Bowden, the court, in the spirit of balancing discovery burdens and applying proportionality restriction, provided a reasonable ESI production procedure to follow in the particular context of the case. That context, involving a suit by FDIC who took over a failed bank for mismanagement against some prior executives of the bank, may not be as uncommon as it appears, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis resulting from broad adoption of ruthless practices by the financial industry. The position of the court is thus illuminating and offers much guidance to parties facing similar situations. Specifically in FDIC v. Bowden, a bank insured by the FDIC failed and the FDIC formed a separate legal entity, the FDIC-R, to act as a receiver and took over the bank. The FDIC-R then brought a bank mismanagement case against sixteen former directors and officers. The parties disputed as to the ESI document production protocol. Like many other mismanagement cases, the defendant had been running the bank and thus had some reasonable understanding of majority the bank’s (or the plaintiff’s) ESI and knew reasonably well what needed to be searched. This point seems to have carried much weight for the court to determine a suitable document production protocol. First, it is interesting to note that the court treated acceptable ESI production protocol by FDIC for defendants’ request for documents related to FDIC’s claims separately from defendants’ request for documents responsive to defendant’s defenses. As to the production of ESI related to the claims, the court first noted that since this type of case generally involves the bank’s takeover by the FDIC and thus the ESI has usually been modified in the course of FDIC’s running of the bank. Thus, irrespective of whether the defendants specified any document production form, FDIC cannot really satisfy the “course of business” option of Rule 34(b)(2)(E)(i) by simply providing ESI as kept by FDIC because the “course of business” was held by the court to mean the business of the bank, not of the FDIC. Under Rule 34, the FDIC thus needed to produce categorized documents according to defendant’s request. But there is no obligation for the responding party to examine every scrap of paper in its potentially voluminous files in order to comply with its discovery obligations. Rather, the court approved a two-stage scheme. In the first stage, FDIC only needs to conduct a diligent search, which involves developing a reasonably comprehensive electronic search strategy, categorize the resulting files according to the request, and produce the documents. However, the obligation (if there is one) for FDIC to review the responsiveness of the documents resulting from these initial searches may be obviated through a cooperative search query formulation on an equal access document database in a second stage document production. Specifically for the second stage, parties would agree to a set of search terms to apply to the Bank’s database maintained by FDIC-R. FDIC-R would then export the results into some review tool, called “Relativity” in this case. FDIC-R would provide full accessibility of “Relativity” to defendants. That way, the defendants can be afforded the opportunity to review the documents identified through the second round searches and select for production only the documents that the defendants desire. As for the defendant’s interest in corralling documents in support of their defense, the court held that FDIC-R must confer with defendants and run whatever reasonable searches they wish to run on the electronic records and make those hits available for review and refinement. This seems to be a natural way of dealing with request for document helping with defense since the defensive strategy is mostly with the defendants themselves. From this case, it appears that as long as a responding party conducts a reasonable and diligent electronic search according to the document request and produces hits, it does not immediately have the obligation to further review these hits for responsiveness. However, the court may ask the responding party to make their ESI database available for a collaborative search between the parties. The responding party can always produce these hits in a format kept in ordinary course of business irrespective of whether the requesting party has specified any form of production. Of course, the responding party can also produce the document by categorizing the document according to the request if it chooses to do so or if the ESI has been altered and becomes too burdensome to reverse to the form kept in ordinary course of business. Gang Chen is a Senior Segment Manager in the Intellectual Property Business Group of Alcatel-Lucent, and a fourth-year evening student at Seton Hall University School of Law focusing on Patent Law. Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

Changing Horses Midstream? Court Says “Yes” to plaintiff Switching From Manual Document Review to Predictive Coding

