Good Faith

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.

Adding Insult to Injury: Court Criticizes Plaintiff’s Improper Pleading in Process of Largely Denying Motion to Compel

The court began its opinion by reciting the quote that “[d]iscovery relevance is minimal relevance,” leading most readers to presume the court was going to rule in favor of Plaintiff’s motion to compel.  However, after learning that Plaintiff sought “the entire claims file” of Defendant, that presumption slowly dissipates. The motion before the court involved Plaintiff’s request for an order compelling Defendant to produce documents that are responsive to certain of Plaintiff’s second, third and fourth sets of Requests for Production of Documents.  The Plaintiff alleged that Defendant’s objections are premised on unsupported claims of privilege and that the documents Defendant did turn over were excessively redacted.  After a back and forth regarding the concept of “privileged” the court rules that the real crux of the issue is the “point at which Defendant was reasonably anticipating litigation.” It is at this point that a privilege is created for the documents at issue based on the work product doctrine as outlined in Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(3)(A) at which point a privilege for the documents at issue based on the work product doctrine. Because insurance claims are of such sensitive and proprietary nature, the court holds that the question of whether insurer documents were created in anticipation of litigation “depends on whether the party seeking protection can point to a definite shift made by the insurer from acting in its ordinary course of business to acting in anticipating of litigation.”  Colloquially known as a “trigger” for document preservation, the burden is on the Defendant to establish the existence of such privilege in the face of litigation.  The court ultimately held that the relevant date was December 28, 2012, when Defendant sent a letter regarding a settlement check.  Thus, the court ordered that any information withheld on the basis of work product doctrine after that time must be produced. After serving its second set of discovery requests, the Plaintiff subsequently asked for the documents to be produced in native electronic format.  However, the Defendant had already produced documents in paper and PDF form, which Plaintiff alleged was not the form maintained by the Defendant “or in any reasonably usable form.”  Citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 34(b)(2)(D) and (E), the court noted that the rule allows, but does not require, the requesting party to specify the form in which it is requesting electronic data.  The court also noted there is nothing in the rule that prohibits a party from requesting different formats from one set of discovery requests to the next. Ruling in favor of the objecting Defendant, however, the court considered the “proprietary nature of certain software used by Defendant” and “Defendant’s right to withhold privileged information” as well as the “added costs of re-producing information already submitted to Plaintiff.”  Because the Defendant endured the time, effort, and expense of producing documents in PDF form as initially requested by Plaintiff, the court denied Plaintiff’s request to compel the native electronic forms of such documents. The Plaintiff’s motion to compel also sought all files containing “similar” claims.  While disregarding the Plaintiff’s motivations for requesting such documents, the court opined that the effect of requiring this production would be to “subject [Defendant] to undue burden in light of topics which, at best, have limited evidentiary value in this case given the broadly worded nature of the information requested.” Adding insult to injury, the court makes it a point to criticize Plaintiff’s complaint.  The cause of action was premised on a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing yet Plaintiff’s motion “continually” refers to this as a claim for “bad faith.”  Succinctly and sharply, the court imparts some legal education by bluntly stating that the two are not interchangeable.  After making its criticism of Plaintiff’s mischaracterization, the court writes that “even if such information were to be considered relevant, the requests, as written, are facially over broad.” The court broadly cites a “lack of specificity” before denying more than 25 of Plaintiff’s discovery requests.  Because Plaintiff “failed to provide a sufficient, substantive limitation,” the court ruled that these “generalized discovery requests” were “facially over broad as well as irrelevant.” Lastly, seemingly as a concession to the largely defeated Plaintiff, the court partially grants Plaintiff’s final discovery request.  Plaintiff sought the “complete personnel files” for certain claims handling supervising personnel involved in the claim.  As with the other requests, Defendant objected citing the “personal, confidential, private information” that these files held.  Significantly, the court recited that “‘confidential’ does not equate to ‘nondiscoverable’ or privileged.”  Thus, the court granted Plaintiff’s motion to compel such personnel files, although it concluded this grant by limiting it to information from the files that specifically pertains to the employees’ “background, qualifications, training and job performance” and explicitly excluded any “sensitive personal or medical information” regarding these individuals. By the end of its succinct seven-page opinion, the District Court for the District of Kansas handed down many valuable lessons for future parties engaged in discovery-based litigation.  Among them:  (1) The work product doctrine will not prevent production if litigation is reasonably anticipated; (2) Request documents in the form desired or risk a landslide of “unusable” documents; (3) Be careful, diligent, and precise in your word choice – both in your pleadings and your document requests; (4) Private/Confidential does not mean Privileged/Nondiscoverable. Nicole was a 2010 magna cum laude graduate of Northeastern University located in Boston, Massachusetts where she earned her B.A. in English and Political Science.  She will receive her J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015.  After graduation, Nicole will serve as a clerk to a trial judge of the Superior court of New Jersey in the Morris-Sussex Vicinage. 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Hiding Bank Account Records Can Be Criminal—Not Just For the Mob!

