Sanctions

Defendant’s “Hands-Off” Approach Insufficient; Sanctions Ordered

In this case, Peerless Industries, Inc.  sued defendants Crimson AV, LLC claiming patent infringement and design patent infringement arising out of defendant’s manufacture and sale of certain TV mounts. While not a defending party, Sycamore Manufacturing Co., Ltd. (“Sycamore”) is plaintiff's former supplier of these TV mounts and played a vital role in the alleged infringement. Sycamore is located in China, while Peerless and Crimson are both located in the United States. Plaintiffs filed two motions: (1) a motion to compel the deposition of the Sycamore’s president, Tony Jin, and (2) a renewed motion for sanctions, both of which were granted. It was also determined in a previous case that Jin exercised managerial control over both Sycamore and Crimson. Therefore, plaintiff satisfied that Mr. Jin is a managing agent of Crimson. The court stated, “Plaintiff must simply show ‘that there is at least a close question as to whether the witness is a managing agent.’ We already found this to be the case. Furthermore, Mr. Jin clearly satisfies the ‘paramount test,’ which is whether the individual identifies with the corporation's interests as opposed to an adversary's.” The court further ordered that without any showing of hardship, Jin’s deposition would have to take place in the United States and not in China. As for the plaintiff’s renewed motion for sanctions, this motion marked the third time the plaintiff filed a motion regarding the same set of documents. The plaintiff argued that at the deposition of Crimson’s managing director, “it became clear that defendant did not conduct a reasonable investigation regarding Sycamore’s document production or Sycamore’s document retention for purposes of this litigation.” The plaintiff then filed a renewed motion for sanctions. The defendant and Sycamore asserted that certain documents in Sycamore’s possession had been produced. The plaintiff noted, that defendants did not represent that all requested documents were produced or that they were searched for but no longer existed. The plaintiff argued that the defendant wanted to rely on the same declarations as opposed to issuing more specific responses. The court stated that since it had determined Jin was principal of both Crimson and Sycamore and that he exercised a considerable amount of control over both corporations, that he was able to obtain all relevant documents from Sycamore. However, the court found that defendant took a “back seat” approach and instead used a third-party vendor to collect the documents. Finding that neither Crimson nor Jin had apart in the process of obtaining the requested discovery, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions. The court held that this “hands-off’ approach is insufficient. “Defendants cannot place the burden of compliance on an outside vendor and have no knowledge, or claim no control, over the process. Finally, the court held that defendants must show that they in fact searched for the requested documents and, if those documents no longer exist or cannot be located, they must specifically verify that it is they who cannot produce. Salim received his B.A. in Applied Communications, with a minor in Legal Studies, from Monmouth University. He received his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2014. Salim’s past experiences include interning for a personal injury law firm prior to attending law school, as well as judicial internships in the Civil and Family Divisions. Currently, Salim is taking part in the Immigrants’ Rights/International Human Rights Clinic at Seton Hall Law.

Does a Litigation Hold Require the Preservation of Employee Text Messages? Big Problems in Little Packages: Lost Cell Phone Leads to Spoliation Sanctions

