Legal Hold/Preservation

Employee Fired By City, Alleges Spoliation of Evidence That Suggests Retaliation

In the United States District Court for the District of Kansas, the plaintiff Helget sued the city of Hays, Kansas for the allegedly wrongful termination of her employment on May 15, 2013.  Helget claims that she was fired after she submitted an affidavit in a lawsuit brought by a former Hays, Kansas Police Department Officer.  In anticipation of her own lawsuit, on June 26, 2012, Helget’s counsel sent defense counsel a letter requesting the preservation of certain information, including “internet usage, including e-mail usage, by each employee in the Hays Police Department.”  Helget subsequently filed her complaint once she was terminated, allegedly in retaliation for her participation in the first lawsuit.  The city denied Helget’s claims, stating that she was terminated because she “misused city computers” among other reasons. Helget soon filed a motion to compel defendants to “initiate a litigation hold, for preliminary sanctions for spoliation of evidence and for leave to conduct supplementary discovery on spoliation.”  She believes that the city failed to put a litigation hold in place and spoliated evidence by destroying a service containing certain internet usage logs and allegedly overwrote or deleted other electronic documents and electronically stored information.  Helget also served a subpoena for the deposition of a corporate representative of the defendant city on issues relating to spoliation.  The defendant city responded by claiming they were only under a duty to preserve evidence relevant to this litigation, and not to preserve everything as is. The court began by discussing the issue of spoliation and explicitly noted that “[s]uch preservation may not be ‘selective.’”  Additionally, “the duty to preserve commences with the filing of a lawsuit, but the duty may arise even before a lawsuit is filed if a party has notice that future litigation is likely.” The court found that defendant city had a duty to preserve “at least a portion of the electronically stored evidence at issue” since the defendant itself put electronically stored information at issue by alleging Helget was fired, in part, for improper personal use of city computers.  The court further supported this duty to preserve by citing Helget’s letter which requested preservation and thus put the city on notice of potential litigation.  While the court openly acknowledged that the defendant city did not have the obligation to preserve all documents within the scope of Helget’s notice letter, the defendant city did have an obligation to do more than “simply ignore the letter, which was apparently their response.” The court then ordered that the defendant city to put a litigation hold in place immediately.  However, the court chiseled away at this obligation by noting that there “is no justification…for the defendant city to have entered into a city-wide litigation hold of such information, as advanced by Plaintiff.”  The relevant scope, defined by the court, was computer usage of the plaintiff’s immediate coworkers, the key players, and those who held substantially similar positions for the city. The analysis then shifted toward whether Helget had established that any such electronically stored information evidence was in fact destroyed.  The court looked at three categories of information individually.  The first was the city’s “Websense serve”/internet usage history.  While the court agreed that this server was more a firewall than a data log of employee internet usage, the court did find that “there are potential spoliation issues relating to the internet usage and email usage of the identified ‘key players,’ the plaintiff’s immediate coworkers, and all individuals holding substantially similar position for the defendant city, regardless of department.”  the defendant city was instructed to submit to the plaintiff a proposal for “compiling, reconstructing, and/or producing to Plaintiff” such documents of relevant parties. Next, the court examined the spoliation of documents and electronically stored information in regard to the computer Helget used during her employment.  Because this computer is relevant to one of the reasons for the plaintiff’s termination, the court finds that Helget is “entitled to a forensic image of the hard drive of the computer she most recently used while employed by the defendant.”  The court went so far as to chastise the defendant city by stating that “[t]his computer should have been better protected by a litigation hold” and ordered that the parties shall split the cost of imaging the hard drive. In conclusion, the court finds that “the defendant city had an obligation to preserve this information.  Regardless of whether it was destroyed intentionally or negligently, the plaintiff has provided sufficient evidence that the information is no longer readily available for production.”  Because the the defendant had a duty to maintain this information, the court ordered the defendant city to bear the cost for a forensic restoration as a sanction for the defendant city’s breach of responsibility. 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. Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

What Sanctions May a Court Impose On a Party That Fails to Comply With a Discovery Order?

