Courts May Award Monetary Sanctions Prior to Trial For Spoliation That Occurred Before the Commencement of Litigation

In this breach of contract lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendant refused to pay a debt of approximately $380,000 and failed to supply groceries to the plaintiffs’ market. The market was forced to closed down and the plaintiffs disposed of every paper record they possessed for the market, including general ledgers, invoices, sales reports, cancelled checks, company bills, time clock reports, trial balances, balance sheets, and income statements. The plaintiffs also threw out the only computer the market used and they did not retain any of the information contained on that computer. After the commencement of litigation, the defendant filed a motion for sanctions based on spoliation of evidence related to the financial records destroyed by the plaintiffs. The court determined that an adverse inference sanction was warranted based on the plaintiffs’ intentional and bad faith destruction of evidence, and that it would entertain arguments relating to monetary sanctions after the defendant specifically delineated the time and money it spent addressing the discovery and spoliation issues.

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Want to Delete Those Important E-mails? Appeal to the Notion of Cleaning Out Junk.

Three requirements must be met to receive a mandatory adverse-inference instruction for spoliation: 1) the targeted litigant destroyed evidence at a time when he had a duty to preserve said evidence, 2) the targeted litigant acted with intent or gross negligence, and 3) the destroyed evidence was relevant to the movant’s claims. The finding of relevance turns on whether a reasonable trier of fact could infer that the destroyed or unavailable evidence would have been of the nature alleged by the party affected by its destruction. If the three requirements are met, the trier of fact may receive a mandatory adverse-inference instruction, meaning they must infer that the evidence was unfavorable to the discovered party. Courts are often reluctant to grant a dispositive motion based solely on spoliation unless the discovered party acted with bad faith and willfulness, and there is no other effective remedy.

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Watch Out, Facebook Posts and Texts Can Be Discoverable Material!

In this case, the Plaintiff Ms. Veronica Painter is suing her employer, Defendant Aaron Atwood, D.D.S. Painter claimed that while she was at work, the dentist climbed on top of her with his pants down and held her down. Painter suffered extreme emotional distress as a result. The defendant argues that he merely tickled her and that they had a consensual sexual relationship. The discovery issue in this case arises because the defendants asserts that the plaintiff and her two main witnesses intentionally destroyed text messages and Facebook posts that contradict the plaintiff's claims and deposition testimony. Specifically, the defendants allege that while the plaintiff was employed at Urgent Dental, she posted Facebook comments and pictures regarding Urgent Dental and the Atwood’s, including comments about how much she enjoyed her job, how Urgent Dental was a great place to work, and how Dr. Atwood was a great boss and she enjoyed working with him. The defendants assert that they know these posts existed because Dr. Atwood's wife, Kelly Atwood, was friends with the plaintiff on Facebook at the time.

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Not a Party To the Case? You May Still Have to Preserve.

Deciding what should be preserved and who should preserve it can be difficult when litigation first begins.  However, do not be fooled.  A party can feel the wrath of the Courts if an interested non-party fails to preserve information leading up to trial. In the case of Pettit v. Smith, the court found that a state agency had a duty to preserve evidence even though the agency was not a party to the case.  This case involved a claim of excessive force by an inmate against the alleged attacking officer, supervising officers, and the state of Arizona.  However, it did not include the agency that oversaw the state prison, which is referred to as ADC.  The plaintiff claimed that the defendants and ADC should have taken measures to preserve evidence once they had notice of the litigation.  On the other hand, the defendants claimed that ADC had control over the missing evidence, and the defendants should not be held responsible for the disappearance of evidence they did not control.

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Expert Reports: When Must You Disclose?

When Robocast saw the new UI (user interface) for the Microsoft Xbox 360 “Video” and “Home” channels, Windows 8 Xbox Music Box software,,, and, all which utilized a video playlist or a changing tile function, they thought “hey, we have the patent on that UI.” While there are many nuances contained within this case as to the characteristics of each company’s UI, the important point to take away from this is that Robocast saw something in the Microsoft UI that they believed fell under a patent they had filed in 2006. Basically, Robocast saw that the new Microsoft UI operated in the same form and function as that which Robocast had previously patented. Therefore, Robocast brought suit for patent infringement against Microsoft. This case is fraught with technical jargon and in depth explanations of the video playlist and changing tile functions employed by each company’s UI. However, this is an electronic discovery blog so I will give you what you came for. The electronic discovery issue presented itself in this case in the form of an expert report. Robocast had retained Professor James T. Berger to gather information and prepare reports regarding relevant information so that he would be able to form an opinion and testify as to the amount of damages owed to Robocast by Microsoft.