Big things can often come in small packages, especially in the field of eDiscovery.  In Christou v. Beatport, LLC, the defendants learned that something as small as a text message on a lost cell phone can lead to a bevy of headache-inducing preservation issues, even without proof that the lost texts actually contained relevant information. Originally, the two parties worked together to create Beatport, an online marketplace dedicated to promoting and selling electronic dance music.  When that relationship eventually fell apart, the plaintiff, a prominent nightclub owner, brought suit against Beatport and his former employee who, as a “talent buyer,” was responsible for attracting DJs to perform at the plaintiff’s venues.  The plaintiff claimed that since the falling-out, the former talent broker had been strong-arming DJs against performing at the plaintiff’s nightclubs by threatening to drop them from his now high-profile website. Soon after the case was filed, the plaintiff issued a litigation hold letter to the defendants seeking the preservation of electronically stored information.  Despite the fact that this letter specifically referenced text messages, the defendants made no effort whatsoever to preserve the text messages on the former employee’s cell phone.  Of course the phone was then lost, about a year and a half after the hold should have been instituted. The plaintiff sought spoliation sanctions in the form of an adverse jury instruction.  The defendants attempted to shelter themselves from punishment behind testimony that the former talent broker did not use texts to contact clients and no proof was offered that there was relevant evidence anywhere in the phone.  Thus, the defendants felt the plaintiff’s motion was entirely speculative. Given the disappearance of the phone, the court recognized that there was simply no way to know whether it contained any relevant evidence.  There was also no evidence that the defense had done their due diligence by reviewing the text messages to determine whether any were responsive to the plaintiff’s discovery requests. The court explained that spoliation sanctions are appropriate when “(1) a party has a duty to preserve evidence because it knew, or should have known that litigation was imminent, and (2) the adverse party was prejudiced by the destruction of the evidence.”  Here, there was no question that the defendants neglected their duties by failing to make any effort whatsoever to preserve the text messages. Because the loss of the phone was an accident, or at the most the result of negligence, an adverse jury instruction was unwarranted because it would be too harsh a punishment.   Instead, the court permitted the plaintiffs to present evidence at trial about the litigation hold and the defendant’s failure to abide by it.  Despite finding no foul play by the defendants, sanctions were necessary because “[a] commercial party represented by experienced and highly sophisticated counsel cannot disregard the duty to preserve potentially relevant documents when a case like this is filed.” The previous sentence best sums up the defendants’ actions.  They completely shirked all responsibility by failing to turn over the requested text messages or securing the phone itself.  Even though the phone was lost accidentally, spoliation sanctions were warranted because of the defendants’ complete disregard of their preservation duties.  The time and money spent belaboring this eDiscovery dispute could have  been completely avoided if the defendants simply preserved all of its electronically stored information, especially those documents specifically mentioned in a litigation hold.  Instead, the defendants suffered what probably turned out to be significant financial consequences fighting the motion and were left to combat incredibly damaging evidence at trial. Jeffrey, a Seton Hall University School of Law graduate (Class of 2014), focused 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. 

Think Plaintiffs Have All the Leverage? Not If They Spoliate.

Individual plaintiffs often exert settlement leverage against corporate defendants because, irrespective of the merits of the suit, the prospective costs of litigation coerce early settlement.  Therefore, an individual plaintiff often has nothing to lose.  Even if a plaintiff’s suit is meritless, often times the worst case scenario faced is dismissal of the suit.  Additionally, where a case is taken on a contingent fee basis, an individual plaintiff is merely left where they started.  However, Taylor v. Mitre Corp. shows that in some circumstances an individual plaintiff can in fact find himself or herself in a worse position than prior to litigation. In Taylor, the plaintiff of the same name filed suit against his former employer, The Mitre Corporation, alleging violations of the Family Medical Leave Act and Americans with Disabilities Act.  However, it was Taylor that was soon on the defensive.  First, Taylor was accused of spoliating evidence when he smashed a work computer with a sledge hammer.  It is not clear what sanctions resulted from this conduct; however, the court did not remain quiet following Taylor's later response to the Magistrate Judge's ordering Taylor to produce his laptop for inspection.  Upon issuance of the order, Taylor promptly ran specialized programs—Evidence Eliminator and CCleaner—on his computer for the clear purpose of deleting relevant data and information. Upon learning of Taylor's second act of spoliation, the court sanctioned Taylor by dismissing his suit.  A severe sanction, of course, but it is arguable whether dismissal alone serves as an effective deterrent to future spoliation of evidence.  After all, if a plaintiff has extensively spoliated evidence, it is likely that a plaintiff’s case was not meritorious in the first place.  Additionally, dismissing a non-meritorious suit will merely leave the plaintiff where he started and leave the defendant out a bundle of unnecessary litigation costs. Accordingly, the court not only dismissed Taylor's suit but also found him responsible for Mitre's reasonable fees and costs associated with the motion for sanctions—$202,399.66 in total.   The court arrived at this total by applying the lodestar methodology and was not swayed by Taylor's claim of financial hardship.  It is believable that an individual plaintiff will be hard-pressed to pay such costs; however, the court reasoned that reducing an award of fees and costs is appropriate where the full sanction will have a chilling effect on the filing of future, potentially meritorious, claims.  The court found that imposing sanctions for bad-faith spoliation would not have such a chilling effect, and therefore refused to reduce the award in favor of Mitre. So what's the moral of the story?  In many cases a plaintiff will have little to lose and the nuisance value of their suit places them in strong settlement position.  But conduct by the plaintiff in bad-faith can quickly shift this leverage. Adam L. Peterson is a graduate of Seton Hall University School of Law (Class of 2014).  Adam was 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.  