During the course of discovery, plaintiff Luellen requested that defendant Hodge  produce bank account records.  Hodge failed to produce the bank account records, claiming that the bank, Capital One (and Charter One), had destroyed these records already. Luellen argues that Hodge was aware that the records were being sought for discovery and deliberately allowed the records to be destroyed. Luellen argues that Hodge had two different ways of being aware that the records were relevant to litigation and thus had a duty to preserve the records. First, Hodge was served with Luellen’s interrogatories, requesting information relating to bank accounts in Hodge’s name. Second, Hodge filed a motion for a protective order requesting that the Court quash a subpoena directed to Charter One. The fact that Hodge sought a protective order regarding the bank indicates knowledge that the bank records were sought for discovery. In addition, Luellen claims that in filings dated February 27, 2012, Hodge made statements indicating his awareness of Luellen's pursuit of information regarding Hodge's personal accounts. The argument for spoliation of the bank records is based on the reasonable assumption that if Hodge had directed Charter One to preserve his records when he was served with the first set of interrogatories, then the relevant records would not have been destroyed in accordance with the bank's record retention policy. In a spoliation motion, the party must show that:   (1) the party charged with destroying the evidence had an obligation to preserve it; (2) the records were destroyed with a “culpable state of mind”; and, (3) the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party's claim or defense. In reference to the first element, the court found that “a common sense understanding of the relationship between an account holder and a financial institution leads to the conclusion that Hodge had sufficient control over the documents to be able to direct their preservation.” Hodge should have directed the bank to preserve the records. In reference to the second factor, that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind, the court finds that Hodge’s failure to prevent the bank from destroying the records was negligent but not bad faith. The court finally holds that severe sanctions are not warranted in this case because Luellen has not shown that Hodge's failure to preserve the Charter One account records were done in bad faith or that Luellen had been severely disadvantaged by the destruction of the records. Hodge was directed to reimburse Luellen's costs and expenses in the amount of $18.00. The takeaway message here is that while you are in control of bank records, if you can show that you did not act in bad faith when you failed to prevent the banks from destroying the records, you could avoid a spoliation charge. But beware, it is better to anticipate this and prevent it by telling your bank to keep all your records! 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.