The court entered its usual case management order setting forth a timeline of how this case was going to proceed. One of the first phases of litigation is the discovery phase. This means that both sides get to ask each other for documents and information regarding the issue in the case. The rules are fairly straightforward in this phase and each side will likely be obligated to provide much of what the opposing side asks for. In the instant case, after doing some manual searching, the plaintiff, Bridgestone, requested to use predictive coding to help sort through over two million documents. Predictive coding, to put it simply, is akin to a smarter keyword search. Keywords are put in and the program searches for those words as well as for other relevant words that it has “learned” to associate with the keywords in order to determine if a document is relevant or not. The defendant, International Business Machines Corporation, objected to Bridgestone’s use of predictive coding. The objection being that it would be an unwarranted change in the case management order. However, the court ruled that predictive coding could be used because under the rules discovery should be efficient and as cost-effective as possible. Thus, predictive coding, which is a smart search, was allowed in this case in order to expedite the discovery phase and save money on manual or other document review techniques. Moral of the story: Predictive coding may be implemented as an efficient discovery technique even if a case management order is already in place. 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.

How Can One Secure An Order Protecting One From Producing Certain ESI?

This matter came before the court upon Plaintiff Black & Veatch’s Motion for Protective Order and Request for Discovery Conference. B&V entered into a series of agreements wit American Electric Power Services (“AEP”) and other companies (collectively, the “Owners”) to engineer, procure material, and construct wet flue gas desulfurization systems (also known as JBRs). The Owners claimed the JBRs were defective. B&V paid several millions of dollars to repair and replace the JBRs. To recover some of the incurred costs, B&V filed a claim with its professional liability carriers, filed suit against a subcontractor, and filed a breach of contract and declaratory judgment action against various insurance providers relating to the relevant insurance policies. B&V alleged it maintained Electronically Stored Information (“ESI”) relating to the JBRs on Documentum—an electronic document management program, custodian hard drives, and Accounting and Field Management System. B&V produced 448.7 gigabytes of data to the Defendant. However, B&V withheld additional relevant ESI, arguing that the Defendants’ proposed search terms were too board and producing discovery pursuant to those search terms would be unreasonable and excessively expensive. B&V was unable to estimate the cost of producing the ESI. B&V sought a protection from producing this additional relevant information. In the alternative, B&V proposed to shift some of the cost in producing the ESI to the Defendants. Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(c) states, “a court may, for good cause, issue an order to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense. The movant bears the burden of establishing good cause by making a particular and specific demonstration of fact. A mere conclusory statement that ESI production would cost a party tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars does satisfy a movants burden to make a specific demonstration of fact in support of a protective order. The court held that B&V’s undue burden and expensive argument to be unsupported and conclusory. B&V failed to provide any hour or cost estimate. Thus, the court denied B&V’s Motion for Protective Order.  Additionally, the court refused to grant the protective order because the Defendants’ search terms were overbroad, noting that Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(c) only allows protective orders when the movant proves the order is necessary to protect the party from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden. Over breadth is not an enumerated category. The court also denied B&V cost shifting proposal. Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)(C)(iii) allows the court to impose cost shifting measures when the party from whom discovery is sought demonstrates that the information is reasonably accessible because of undue burden or cost. B&V failed to show that the ESI production was inaccessible because of undue burden or cost because B&V’s only mention of cost to produce ESI was conclusory and unsubstantiated. Furthermore, the court stated that the parties were free to enter into a clawback agreement, which would compel the parties to return inadvertently produced privileged documents. B&V also sought protection from producing ESI from the custodian hard drive, arguing that that data produced pursuant to Defendants’ search terms would be unrelated or duplicative. Moreover, B&V argued that a Defendant’s proposed list of custodians was overly broad. Defendant argues that the proposed list is reasonable on its face given that the case involves a $70 million coverage dispute. The court again denied B&V’s Motion for Protective Order because B&V failed to substantiate its claim that the production of ESI from the custodian hard drives pursuant to proposed search terms will yield unrelated or duplicative data. B&V also failed to substantiate its claim that Defendant’s proposed list of custodian hard drives was unduly burdensome because it was without any information regarding the custodians’ job duties, their involvement with the facts at issue, or whether they had potentially relevant information on their hard drives Finally, B&V sought protection from producing electronic interim accounting reports regarding the cost of the JBR projects, arguing that such production would be wasteful, expensive, and burdensome. B&V stated that only the final accounting costs were necessary to determining damages, and a final cost accounting report was previously produced to the Defendants. The electronic interim accounting reports requested by the Defendants are adjusted monthly, and do not represent final costs needed to determine damages. Defendants argued that the report produced did not include the final cost documents, and the lack of information prevents them from properly assessing damages. The court again denied B&V’s Motion for Protective Order because B&V did not substantiate how producing the electronic interim accounting reports would be unduly burdensome or expensive. B&V’s assertion that monthly-adjusted accounting reports will not provide final cost information was conclusory. Aaron Cohen, a Seton Hall University School of Law student (Class of 2015), focused his studies in the area of Family Law. He participated in the Seton Hall Center for Social Justice’s Family Law Clinic. After graduation, he will clerk for a judge in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Division. Prior to law school, he was a 2011 cum laude graduate of The George Washington University Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, where he earned a B.A. in Psychology. Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