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Court Punishes Dishonest Defendant with Sanctions, Default Judgment, and Dismissal

In the mood for a judicial tongue-lashing?  All you have to do is disobey a court order, destroy evidence and lie under oath.  By means of factual background, Plaintiff Pacific Packaging is a distributor of packaging products.  Defendants James Barenboim, Andrew Slater, Steven Slater, and David Guild were salesmen at Pacific Packaging until they each resigned on October 15, 2009.  After leaving Pacific Packaging, the defendants formed Packaging Partners and began operating the very next day, October 16, 2009.  Sandra Zeraschi was a sales correspondent at Pacific Packaging until she resigned and went to work with Defendants at Packaging Partners the day they began operating.  On November 4, 2009, Pacific Packaging filed a complaint and sought an order for expedited discovery and for the preservation of evidence, sensing something fishy about their new competitor.  Judge Inge allowed the plaintiff’s motion for expedited discovery and ordered the production of several documents, certain depositions, preservation of relevant ESI, and within five days, the provision of any and all computers, laptops, removable storage and other devices used in connection with the Defendant’s businesses to plaintiff’s counsel and experts for examination and copying. 

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What Should Related Foreign Entities Do When Facing Spoliation Sanctions After Providing The SEC With A Complete Image Of Its Corporate Servers? Comply With Court Orders.

Regulatory leviathan incompetency may lead to preclusion sanctions. But this doesn’t matter if the sanctions preclude two directors of alleged foreign shell entities from “offering testimony, affidavits or declarations in connection with a dispositive motion or trial,” and the sanctions are partially based on the very same two directors’ refusals to offer such testimony, affidavits or declarations in connection with depositions. In other words, the defendants have no interest in testifying, are being reprimanded for not testifying, and their punishment is to preclude them from testifying. (“Continue Reading…”) Here, the SEC froze the assets of more than a half-dozen entities which conduct business from Hong Kong based on pyramid scheme allegations. Prior to the freeze, at least a few of the defendant entities used third-party vendors to control their IT departments and these defendants were no longer capable of paying the outside vendors, post-freeze. During the course of discovery, the defendants, now without an IT department, provided the SEC with a “complete image of all information maintained on the corporate server”. Next, the defendants, fearful of adverse action by authorities in their own nation, refused to attend depositions and instead offered to attend remote videoconference depositions. Soon thereafter, the leviathan sought sanctions for spoliation, which were later recommended. Months later, the incompetent SEC figured out how to read the original hard drive provided during discovery, which had been in the SEC’s possession the entire time. The preclusion sanction still stands because the defendants did not comply with the court order to attend the depositions. In the future, if you’re a foreign businessman who finds yourself under the SEC’s radar, remember to formally request depositions to be electronically conducted, formally request asset freezes to be lifted so your third party vendor can assist the incompetent SEC to understand the information you provided in discovery, or ignore the laws of your home state, put your entire family in jeopardy, and attend the deposition. Law Suit Exposer, a Seton Hall University School of Law student (Class of 2016), focuses his studies in the area of NJ foreclosure defense.  Want to read more articles like this?  Sign up for our post notification newsletter, here.

When Convenience Stores Are Not Convenient

Court will grant sanctions for discovery transgressions. In this action, convenience store franchisees sued their franchisor for breach of franchise agreements because the franchisor attempted to end franchises. Some of the stores filed to have to 7-Eleven sanctioned for discovery transgressions and moved to strike 7-Eleven’s answer. Regarding discovery, the Magistrate Judge held an appropriate sanction against the franchisor for violation of the rule governing signing disclosures and discovery requests, requests, responses, and objections was admonition regarding the violation and that similar conduct would be addressed more harshly in the future. The Court found that 7-Eleven’s conduct caused “substantial case management and discovery problems”, but the Court did not hold 7-Eleven to “harsher” sanctions because the Court recognized that the Plaintiffs conferred with 7-Eleven to resolve their disputes, rather than going to court, which should be a last resort. Also, the Court did not think that 7-Eleven meant to hold onto relevant discovery, showing good faith on 7-Eleven’s behalf. Consequently, the Court ordered an appropriate sanction for 7-Eleven’s failure to comply with the court order, which was the reimbursement of franchises for fees and costs incurred to obtain discovery, as their “resources were strained by unnecessary and incessant discovery disputes.” This shows that being perhaps too aggressive during discovery could land you in the land of sanctions. Amanda, a Seton Hall University School of Law student (Class of 2016), focuses her studies in the area of family law. She is the Secretary of the Family Law Society and headed Seton Hall Law’s first involvement with National Adoption Day in November 2015. After graduation, Amanda will be clerking for a Superior Court Judge in the Family Division in New Jersey. Before law school, Amanda earned a B.A. from Penn State with a major in Communication Arts & Sciences and a Minor in Dispute Management and Resolution. In her spare time, Amanda enjoys participating in 5k and 10k races. 

What are the Relevance and Mens Rea Requirements for Spoliation Sanctions?

