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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.
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.
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.
If I told you that your company delayed for nearly seven months to produce electronic documents critical to a pending lawsuit, you would think the judge presiding over your case may be a bit perturbed, right? What if I also told youContinue Reading
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