Comply With Discovery, Or Pay The Price

While the practice of law, by nature, involves two parties facing off, there is no reason to make the job more difficult than it needs to be. The rules that govern court proceedings are in place to encourage cooperation between the parties and ensure that things “run smoothly.” When one party fails to abide by these rules, sanctions may be necessary. In Branhaven, the defendant’s counsel sought to prohibit the plaintiffs from using certain documents that were the product of a large last minute “document dump,” and award the defendants attorney’s fees and costs as a result of said production. The defendants also claimed that they were entitled to fees based on a Federal Rule 26(g) violation, in that plaintiff’s counsel had incorrectly certified by signing a response to defendants document requests on March 21 that such responses were “to the best of [his or her] knowledge, information and belief formed after reasonable inquiry.” Id. at 389. The defendants also claimed that counsel for the plaintiffs did not make reasonable efforts to ensure that the client has provided all the information and documents available that are responsive to the discovery demand. Additionally, for each request, the plaintiffs responded by stating that they would make the documents available at a mutually convenient time. In order to understand the egregious nature of the plaintiff’s conduct, we must look at the timeline of events. On January 31, 2012, requests were served on the plaintiffs, at which point its counsel claimed to have sent these requests to the client. On March 16, 2012, the plaintiff’s counsel claimed that the plaintiff had yet to be provided with responses.  The plaintiff’s counsel told the defendant’s counsel that they would be made available at a mutually agreeable time. The record reflects no action was taken until June. On June 14, 2012, the plaintiff’s counsel stated that the client had yet been provided any documents for production. The plaintiff assembled responsive pleadings based on that documents within the firms possession and sent same to the defendants. This amounted to about 388 pages in total. On July 20, merely days before depositions of the client were to begin, the plaintiff produced 112,106 pages apparently from overlooked e-mail servers and laptops. The plaintiff defend this conduct by stating that their servers were purchased as part of an asset sale and that passwords were not readily available, as the preference was to use in house IT staff prior to outsourcing. The court did not buy any of the plaintiff’s arguments stating that the plaintiff waited about five months prior to seeking the assistance of outside IT support. While a one month delay may have been reasonable, five months was not. Before one initiates suit, one should prepare for discovery as they would be subject to demands. The March 21 certification was made prior to any investigation by counsel that eventually turned up over 100,000 pages of documents. Therefore, the lack of access on the defendants stemming from the plaintiff’s conduct was punishable through attorney’s fees for the time spent converting the documents to a reviewable format as well as the time spent drafting and prosecuting for this motion for sanctions.

Federal Judge Sanctions Corporate Defendant and Its Counsel for Gross Negligence, Bad Faith, and Failure to Comply With Discovery Requests and Court Order