The plaintiff and the defendants both sold Belly Bands, the plaintiff alleged that both Belly Bands were maternity band used to hold up pants. The plaintiff previously filed cases against the defendants for trademark infringement, patent infringement and unfair competition in 2006 and 2008, but those cases were later resolved by settlement agreements. In 2013, the plaintiff filed the recent action alleging that the defendants breached both settlement agreements by selling and advertising Belly Bands. During discovery, the defendants produced some electronically stored information (ESI). The parties contested the sufficiency of the defendants’ ESI production. On December 20, 2013, the court ordered the the defendant to produce all documents referring to customer comments or complaints regarding the defendants’ Belly Band and disclose its search methods within thirty days. On January 21, 2014, the defendants issued a declaration stating that they were in Europe when the court issued this order, and could not immediately comply. They also stated that they would need a computer expert to help them retrieve deleted customer e-mails. On January 3, 2014, the defendants retained a computer expert. On February 4, 2014, the defendant told the plaintiff that they found additional ESI, but did not produce the ESI at that time. The plaintiff filed a motion on February 10, 2014, for sanctions against the defendants for failure to comply with the court order within the thirty day timeframe, seeking: attorneys fees and costs associated with the defendants failure to comply; an order that the defendants disclose all hard drives and provide the plaintiff with access to all email accounts; and an order precluding the defendants “from opposing the plaintiff’s claim that the defendants’ Belly Bands were used to hold up [pants,] from opposing the plaintiff’s damage calculations, and from introducing any opposing evidence wit respect to the damages calculation.” At the time the motion was filed, the defendants still had not produced any additional ESI. Within two weeks after the motion was filed, the defendants produced over 1,000 new electronic documents. The court began its analysis by noting that courts may sanction a party for discovery abuses pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the court’s inherent powers. Rule 37(b)(2)(C) states a court must order a party who failed to comply with a discovery order to pay the opposing party’s reasonable expenses associated with failure to comply, including attorney’s fees, “unless the failure was substantially justified or other circumstances make an award of expenses unjust.” Sanctions are permissible regardless of the reason for the party’s noncompliance. Moreover, willfulness, fault, or bad faith are not required to impose Rule 37 sanctions, unless the sanction is dismissal. “However, in order for the sanction to comport with due process, the sanction imposed under Rule 37 must be specifically related to the particular claim which was at issue in the order to provide discovery.” Rule 37 sanctions should only be imposed when the party’s failure to comply prejudiced the nonoffending party. Furthermore, the court may impose three types of sanctions pursuant to its inherent powers specifically when there has been spoliation of evidence, including: “1) the court may instruct the jury that it may infer that evidence made unavailable by a party was unfavorable to that party; 2) a court can exclude witness testimony based on the spoliated evidence; and 3) the court can dismiss the claim of the party responsible for the spoliation.” “In determining what sanctions are appropriate in cases of spoliation, courts consider: 1) the degree of fault of the party who altered or destroyed the evidence; 2) the degree of prejudice suffered by the opposing party; and 3) whether there is a lesser sanction that will avoid substantial unfairness to the opposing party.” The chosen sanction should be “determined on a case-by-case- basis, and . . .commensurate to the spoliating party’s motive or degree of fault in destroying the evidence. First, the court held that the plaintiff was entitled to an award of monetary sanctions under Rule 37. the defendants failed to substantially justify why they couldn’t produce all responsive documents within the court ordered thirty day timeframe. The fact that the defendants were in Europe when the court issued the Order did constitute substantial justification to excuse their noncompliance. the defendant did not alert the court of their travel plans, request an extension, instruct their office manager to comply with the Order, or offer a reason as to why they did not immediately retain a computer expert to assist them in complying with the Order. Further, even once additional ESI was discovered, the defendants failed to produce said ESI for almost a month. Thus, the defendants’ actions prejudiced the plaintiff by forcing the plaintiffs to subpoena third parties for responsive documents, by preventing the completion of necessary depositions, and by having to file the instant motion. Moreover, the court held that the defendant must disclose its hard drives and provide the plaintiff with access to all its email accounts, subject to the defendants’ privileges or privacy interests. The court found that there was real danger that evidence on the the defendants’ hard drive had been destroyed. Further, the defendants made an array of false statements, such as claiming they produced all responsive documents when they in fact had not, and claiming that no documents had been deleted during the time of litigation when overwhelming evidence indicated otherwise. The court found that the plaintiff needed access to the defendants hard drive to prevent any more documents from being destroyed and ensure all responsive documents were produced. Additionally, based upon the same reasoning, the court granted the plaintiff access to all of the defendants’ email accounts, including Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and eBay accounts. However, the court held that the plaintiff failed to prove that the court should prohibit the defendants “from opposing the plaintiff’s claim that the defendants’ Belly Bands were used to hold up [pants,] from opposing the plaintiff’s damage calculations, and from introducing any opposing evidence wit respect to the damages calculation.” The court stated “preclusion remedies are a harsh remedy that should be imposed only in extreme circumstances.” Here, given that the plaintiff obtained documents from third parties and that the plaintiff may recover additional responsive ESI from the defendants’ harddrives and email accounts, the plaintiff cannot—at this time—demonstrate that the defendants’ conduct “impaired the plaintiff’s ability to go to trial or threatened to interfere with the rightful decision of the case.” However, the court denied the plaintiff’s request for preclusion sanctions without prejudice, thereby allowing the plaintiff to request preclusion sanctions should the plaintiff’s search of the defendants’ harddrives and email accounts reveal that the defendants knowingly destroyed evidence and that destruction threatened the plaintiff’s ability to secure a just outcome. Thus, when a court orders ESI production, parties would be wise to immediately comply with the order, or immediately inform the court of substantial reasons as to why compliance will be delayed.   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.