To Preserve or Not to Preserve? THAT Is the Question

This dispute stems from Plaintiff Linda Riley’s slip and fall at a Marriott hotel in Hawaii (her husband, James, is another named plaintiff).  As a result of this fall, in simple terms, Riley broke her right leg and sustained permanent nerve damage including sensory motor loss and weakness in her right foot.  Riley contends Marriott was negligent for failing to remove accumulated water (it had been raining that day), provide a non-slip surface, or provide warning signs. The entire accident was recorded on Marriott’s security cameras, and according to the loss prevention manager, the footage is maintained for 30 days.  However, during discovery, instead of being provided with several hours of footage, Riley was only provided with about 7 minutes; the rest was destroyed.  The footage released began about one minute before Riley’s accident, and ended before Riley was even lifted off of the ground! Plaintiff rightfully believed she was prejudiced because:  (1) she is unable to determine how much water was removed from the location and how long it took hotel staff to remove it, and (2) that the loss prevention manager’s testimony regarding the footage cannot be meaningfully challenged because the footage was gone.  This recording was apparently turned over to the Marriott’s liability insurance carrier, but neither Marriott’s investigation into its destruction (if one occurred) nor the results of any such investigation were ever disclosed.  Even maintenance logs—that might have also denoted any water that was removed from the floor or the placement of any signs—were also allegedly destroyed. From this, the court “easily” found Marriott had a duty to preserve both the sweep logs and the video footage from the day of the accident.  Further, the court recognized Marriott’s failure to offer any justification for its failure to preserve the evidence.  For these actions, the court found “at a minimum, gross negligence.”  The question then turned to imposing sanctions. Fortunately for Marriott, their answer was not stricken.  Nonetheless, their failure to preserve evidence still resulted in an adverse inference instruction regarding the video footage, or lack thereof.  This means the absence of a recording can, at trial, corroborate Plaintiffs’ statements that there were no warning signs at the time of the accident and that water had also accumulated on the floor.  Of note here, the jury would not be required to make such an inference.  However, Marriott might not be eager to take that chance.          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.

What Happens When ESI Is Lost?

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.[1] 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. [1] When the breaching party acts in bad faith, relevance is assumed.

When Are Sanctions Issued Based on Evidence Destroyed During the Ordinary Business Protocols?

Companies issue laptops to their employees to be used for business purposes both in the office and at home. A company’s distributing laptops is joined with the company’s responsibility to preserve the electronically stored information (ESI) when litigation is reasonably anticipated. Every company has its own “ordinary business protocol” to be used in relation to these laptops when a situation requires it, but sometimes these protocols lead to bigger issues. In Hawley v. Mphasis Corp., the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted an adverse inference instruction regarding a supervisor’s laptop, but not for the employee laptop. In Hawley, an employee of the defendant company brought an employment discrimination claim and moved for sanctions against the defendant for alleged discovery violations; those of which, in particular, were violations regarding spoliation of information on two company laptops.  The employee alleged that the company deleted all information from his work laptop, as well as his supervisor’s information, and did not produce records vital to the defendant’s case. The company countered, arguing that clearing the hard drive of a former employee’s laptop was the business protocol. In evaluating the request for an adverse inference sanction, the district court explained that the plaintiff must demonstrate: “(1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party’s claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense.” Hawley v. Mphasis Corp., No. 12 Civ. 592 (DAB) (JLC), 2014 WL 3610946, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. July 22, 2014) (quoting Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., 306 F.3d 99, 107 (2d Cir. 2002)). As to the supervisor’s computer, the court held for an adverse inference sanction because the company had a duty to preserve the supervisor’s data from the time of the EEOC filing.  Furthermore, the company negligently destroyed the records on the laptop , which were found to be highly relevant to the employee’s case.  In regards to the employee’s computer, the court found both a duty and the requisite culpability; however, the court did not believe that the employee sufficiently proved how relevant the information was to his case. The lesson to extract from this case is that the courts do not care if your company’s protocol requires one procedure to be followed (i.e., wiping a hard drive) when it comes to the spoliation of relevant evidence.  The company’s wiping the hard drives is trumped by a duty to preserve data when a lawsuit is reasonably anticipated. The ruling in Hawley demonstrates that, in an employment case, the receipt of an EEOC charge triggers the obligation to preserve all data, but it could arise earlier depending on the circumstances. Be aware of when a lawsuit is reasonably anticipated and do not hesitate to act and preserve. Such awareness will help your company in the long run. With that, be on top of the individuals responsible for preserving company data and ensure those individuals are complying with company policy. One does not want to need a hard drive that has no data saved on it. Evidence must be preserved until litigation is resolved or no longer reasonably anticipated, and as courts become stricter with this rule of law, so should every company.  A look at the circumstances and a possible deviation from ordinary protocols may be needed. For more information on the case used as precedent, Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., click here: Amanda is a third year student at Seton Hall University School of Law, where she is pursuing a J.D. with a certificate in Health Law. Prior to law school, she was a 2011 magna cum laude graduate of Seton Hall University, where she earned Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Philosophy. Presently, she is a law clerk at a small firm handling real estate and bankruptcy matters. After graduation this native New Yorker hopes to work at a mid-sized firm in the Big Apple. Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

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.