In Brown v. Tellermate Holdings Ltd., Tellermate Holdings, the defendant company, terminated two employees for allegedly failing to meet sales targets over several years.  The employees, feeling that they were wrongfully terminated due to their age, filed an employment discrimination action against the company as well as other entities and individuals associated with Tellermate. Throughout pre-trial proceedings, the case was plagued with numerous discovery mishaps.  The plaintiffs requested from the defendant company data stored and maintained by Salesforce.com,[1] which would, in theory, evidence plaintiffs’ sales records over the last few years in addition to allowing the plaintiffs to compare their sales figures with other (younger) employees.  However, even though numerous discovery conferences were held, numerous discovery motions filed with the court, and several discovery orders issued by the court, the defendant corporation failed to produce the requested data and documents.  Ultimately, the plaintiffs filed for judgment and sanctions under Federal Rule 37(b)(2); the court held a three-day evidentiary hearing on the matter. The presiding judge, United States Magistrate Judge Terence P. Kemp, identified three areas in which the defendant company or its counsel failed in its obligations to the plaintiffs and the court in relation to production of documents and data: Defendant’s counsel failed to understand how Tellermate’s data stored with Salesforce.com could be obtained and produced to plaintiffs, which resulted in counsel making false statements to the plaintiffs’ counsel and the court; By failing to understand how the defendant’s data was stored and maintained, defendant’s counsel took no steps to preserve the integrity of the information in Tellermate’s database located with Salesforce.com; Defendant’s counsel failed to learn of the existence of documents relating to a prior age discrimination charge until almost a year after plaintiffs requested the documents; Defendant’s counsel produced a “document dump” resulting from counsel’s use of an overly-broad keyword search that yielded around 50,000 irrelevant documents, which plaintiffs’ counsel could not review within the time period ordered by the court. The Salesforce.com Data Judge Kemp found that Tellermate’s failure to preserve and produce the data logged on Salesforce.com’s website irreparably deprived the plaintiffs of reliable information necessary in supporting their claims.  Although defendant’s counsel initially stated that Tellermate “does not maintain salesforce.com information in hard copy format,” “cannot print out accurate historical records from salesforce.com,” and that “discovery of salesforce.com information should be directed at salesforce.com, not Tellermate,” the court found such statements to be on their face false.  In fact, Tellermate did have access to the information sought by the plaintiffs as one, and sometimes two, of Tellermate's employees enjoyed the highest level of access to the Salesforce.com information.  The court determined that the information eventually produced by the defendants could not be trusted as “even a forensic computer expert has no way to detect hat changes, deletions[,] or additions were made to the database on an historical basis.”  Because of Tellermate’s failure to preserve the Salesforce.com data, Judge Kamp precluded Tellermate from providing evidence showing that the plaintiff-employees were terminated for their alleged underperformance. Counsel’s Obligations With Respect to ESI The court found that the defense’s counsel fell short of their well-established obligations[2] to critically examine the documents and data Tellermate provided to them.  Tellermate made false representations to its counsel about the data’s availability and therefore caused undue delay in document production as well as false and misleading arguments to be made to plaintiffs’ counsel and to the court.  Subsequently, the plaintiffs were forced to file discovery motions before the court to address these discovery issues which produced the Salesforce.com data that was never properly preserved albeit its significance to the plaintiffs’ case. Judge Kemp ultimately determined that counsel for the defendant conducted an inadequate investigation of Tellermate’s electronic data while simultaneously failing to understand the most basic concepts of cloud computing and cloud storage, which led to counsel’s failing to preserve key electronic data. Control of Data Stored in the Cloud As mentioned above, Tellermate and its counsel repeatedly represented to the plaintiffs and to the court that it did not possess and could not produce any of the Salesforce.com data requested by plaintiffs.  Additionally, the defendants asserted that in light of those facts, the defendants could not preserve the data stored on Salesforce.com’s databases at any point prior to litigation. Judge Kemp dismissed these claims.  The court concluded that, without any factual basis whatsoever, no substantive argument could be made that Tellermate was prohibited from accessing the information stored on the Salesforce.com databases or that Salesforce.com was responsible for preserving Tellermate’s information and data as it was the entity that maintained possession and control of the data. In reality, Tellermate was the custodian of the data stored on the Salesforce.com databases.  