Spoliation By Plaintiff? Deleting Text Messages Can Result In Court Sanctions

This case provides an important lesson for any person involved in a lawsuit involving text messages as evidence. Here, a group of employees was suing their employer for discrimination under Title VII. When the discovery process began, the defendants requested a number of text messages relating to the conduct of the employees during the relevant time period of the discrimination. These text messages were permitted to be discoverable by the defendant and the plaintiff was ordered to turn over the relevant text messages. The plaintiffs’ lawyer then gave the plaintiffs instructions to preserve all data relevant to the case; otherwise they could face sanctions by the court, which could negatively impact their suit. Spoliation is the legal term for deleting or destroying information sought by the opposing party. This is precisely what occurred here. Apparently the plaintiffs felt that if they simply deleted a portion of the requested text messages that the defendant would have no way to access that information and thus the problem would be solved; if there even was a problem to begin with. When the defendant discovered that these texts had not been turned over with the rest of the discovery they inquired about their whereabouts. The plaintiffs responded that the texts had been deleted. Obviously perturbed, the defendant then subpoenaed the mobile carrier, T-Mobile, and recovered the deleted texts. However, now the plaintiffs had a problem; they had deliberately attempted to conceal and destroy relevant information. The defendant then filed a motion to dismiss based on the actions of the plaintiff. The court granted the motion in part but denied the dismissal of all charges.  Though, the court did impose sanctions upon the plaintiff, which carried the potential to seriously harm their case even if everything else went well. The simple lesson here is that you should never conceal, delete, or destroy any relevant information sought by the opposing party. Ultimately the content of the text messages remains unimportant in light of the plaintiffs’ spoliation. The plaintiffs should have followed their lawyer’s instruction to preserve the information. Had they turned over the information, their lawyer would have been able to combat the text messages in court in front of the jury. However, due to their actions, they were sanctioned and essentially handcuffed their counselor from undercutting any information contained within the text messages. Spoliation is never the answer even if you are required to turn over information that does not weigh in your favor. These plaintiffs learned the hard way; do not make the same mistake and follow your lawyer’s instructions.  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 Happens When Video Evidence Is Changed, But Not Deleted?

In May 2014, Hon. Janet Bond Arterton, U.S.D.J. for the District of Connecticut ruled that sanctions were not appropriate in a case involving the conversion of a security video’s native format.  Plaintiff Robert Crawford brought a motion for spoliation sanctions—including an adverse-inference instruction and monetary sanctions—against the Defendant City of New London for an alleged failure to preserve a hard drive containing video of Crawford’s arrest.  Plaintiff, whose underlying claim involves excessive force issues, suggested that the original format of a security video may have been capable of being enhanced, and as such, Defendants had a duty to preserve that original version, and turn it over for discovery.  Judge Arterton disagreed. In examining whether sanctions were appropriate, the court first set about defining the parameters of spoliation. The court noted “[s]poliation is the destruction or significant alteration of evidence, or the failure to preserve property for another’s use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation.” Crawford v. City of New London, 2014 WL 2168430, *2 (D. Conn. May 23, 2014) (quoting West v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Co., 167 F.3d 776, 779 (2d Cir. 1999)).  Later, the court analyzed the adverse-inference charge, and articulated “[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.” Id. (quoting Chin v. Port. Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 685 F.3d 135, 162 (2d Cir. 2012)). Here, the court noted that Defendants’ duty to preserve stemmed from a hold letter received pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act on June 24—nearly five months after the incident took place, and more than four months after New London’s retention policy allows for transferring of data to portable storage.  As such, while the Defendants certainly had a duty to preserve, there was no specific need for multiple copies of duplicative information.  New London hadn’t breached the preservation duty. But what about “Significant Alteration?”  Spoliation isn’t just about destruction.  Plaintiffs argued that in converting the video evidence from the format present on the hard drive to the portable storage versions on DVD, Defendants sacrificed the integrity of metadata, or of the files themselves such that they could no longer be enhanced for use in trial presentation.  This novel argument suggested that were enhanced versions of the video available, perhaps the jury could see that Crawford’s arrest on February 4, 2010, was enacted using excessive force. The court was not persuaded by this argument.  Testimony from the City of New London’s Chief Information Officer indicated that the conversion to DVD was lossless, in that the new format preserved the video in every material way.  Absent proof to the alternative, the moving party was unable to demonstrate “that the destroyed [or significantly altered] evidence was relevant . . . ” under the standards set forth in Federal Rule of Evidence 401. Defendants were prepared for litigation, and they reasonably preserved all necessary data responsive to discovery request.  Defendants’ retention policy for the original hard drive housing security footage is acceptable, and preserving the data on portable media after formatting the drive is an added precaution going well-beyond the standard of care.  Crawford is fortunate that Judge Arterton didn’t force Plaintiffs to cover the costs of responding to the motion—if this author was on the bench, he might have. Kevin received a B.S. in Political Science from the University of Scranton (2009), and will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015.  Prior to joining the Seton Hall community, Kevin worked as an eDiscovery professional at two large “white-shoe” law firms in Manhattan. Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