Heavy Sanctions Can Be Levied Against Litigants Sitting on Discovery Information

Although this case does not deal directly with e-discovery, the ruling can have major e-discovery ramifications. Skipping to the end of this very long and complicated decision in Flinthill, the Judge’s conclusion was that the plaintiff in this case was trying to exact revenge on those she felt had wronged her in a messy divorce proceeding. For our purposes, however, the plaintiff and her counsel should have reviewed the discovery they got before bringing a lawsuit and claiming they never got that same discovery. A condensed version of this soap-opera case is as follows: Plaintiff filed for divorce from her husband (Wagner) in 2005, in aMarylandcourt.  He was a minority interest stockholder in the company “Spacelink International LLC.” In 1998, “Flinthill Trust” was established to receive the payments for the disbursements of this stock interest. Spacelink was sold in 2005, which left Wagner with around $13 million. $10 million of these funds were evenly divided between Plaintiff and her husband on September 1, 2005. The Plaintiff then filed to freeze Wagner’s interests. TheFairfaxCountycourt issued three orders:  1) prohibiting the trustee of the Flinthill trust from transferring trust assets for at least 60 days; 2) to provide an accounting of all the trust’s assets; and 3) prohibiting any further distribution of funds unless otherwise agreed upon. A stipulation was agreed upon and signed by both parties agreeing to Wagner’s providing two separate accountings of the trust’s comings and goings. Both of those accountings were dutifully made. In addition, a large amount of financial material was exchanged during discovery leading up to a hearing in May of 2006. During that time, Plaintiff did not make any requests to compel discovery, nor did she claim that any of theFairfaxcourt orders were not complied with. The record showed that Wagner and his lawyers repeatedly invited the plaintiff and her lawyers to meet with the trustee to go over the finances of the trust to make sure everything was kosher. Instead of taking them up on their invitation, she brought sixteen months-worth of litigation, which was ultimately deemed by the court to be frivolous and sanction-worthy. The four claims that the plaintiff brought were: 1) Breach of Contract (against Wagner and his people); 2) Breach of Fiduciary Duty (against the trustee); 3) Conspiracy (against various individuals); and 4) Conversion (also against various people). The claim that we are going to focus on, as it deals directly with discovery, is Count 1. In it, she alleged that Wagner breached the stipulation by “frustrating the accounting of trust assets . . . .” Defendants argued that there were four volumes that were transferred to Plaintiff that fully included all of the proper accounting information. The plaintiff’s lawyer claimed that they needed to get a report that was “based on generally accepted accounting principles, and not a compilation of documents,” and the failure to condense those documents constituted a breach of contract. The problem was that the plaintiff’s attorney clearly admitted to not reading the accounting documents that were provided to him, and to not bothering to read any of the ten to thirty boxes of materials relating to the trust that were in the plaintiff’s home. The court took particular offense to this, admonishing “how do you know you are missing something if you do not bother to look at what you have?” Curiously, Plaintiff’s attorney was unable to specifically identify, even two years later, any gaps in the documents that he was litigating about. The court made it clear that the plaintiff and her lawyer were responsible to review the documents already in their possession. If they lack the particular expertise required to do such a review, they were to hire an expert who was capable of the job. The defendants then went on to request for sanctions to be levied against both the plaintiff and her attorney for either willfully or negligently conducting a reasonable inquiry. Additionally, they could not have reasonably believed that this breach of contract suit was grounded in either fact or law. The court then carefully went through the other 3 claims by the plaintiff, and found that they were equal in their egregiousness for either outright lying to the court or failing to reasonably base their case in law. In the end, the court sanctioned the plaintiff and her attorney to the tune of $884,627.26 to cover the defendant’s attorney costs and witness fees. This ruling can have some serious ramifications for plaintiffs in cases with e-discovery. Much discovery material these days is in the form of Electronically Stored Information (ESI).  ESI can be particularly volume-heavy, and, therefore, costly to thoroughly review. The information that can be stored on one memory stick is vastly larger than the 10-30 boxes of papers discussed in this case.  Still, the court held that it was the responsibility of the requesting party to review the information they receive. If they can’t, they need to hire someone who can.  By no means should that party bring a law suit claiming they didn’t get that information.  It could end up being very costly for them. 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.  