While information can be stored in locations outside the immediate control of the corporate entity by third party providers, it can still be under the legal control of the owner of the data and therefore must be produced by the owner under Federal Rule 34(a)(1)(A).  Additionally, had Tellermate’s counsel critically examined the agreement between Tellermate and Salesforce.com, it would have realized that Tellermate was the owner of all data created by its employees and that Tellermate could, at any time, download the data stored on the Salesforce.com databases for preservation and production purposes. Limitations on Document Production to Avoid “Document Dumps” Tellermate produced to the plaintiffs 50,000 pages of irrelevant documents, classified by Judge Kemp as a “document dump.”  Tellermate’s counsel refused to disclose which search terms it used in deciding which documents to produce to the plaintiffs, claiming that the search terms were privileged.  In actuality, the court discovered, Tellermate’s counsel only used the full names and nicknames of employees as its search terms, which obviously yielded irrelevant documents.  Without reviewing the returned documents, and because the court’s deadline for producing relevant documents was rapidly approaching, Tellermate’s counsel produced to the plaintiffs the documents as “Attorney’s Eyes Only.” The court recognized that a protective order was permitted only when counsel held a good faith belief that such information constituted a “trade secret or other confidential research, development, or proprietary business information, and that such material was entitled to a higher level of protection than otherwise provided in the protective order.”  Tellermate could not demonstrate entitlement to this level of protection with respect to the search terms used in procuring documentation for discovery: The alleged burden imposed by a high volume production does not provide the producing party or its counsel free reign to choose a given designation and ignore the Court’s order pertaining to that designation. First, the court looked to whether competitive harm would result from the disclosure of the types of documents produced by Tellermate to a competitor; however, Tellermate’s memorandum on the issue did not contain any evidence about the harm which might result if the plaintiffs were permitted to review any particular document that was labeled “Attorney’s Eyes Only.” Second, Tellermate’s argument as to the harm it would experience was entirely conclusory and was not supported by evidence: Apart from the general concept that disclosure of some types of sensitive information to a competitor may result in harm, it contains no particularized argument which is specific to [the plaintiff], the way in which he was competing with Tellermate, and how the disclosure of any one of the 50,000 pages marked as attorneys-eyes-only would harm Tellermate’s interests. The court was astounded that Tellermate continually failed to meet the burden required to designate the documents as “Attorney’s Eyes Only” and, up until the hearing date, made no effort the redesignate a single page of the 50,000 produced in order to permit the plaintiffs from viewing the documents. Sanctions The court had absolutely no qualms with an award of attorneys’ fees for all motion practice connected to the preservation and production of the Salesforce.com data.  “Had Tellermate and its counsel simply fulfilled their basic discovery obligations, neither of these matters would have come before the Court, or at least not in the posture they did.”  The court took great concern to the extraordinary lengths the plaintiffs had to go to in order to obtain the documents maintained by the defendant and, even after several rounds of motions, were not able to obtain all of them.  The “Attorney’s Eyes Only” designation on the 50,000 documents produced was also unfounded, the court held, and unduly precluded plaintiffs from necessary evidence that supported their case, which warranted fees under Federal Rule 37(a)(5)(A). Conclusion Tellermate provides a warning to all attorneys that the realm of technology in which their clients are constantly interact with is always changing.  Therefore, so does the practice of electronic discovery.  Counsel must always meet its duties with respect to ESI by engaging in discussions with its clients and opposing counsel about ESI; being aware, and perhaps even knowledgeable, of new and emerging technologies; and investigating and assessing with its clients the sources and status of potentially relevant ESI.  By forgoing these practices, counsel opens itself and its clients to easily avoided and costly sanctions. Daniel is the Editor-in-Chief of eLessions Learned and a third-year law student at Duquesne University.  To read more about him, click here. [1]       Salesforce.com is a cloud-based customer relationship management system with more than 100,000 corporate customers around the world.  Tellermate and its employees used Salesforce.com to track their sales and other interaction with customers.  The court recognized that each sales person using the Salesforce.com management system could add, remove, or otherwise change data on their sales account. [2]       See Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 382 F.Supp.2d 536 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (counsel had an affirmative duty to monitor preservation an d ensure all sources of discovery information were identified).