When Is a Preservation Order Against a Resigning Employee Inappropriate As To An Employer-Supplied Computer?

It is common for an employer to supply company-owned laptop computers to its employees for doing their work. It is also not uncommon for such an employee to be involved in litigation with a third party where the company-owned computers used by the employee are subject to potential electronic discovery. Knowledge or expectation of such litigation by the employee gives rise to a duty to preserve. In many situations, the employee ends up resigning from the employment and having to return the company laptop computer to the employer.  In this whole sequence of events, what should the employee do as to the laptop computer in order to satisfy his/her duty to preserve and thus defeat a motion for preservation order by his/her adversarial? The case of Cognate Bioservices v. Smith sheds some light onto this issue. In Cognate Bioservices v. Smith, Cognate sued Smith for violations of the Computer Fraud Abuses Act and misappropriation of products and trade Secret in the Northern Division of the District Court for the District of Maryland. Smith was previously the CEO of Cognate and had access to trade secrets stored on Cognate servers as well as in a laptop computer provided to Smith by Cognate. Smith then resigned and became the head of the US operation of an Israeli competitor of Cognate, MacroCure. Smith, however, did not give the laptop back to Cognate until more than two years after his termination with Cognate. During that time, he had accessed the Cognate server as well as the laptop computer still in his hands, giving rise to the suspicion by Cognate that he had downloaded trade secrets from Cognate.  For his work with MacroCure, Smith bought a second laptop (the Dell laptop) and was reimbursed for the purchase price by MacroCure. Soon after the start of this litigation in the federal court, Smith resigned from MacroCure. Cognate moved the Court to issue a preservation order as to the Dell laptop and Smith objected. This federal action was filed on June 19, 2013. Smith gave Cognate notice that the Dell laptop he used in connection with his employment at MacroCure would be returned after his resignation. Smith then returned the Dell laptop to MacroCure in late July or early August 2013. The motion for preservation order was filed August 15, 2013. After the filing of the motion, Smith contacted the person to whom he returned the Dell laptop, Idan Peer, and requested that he not dispose or delete any of the files on the computer. In addition, Smith’s counsel provided Cognate with Peer’s mailing address.  Cognate argue that the preservation order is still necessary because, by returning the Dell laptop, Smith has demonstrated the urgent need for an order preserving evidence and he also appears to have the practical ability to obtain the return of that evidence. The court disagreed and held that Smith compiled with his duty to preserve material evidence with respect to the Dell laptop. Court-issued preservation order is inappropriate when such duty is met and there is no evidence showing risk of spoliation of evidence. The court is more willing to rely on the duty to preserve to regulate conduct without resorting to preservation orders. This is regardless of whether there is undue burden for Smith to obtain a return of the Dell laptop. Thus, if an employee gets into a similar situation, to avoid a preservation order, make sure that notice about the return of the employer-provided computer is given to the adversarial, that the person receiving the computer is notified as to preserving the data on the computer, and that the information about the custody of the computer is given to the adversarial. 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.

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.

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 the Smoking Gun is Thrown in the Recycling Bin?