Tale of the Tape: Lax Litigation Hold Leads to Spoliation Sanctions… Again

Once bitten, twice shy.  The classic idiom stands for the general proposition that when an individual is hurt  by someone or something, they tend to avoid that person or situation in the future.  Well, it looks like the defendant in Hart v. Dillon Companies did not learn its lesson as it will face spoliation sanctions for the second time in two years. In 2011, the defendant’s bad faith destruction of company videotapes led to an adverse inference ruling.  E.E.O.C. v. Dillon Companies, Inc., F. Supp. 2d 1141 (D.Colo. 2011).  Now the company faces additional spoliation sanctions, once again for accidentally erasing pertinent recorded evidence. The plaintiff’s 21 years of employment at the defendant’s grocery store came to an end when it was alleged that she had been abusing her power as the store’s bookkeeper by paying herself at a marked-up rate.  The decision to terminate the plaintiff was partially based on a secretly recorded conversation that occurred between the plaintiff and the defendant’s loss prevention specialist. On November 1, 2011, the former employee filed an E.E.O.C. charge of discrimination against her former employer, believing that her termination was the result of age discrimination.  Knowing that the plaintiff had hired an attorney, the defendant denied her request for arbitration, and the plaintiff filed its complaint on March 1, 2012.  At some point between the arbitration denial on November 7, 2011, and the filing of the complaint, the recording of the plaintiff’s interview was accidentally erased. On March 1, 2012, the defendant employer initiated a litigation hold, but this was too little too late.  The damage had already been done, and the plaintiff filed a motion for sanctions for the spoliation of the recorded evidence. Adding insult to injury, the Colorado District Court actually cited to the defendant’s previous spoliation case when laying out the issues of spoliation.  According to that decision, the issues of spoliation are: (1) is the evidence relevant to an issue at trial; (2) did the party have a duty to preserve the evidence because it knew or should have known, that litigation was imminent; and (3) was the other party prejudiced by the destruction of the evidence. With regards to the first issue, the court found that the recorded interview was obviously relevant to the case because it played a role in the defendant’s decision to terminate the plaintiff’s employment. Discussing the second element, the court found that the duty to preserve the evidence began on November 7, 2011, because at the time of the arbitration denial the defendant was well-aware litigation was likely.  This was the trigger event that marked the defendant’s duty to institute a litigation hold.  In fact, evidence existed that the defendant’s labor relations manager was well aware that the plaintiff’s attorney and arbitration request signified an intent to litigate the issue.In terms of prejudice, the court found that the plaintiff was prejudiced by the destruction because several factual disputes existed as to what occurred during the secretly recorded interview.  Finding the defendant “highly culpable” for the four month delay, the court also determined that the failure to collect the tape recording from “a key player” was an example of grossly negligent or willful behavior.  Even though the defendant may not have shown an intent to destroy the evidence, the company had control over the tape and the responsibility to preserve it. Therefore, the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions was granted.  Sanctions have not yet been determined, though, as the court set a future hearing to determine the precise amount of sanctions to impose. While E.E.O.C. charges, like those brought by the plaintiff here, do not always lead to litigation, companies should get in the habit of instituting litigation holds whenever they face charges like these.  Even if the chances of litigation appear remote, if possible the company should seek to preserve all pertinent evidence to avoid this type of scenario.  In this matter, if the company had issued a litigation hold when it received the E.E.O.C. charge or even upon receiving the arbitration request, it could have avoided the sanctions it will now receive.  Companies are risking too much by not immediately preserving all the evidence relevant to the potential case.  Here, if the defendant had learned from its previous bad experience with evidence spoliation, it could have instituted better preservation procedures that would have avoided the significant penalties it now confronts. Jeffrey, a Seton Hall University School of Law Student (Class of 2014), focuses 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.  Presently, Jeff serves as a legal clerk at a personal injury law firm in Rochelle Park, New Jersey.