Is Negligent Spoliation of Evidence Sufficient to Warrant Permissive Adverse Jury Instruction?

An employer doesn’t need an attorney to tell him or her that destroying evidence relevant to litigation may make the court very unhappy.  Often times, when a party acts in bad faith by intentionally destroying evidence, the court will impose a sanction such as an “adverse inference” jury instruction.  This type of instruction orders the jury to infer that the missing evidence would have been detrimental to the guilty party.  But what if a party did not intentionally destroy evidence in bad faith, but rather lost the evidence due to a negligent mistake?  Should the same adverse inference instruction be used? In Pillay v. Millard Refrigerated Services, the court held that even if a party is merely negligent in destroying evidence, a jury may presume that the evidence would have been unfavorable to that party.  This permissive adverse inference instruction differs from the circumstances where the court determines that the party acted in bad faith because the court gives the jury the option of making an adverse inference.  Typically, when bad faith is present, the court will instruct the jury that it should presume the missing evidence is detrimental to the party who destroyed it.  This instruction differs from the instruction in Pillay where the court gave the jury the option of making the adverse inference. The Pillay court imposed a permissive adverse inference jury instruction when an employer negligently deleted relevant information.  The employer claimed that it terminated an employee because the employee’s production levels were down.  The employee claimed that he was terminated for unlawful reasons and that the employer’s labor management system (“LMS”) would show that the employee’s production level exceeded expectations. The employer, however, no longer possessed the LMS data because of routine deletions of the data after one year.  The data was deleted despite opposing counsel’s numerous requests to preserve all relevant documents and evidence. The employer argued sanctions were not warranted because the LMS data was not deleted intentionally or in bad faith.  The court rejected this argument holding that even without a showing of bad faith, the court has the discretion to impose sanctions when a party’s negligence causes information to be lost.  The court sanctioned the employer with the following permissive adverse jury instruction: Pillay contends that Millard at one time possessed data documenting [an employee’s] productivity and performance that was destroyed by Millard.  Millard contends that the loss of data was accidental.  You may assume that such evidence would have been unfavorable to Millard only if you find by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) Millard intentionally or recklessly caused the evidence to be destroyed; and (2) Millard caused the evidence to be destroyed in bad faith. Moving forward, this case means litigants must be extra careful in preserving evidence that may be relevant to litigation.  One negligent misstep, even if done without any showing of bad faith, may be the cause of an adverse jury instruction that can potentially be the deciding factor in a lawsuit. E-DiscoParty, a Seton Hall University School of Law graduate (class of 2014), served on the executive board of the Seton Hall Law Review and is a member of the Interscholastic Moot Court Board. E-DiscoParty now clerks for a Justice on the Supreme Court of New Jersey. 

Proof and Prejudice: Court Refuses Adverse Inference Sanction Due to Lack of Proof of Prejudice, Despite Proof of Spoliation

One might think that in a lawsuit if your adversary is caught breaking the rules there might be some penalty. However, in Cottle-Banks v. Cox Communications, the Honorable Gonzalo P. Curiel of the District Court for the Southern District of California held otherwise, allowing the defendant’s misconduct to go unpunished. This case started when Brittini Cottle-Banks alleged “that Cox has violated the negative-option-billing provision of the federal Cable Act by failing to disclose and obtain customers’ consent to be charged for monthly rental fees associated with their cable set-top boxes.” Due to this allegation, Cox had a duty to preserve any potentially relevant evidence. The evidence in question consists of records of telephone calls made to Cox by customers. Despite being put on notice that they had a duty to not record over the records of these calls, Cox did just that. This taping over resulted in about 6 months worth of calls being taped over. With proof of this spoliation of evidence, Cottle-banks moved for an adverse inference sanction; an order from the court instructing a jury to assume that whatever was deleted was evidence against Cox. However, the 9th Circuit does not have a rule on this sanction so Judge Curiel used the standard from the second circuit. For an adverse inference sanction a party must establish that their adversary: had control of the evidence, a culpable state of mind, and the spoiled evidence was relevant and supportive of a party’s claim or defense The evidence of these first two elements is clear. Cox clearly had control and their failure to preserve despite being put on notice is indicative of a culpable state of mind. However, because “the burden falls on the ‘prejudiced party’ to produce ‘some evidence suggesting that a document or documents relevant to substantiating his claim would have been included among the destroyed files.” Since Cottle-Banks had no proof that she was prejudiced by Cox’s spoliation of evidence, the Court refused to grant an adverse inference sanction. Thus, if you are going to move for an adverse inference sanction, be sure to have some proof of prejudice. Matthew G. Miller, a Seton Hall University School of Law student (Class of 2014), focuses his studies in the area of Intellectual Property. Matt holds his degree in Chemistry from the University of Chicago. Currently, Matt works as a legal intern at Gearhart Law.