In January 2014, the Hon. Lawrence E. Kahn in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York granted plaintiff Dataflow, Inc.’s motion for sanctions in a case regarding deleted email correspondence.  Sanctions took the form of the often-case-ending adverse inference, with the judge reserving on the specific language of the adverse inference jury instruction until trial.  Defendant Peerless Insurance Co. might not wait that long, as even the neophyte lawyer can tell when blood is in the water. Dataflow’s claim arose out of a discovery request for production of documents that “targeted, inter alia internal communications and investigations regarding Plaintiffs’ claim.” Dataflow, Inc., v. Peerless Ins. Co., No. 3:11-cv-1127 (LEK/DEP), 2014 WL 148685, *2 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 13, 2014).   When the defendant failed to produce any internal communications responsive to the document request, the plaintiffs tried again.  After the plaintiffs submitted an even narrower request for production, the defendants still didn’t produce anything responsive. Perhaps smelling something fishy, Dataflow started taking depositions and asking questions about the internal communications at Peerless.  The plaintiffs quickly learned that email was routinely used to communicate about claims.  The emails that Dataflow already asked for.  The emails that Dataflow was told didn’t exist.  The plot thickens. Hon. David E. Peebles, the Magistrate Judge handling discovery in this matter filed a Report and Recommendation urging sanctions be granted and fees shifted.  The District Court, reviewing Judge Peebles’s ruling de novo determined that the Magistrate got it right—and that sanctions are appropriate. The court analyzed the facts of the case under the spoliation framework set forth in Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., 306 F.3d 99, 107 (2d Cir. 2002): On a motion for sanctions due to spoliation, the moving party must show that: (1) the party having control of the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that party had a culpable state of mind; and (3) the destroyed evidence was of a nature that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support the moving party’s claim or defense. Dataflow, at *2 (citing Residential Funding Corp, at 107). Here, the duty to preserve for an insurance party was triggered when a claim was submitted.  As such, any internal communication regarding that claim is obviously supposed to be preserved.  The culpable state of mind can be inferred by the gross negligence displayed by email deletion resulting from a “system change.”  A “system change” that also conveniently “changed” the methods of preservation of documents related to paid and unpaid claims.  Finally, since the plaintiff was able to prove that the contents of the internal email conversations likely would have supported the plaintiffs’ theory of the case, sanctions in the form of an adverse inference just make sense. Perhaps it’s time for Peerless to have a “system change” with regards to their general counsel. Kevin received a B.S. in Political Science from the University of Scranton (2009), and will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015.  Prior to joining the Seton Hall community, Kevin worked as an eDiscovery professional at two large “white-shoe” law firms in Manhattan. Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

Recycling—Helps the Earth, Saves Lives, and Destroys Electronic Evidence

“Recycle,” “conserve,” “waste,” and “pollution” are terms that were implanted into the minds of each of us at a young age and are now they are being instilled into companies worldwide as a measure to reduce operational costs. Companies such as JPC Equestrian, Inc. have begun recycling and reusing “cleaned” electronic devices from former employees, which would normally not be an issue if companies had a company-wide server or cloud-based software that held all of the information stored within the device. However, since JPC Equestrian, Inc. does not have a company-wide server, once an employee leaves, the company has a procedure in place to “scub” the computer and reassign it to another without care for the electronic information within the device. In Kearney v. JPC Equestrian, Inc., Mark Kearney, a former employee, sued JPC Equestrian, Inc. (“JPC”) for the failure to produce emails relevant to the claim he is asserting. Kearney commenced this lawsuit against JPC when they wrongfully terminated his employment, and breached his sales agreements by either failing to pay him sales commissions or by paying reduced commissions that did not satisfy contractual obligations. Kearney through the discovery process received email documentation from numerous employees and executives dating back to 2005. The discovery submission included JPS turning over 250 pages of documents relevant to the parties and situations involved. However, Kearney requested information for "all relevant emails," which in his original discovery requests, were defined as "[a]ll emails that mention, or refer to the Plaintiff, however, marginally, in any way shape or form from 2002 through 2010." Kearney v. JPC Equestrian, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 153975, *5 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 30, 2014). Kearney was missing three years of discovery. Kearney only received documentation dating back to 2005 because the information dating back to 2002 did not exist or does not exist anymore and cannot be recovered. JPS claims that the information cannot be recovered because the computers that would have held that data were wiped clean and erased before the device was transitioned to another employee. JPS has found loopholes around document retention and the court agreed. The court held that JPS’ procedure of document retention was acceptable and the court has, “no basis to conclude that the defendants have withheld responsive documents, or that there is any basis to compel a further response regarding potentially relevant email communication.” Id. at *7. Unfortunately, this holding allows companies an avenue to discard potential and relevant information pertaining to potential litigation that otherwise would have been saved if not for the guise of recycling and employee cost saving. This holding should be reversed and JPS should be penalized for its failure to maintain adequate records for an appropriate period of time. The court should not excuse a company, no matter the size or market capitalization, for not maintaining the electronic information of employees who work within the company. Not only is that bad preservation practice, its poor business practice. Recycling and the protection of our planet is important but those ideals should not give rise to loopholes of common electronic document preservation practices, which are becoming as worldwide and important as protecting the planet itself. Timothy received his B.A. from Rutgers University in 2011. He began his post-college life working in Trenton, New Jersey, at a lobbying and non-profit management organization before attending law school in the fall of 2012. He will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015. Timothy has had a diverse set of experiences during his time in law school and has found his calling in Tax Law. Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