Judge Sheindlin Hits Spoliating Plaintiff with Adverse Inference Instruction

In Sekisui Am. Corp. v. Hart, District Court Judge Shira Sheindlin reversed a decision of the lower court and imposed sanctions against a plaintiff for its willful spoliation of electronically stored information (ESI).  The critical point on which Judge Scheindlin and the magistrate judge opposed was whether a showing of bad faith is necessary to impose spoliation sanctions or whether a showing that the ESI was willfully destroyed is enough.  For Judge Scheindlin, where the spoliation is willful the non-spoliating party need not prove malevolent purpose: It is well-settled in the Second Circuit that: [A] party seeking an adverse inference instruction based on the destruction of evidence must establish (1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party’s claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense. It is the third prong of the test that was squarely tackled in this case—whether the destroyed evidence was relevant and whose burden is it to prove or disprove this factor.  Sekisui American Corporation (Sekisui) brought a breach of contract suit against Richard Hart and Marie Louise Trudel-Hart relating to the Sekisui's purchase of America Diagnostica, Inc. (“ADI”), a medical diagnostic products manufacturer of which Mr. Hart was president.  During discovery, Sekisui revealed that ESI in the form of e-mail belonging to certain ADI employees (including Mr. Hart) had been deleted or were missing. It later became clear that Sekisui did not institute a litigation hold until more than fifteen months after sending a Notice of Claim to the Harts and in the interim, Sekisui permanently deleted the Hart’s documents and data. By way of explanation, Sekisui maintained that the destruction of Hart’s ESI was largely due to the actions of ADI's former Head of Human Resources (Taylor), who had acted without direction from Sekisui.  Sekisui further asserted that Taylor made the unilateral decision to delete Hart’s e-mail for the purpose of freeing up space on the ADI server after determining that Hart was no longer receiving work-related e-mail.  Before directing Northeast Computer Services (“NCS”)—the vendor in charge of managing Sekisui’s information technology systems—to permanently delete Hart’s ESI, Taylor apparently “identified and printed any e-mails that she deemed pertinent to the company,” which e-mails, totaling approximately 36,000, were produced to the Harts.  Notwithstanding these measures, there was no way for the parties or the court to determine how many e-mails were permanently deleted and lost. In light of these developments, the Harts requested that the court impose sanctions on Sekisui for the spoliation of evidence.  Specifically, the Harts requested:  1) an adverse inference jury instruction based on the destruction of Hart’s ESI; and 2) sanctions for spoliation based on the alleged or actual loss of the e-mail folders of several other ADI employees.  The Magistrate declined to issue any sanctions, finding that the Harts failed to show any prejudice resulting from the destruction of the ESI (i.e., failed to show that the deleted e-mails were relevant to its defenses).  The Magistrate Judge concluded that the destruction of Hart’s ESI “may well rise to the level of gross negligence,” but decided that such destruction was not willful because “there has been no showing that Taylor directed [the e-mails’] erasure for any malevolent purpose.”  The magistrate judge declined to presume either relevance or prejudice despite his finding that Sekisui “may” have acted in a grossly negligent manner. Judge Sheindlin, however, took a starkly opposite position.  Judge Sheindlin expressly rejected the premise that the law requires a showing of malice in order to establish intentionality with respect to the spoliation of evidence. In the context of an adverse inference analysis, Judge Sheindlin found no "analytical distinction" between destroying evidence in bad faith, i.e., with a malevolent purpose, and destroying it willfully.  Accordingly, Sekisui's good faith explanation for the destruction of Hart’s ESI (suggesting that Taylor’s directive was given in order to save space on the server) did not change the fact that the ESI was willfully destroyed. And when evidence is destroyed willfully, the destruction alone “is sufficient circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could conclude that the missing evidence was unfavorable to that party.” On the above rationale, Judge Sheindlin found the Magistrate Judge's decision to be clearly erroneous and contrary to law, and directed that an adverse inference instruction would be provided to the jury.  This case underscores the importance of timely and prudently implementing a litigation hold, when such duty attaches. Adam L. Peterson is a student at Seton Hall University School of Law, Class of 2014.  Adam is 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. 

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