What Kind of Paper Trail Is Inside Your Computer? Deleting It Is Not As Simple As Pressing Delete

Have you ever wondered what happens to electronic files when you press the delete button? Or what happens when you put them in the “e-trash?”  You may be surprised to find out that getting rid of electronic material is not as easy as it may seem.  And in many cases, actually deleting or tampering with electronic files or data can cause a great big legal headache. The case of First Sr. Fin. Group LLC v. Watchdog explores and explains the issues that can arise when a person tries to permanently delete or tamper with electronic material that should have been protected and preserved for trial. Here, Defendant was asked to preserve the computer she used to make allegedly disparaging and defamatory remarks under her pseudonym, “watchdog.”  The problem is that the computer was some how wiped clean of all electronic data after she was asked to it turn over to the experts. Now, let’s back track for a moment.  Why is it such a big deal that data was deleted?  Don’t people delete files all the time?  The key to this problem is that electronic files and data can’t just be deleted unless very deliberate actions are taken. When a file is technically “deleted,” it is simply hidden in the background of the computer and marked as, what we will call, disposable data.  Then, when the computer runs out of room to store more data, the disposable data is overwritten. Now, this doesn’t mean there is absolutely no way to wipe the data from a computer. As the saying goes, if there is a will, there is a way! (Even is the way is frowned upon and could present major legal repercussions.)  In this case, someone used two programs called Erase Pro and CCleaner to effectively wipe MOST of the data from the computer involved in the case. In legal speak, this is called spoliation of evidence, and if proven, it can mean serious repercussions.  Proving a person intentionally tampered with or destroyed evidence requires proof that a person:  (1) had control over the evidence; (2) the evidence had relevance to the claim; (3) actually suppressed or withheld the evidence; and (4) that person had a duty to preserve the evidence. In this case, the judge held Defendant was liable for the spoliation of the evidence because Defendant met all of the above factors.  However, factors 2 and 3 are particularly relevant to eDiscovery. In regards to the second element (whether the computer data was relevant to the claim), the judge turned to the data fragments recovered by the expert.  When a computer is wiped clean with Erase Pro and CCleaner, it still leaves behind fragments of data, which are like pieces of a ripped up letter.  In this case, the Judge determined that the data fragments provided enough information to show that the computer data was relevant to the case. As such, the second element was satisfied. In regards to element 3 (whether the data was actually suppressed or withheld), the Judge’s main inquiry revolved around whether the use of CCleaner and Erase Pro is considered intentional.  As you might imagine, it was pretty obvious that the use of two separate types of software with the distinct purpose to clear the computer of data is an intentional act.  As such, the third element was satisfied. The Defendant got lucky with a minor sanction of a fine, paying for the computer expert, and paying the other parties attorney’s fees related to the investigation of the computer.  However, this was nothing compared to those available for spoliation charges.  In more serious cases, the judge could hold that an adverse inference be drawn from the missing evidence, or the party could pay all fees related to the case.  In the most extreme cases, the Judge could choose to dismiss the case or find the case in favor of opposing party. Overall, when it comes to electronic data there is one thing to remember.  Electronic data is extremely difficult to get rid of, and actually getting rid of it can mean serious legal consequences. Victoria O’Connor Blazeski (formerly Victoria L. O’Connor) 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.

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