When Can Spoliation Result in an Adverse Inference Jury Instruction? Where there was an Obligation to Preserve, a Culpable State of Mind, and Destruction of Relevant Evidence.

Employers should take note: erasing and taping over messages that relate to a fired employee is never a good idea. Employers who engage in this type of practice will never escape the wrath of a judge when the fired employee inevitably brings a wrongful termination. Eventually, such action catches up with the defending company and they will have to pay a steep price. Take, for instance, the case Novick v. AXA Network, LLC. The plaintiff was asking the judge for sanctions to be imposed on the defendants because he claimed that the defendants spoliated audio recordings and emails from an eight-week stretch, which ran from late August until early November 2006. The defendants admitted that recordings from this time period were likely erased and taped over. The problem here is that this stretch of time covers the time directly before and directly after Novick’s termination. It should seem obvious to anyone that a company’s failing to preserve any recordings regarding a former employee’s termination is a terrible idea and will likely hurt one’s case in court. It should instead be common sense that when an employee is terminated, and certainly when that termination is contentious, a lawsuit is foreseeable.  Thus, the employer should take care to preserve anything that might come into play at trial. Novick asked the judge to sanction the defendants for the spoliation of emails. The defendants could not produce any emails between the two employees at AXA Network, who took over Novick’s accounts, and Novick’s former clients. If these employees were involved with Novick’s clients after Novick was fired, it is only logical that there would have been emails taking place between these employees and those clients! Nevertheless, the defendants could not produce a single e-mail. Sanctions can be imposed on a party for spoliation in violation of a court order under Rule 37(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or, where there has been no violation of a court order, a judge can impose sanctions for spoliation under the court’s “inherent power to control litigation.” West v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 167 F.3d 776, 779 (2d Cir. 1999) (emphasis added). For the court to exercise its inherent power, there must have been a showing of bad faith. United States v. Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters, 948 F.2d 1338, 1345 (2d Cir. 1991). The Novick court in this case found that the defendants did spoliate the audio recordings because they were notified in October 2006 to preserve the recordings for future litigation and to produce those recordings  to the plaintiff. In addition, the defendants provided no reason for why or how these recordings were missing. Unsurprisingly, the court suggested that such behavior indicates that the company acted deliberately and therefore possessed a culpable state of mind. The defendants acted in bad faith. The court did not find that the defendants spoliated the email messages, but it still believes they acted in bad faith with respect to the production of the emails because the company failed to search one of their email archives for months due to what was claimed as “human error.” This was clearly a delay tactic, further warranting sanctions. The court invoked its inherent power to control litigation because the defendants acted in bad faith, employed delay tactics, caused substantial costs to be incurred by the plaintiff, and wasted the court’s time. The court imposed an adverse inference jury instruction. Adverse inference instructions can be imposed against a party who had an obligation to preserve evidence at the time it was destroyed, who destroyed the evidence with a culpable state of mind, and who destroyed evidence that was relevant to the opposing party’s claim or defense. Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., 306 F.3d 99, 107 (2d Cir. 2002). The clear takeaway from this case is that it is better to be safe than sorry; if it is reasonable that a lawsuit may be brought against you, take all measures to preserve any evidence that might have anything to do with that future case. Preserving the evidence will not hurt, but failing to do so will. Logan Teisch received his B.A. in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2012. He is now a student at Seton Hall University School of Law (Class of 2015), focusing his studies in the area of criminal law. Logan’s prior experiences include interning with the Honorable Verna G. Leath in Essex County Superior Court as well as interning with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

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