Should negligent destruction of evidence and intentional destruction of evidence be punished the same? That is one of the issues brought up in Alter v. Rocky Point School District. This case involves Lisa Alter (“Plaintiff”), a former second grade teacher and Principal, suing her former employer, Rocky Point School District (“Defendant”), for workplace discrimination.  The first discovery dispute arose when the Plaintiff filed its first motion to compel discovery on October 1, 2013.  Plaintiff sought to compel discovery of ESI, specifically emails between employees of Defendant.  The Court granted Plaintiff’s motion. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed a second motion to compel discovery and for sanctions.  Plaintiff alleged that Defendant did not comply with the Court’s instructions.  Plaintiff argued that sanctions should be imposed against Defendant for: (1) failing to properly institute a litigation hold; (2) failing to complete a good faith search of ESI; (3) failing to sufficiently oversee ESI searches; (4) and for spoliation of evidence. The main issue in this case was whether the Court would impose sanctions on Defendant for spoliation of evidence.  A party seeking sanctions for spoliation of evidence has the burden of establishing: (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; (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 the claim or defense. In Alter, the Plaintiff clearly established the first element.  It was clear that Defendant had an obligation to preserve the evidence at the time it was lost.  The Plaintiff was seeking emails between Defendant’s employees.  Defendant, however, failed to institute a litigation hold until nearly two and a half years after the Plaintiff filed her Notice of Claim in November 2010.  As to the second element, however, the Court was not convinced that the Plaintiff established that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind.  The Court did find it “especially troubling” that the Defendant did not institute a litigation hold until nearly two and a half years after the initiation of Plaintiff’s lawsuit. The Court was clear that the Defendant was negligent in failing to preserve discoverable information.  That being said, the Court was also clear that negligence is not enough to prove a culpable state of mind.  The Court found that the Defendants’ actions, while negligent, were not intentional.  As a result, the Court concluded that there was no intent to spoliate material evidence.  Plaintiff also failed to establish the third element of her spoliation claim.  The third element requires that the lost information be relevant to the party’s claim.  Plaintiff failed to set forth, with any degree of specificity, that the lost materials would have been relevant or helpful to her claim.  Relevance cannot be established solely on the basis of conjecture.  Here, Plaintiff failed to meet her burden to set forth specific facts to support her claim.  The Court here found that there was no spoliation of evidence.  Despite the finding of no spoliation, the Court was still troubled by the actions of the Defendant and the actions of Defendant’s counsel. As a result, the Court imposed a monetary sanction of $1,500 to be borne equally by Defendant and the law firm that represented Defendant at the initiation of the lawsuit. Kevin received a B.A. in History from Princeton University in 2012.  He will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2016.

When Will Protective Coding Finally See Its Day In Court?

The Southern District of New York Magistrate Judge Peck may have changed the way attorneys view discovery procedures forever. In an unprecedented ruling, Judge Peck held in Da Silva Moore v. Publicis Groupe & MSL Grp., 287 F.R.D. 182 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) that technology assisted review (“TAR”) is “an acceptable way to search for relevant ESI in appropriate cases.” To follow up this historic step, Judge Peck ruled again in 2015 that TAR is appropriate and should not be discouraged or held to a higher standard that could deter parties from using this cost and time-effective tool. TAR uses technology and statistics to determine which documents or data will be relevant to the subject matter of the case at hand. If the topic or issue is “attorney-client privilege regarding a work-monitored email address,” for example, the system would scan a large number of documents or a sample size and find all documents bearing the relevant information. This allows the producing party to save time and cost if personnel required to scan that many documents the same amount of time. In the 2014 Tax Court case Dynamo Holdings Ltd. P'Ship v. Comm'r of Internal Revenue, 143 T.C. 9, 2014 WL 4636526 (T.C. Sept. 17, 2014), opponents of this system argued that incomplete responses to discovery are inevitable. To that complaint, the court in that case found that the party may simply file a motion to compel if that belief is supported, a notion with which Judge Peck agrees. “In, essence, what the parties are asking the Court to consider [is] whether document review should be done by humans or with the assistance of computers.” The more prominent question presented to Judge Peck in Rio Tinto was the level of transparency and cooperation required from the parties “with respect to the seed or training set(s).” The training or seed sets are the sample set of documents used to code the entire set and label documents as relevant or irrelevant to the case.  Judge Peck suggested that the producing party turn over the entire seed set, regardless of the label, to ensure transparency and function as the potential resolution to this uncertainty. Currently, there is a debate amongst courts as to whether the seed set should be ordered to be produced, or whether the parties must generally agree to such production. The Judge was of the opinion that even this debate could be put to rest with a few cooperation-based measures, stating that “requesting parties can insure that training and review was done appropriately by other means, such as statistical estimation of recall at the conclusion of the review as well as by whether there are gaps in the production, and quality control review of samples from the documents categorized as non-responsive.” While the Rio Tinto court did not decide on the actual transparency rules because the parties stipulated to TAR use, the Court noted that it was important to opine on this matter for future cases, as TAR is a valuable tool in e-discovery procedures. Going forward, it will likely become necessary for courts to rule on whether or not TAR may be compelled and in what way. It is foreseeable that cases involving high levels of distrust among parties will lead to such an opportunity. Svjetlana Tesic is a magna cum laude graduate of Montclair State University, where she received her B.A. in Jurisprudence, with a minor in Business. She will receive her J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2016, where she serves as Student Bar Association President and is a member of the Moot Court Board. After graduation, Svjetlana will clerk for a trial judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey in the Passaic County Vicinage. 

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