Preserve Immediately or be Sanctioned!

In this case, the plaintiff, an inmate at Rikers Island, brought a motion for spoliation of evidence and alleged the defendants breached their duty to preserve evidence. The evidence in question is video footage relevant to the litigation regarding the assault on the plaintiff which occurred on May 24, 2011, by other prison inmates in a holding cell at the Bronx Criminal Courthouse. The defendants claim that they do not have a duty to preserve the surveillance footage because by the time they were given notice, the footage had been deleted. The defense states that even if they had a duty to preserve, they met this obligation by saving eight minutes of surveillance that they deemed to be relevant. On the day of the assault, the holding cell in which the plaintiff was placed in with approximately sixteen to seventeen other inmates was under twenty-four hour video surveillance.  That same day, Jacqueline Brantley, the former Assistant Deputy Warden Executive Officer at the Bronx Criminal Courthouse, reviewed the video footage to determine the course of events specifically for a period of three hours.  Brantley was the only person to view the three hours of footage and therefore she was the only one who could testify in court regarding this evidence. The three hours of video footage is extremely relevant to the case. The footage included evidence of not only the plaintiff’s injuries, but also how the Department of Corrections protected the inmates and how they responded to the incident. The tapes also show the presence and identity of possible witnesses to the assault and help create a visual timeline of events in the holding cell. The Southern District of New York stated that the defendants should have known within a week of the assault that the surveillance footage would be relevant to a future lawsuit. While the Department of Corrections destroyed the footage pursuant to the Department’s automatic video recycling procedures, prior to the filing of the claim by Taylor, the Department did manage to save eight minutes of footage. This begs the following question to be asked:  Why did the department not preserve the entire three hours of footage? As a result, the plaintiff in this case sought sanctions for spoliation of evidence with the deletion of the footage. A party seeking sanctions for the spoliation of evidence must establish the following three elements: The party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; The records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and The destroyed evidence was relevant to the party’s claim… such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim. Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge  Fin. Corp., 306 F.3d 99, 107 (2d. Cir. 2002). If the moving party can establish these three elements, then the court has the ability to impose sanctions under Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The defendants here should have anticipated that the plaintiff would file a lawsuit against the Department for its failure for protect the plaintiff in the holding cell. Therefore, the defendants should have reasonably known that any evidence depicting the plaintiff’s treatment in the holding cell would be relevant to the litigation. The obligation to preserve the video footage in this case attached at the time of the assault due to its relevance. The defendants should have known that the entire three hours of footage would be relevant and that two four minute video clips would be insufficient. Since the entire footage has been destroyed, the defendants breached their preservation duty. The destruction of evidence by the defendants was done in a culpable state of mind and destroyed knowingly. Therefore, the defendants were negligent in allowing the footage to be deleted. However, the defendants were not grossly negligent in their failure to preserve, as no relevant evidence here has been claimed to have been destroyed after the plaintiff filed his Notice of Claim, approximately sixty-five days after the assault occurred. Additionally, the destroyed evidence would have been favorable and relevant to the plaintiff’s claims and defenses in this case. This evidence would have shown the three hour period of time the plaintiff was left injured in the holding cell as well as the failure of the Corrections Officers to protect him and remove him from the cell when he was covered in blood after the assault. The Court found that for these reasons the destruction of evidence prejudiced the plaintiff. Therefore, the following sanctions were ordered by the court: 1) the preclusion of Brantley from testifying about what she saw when she reviewed the deleted footage; 2) the use of an adverse inference jury instruction; and 3) the award of attorney’s fees and costs to the plaintiff. To avoid having a similar outcome, potential defendants should immediately preserve any relevant evidence in matters that they know or should reasonably know will give rise to litigation. Jennifer Whritenour received her B.S. in Political Science and History in 2011 from the University of Scranton. She is received her J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in May 2014. 

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.