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Whenever sanctions are involved, you can expect to see questionable behavior from one or more parties. In this particular case, a pro se litigant tried to be cute and the court called him out for it. The Appellant here used to own a company which provided consulting services to the Appellee. Since the company became defunct, the owner became the only remaining party being sued. The district court had entered a discovery preservation order in which the parties agreed the appellant would return a laptop computer along with all of its data. However, the appellant deleted data off the laptop minutes before signing the agreement. Then the appellee initiated post-settlement litigation to obtain sanctions. The appellant’s attorney then withdrew and the appellant continued pro se. The judge found the appellant to be in civil contempt and awarded sanctions of over $50,000. The appellant raised three contentions on appeal. First he argued sanctions under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 could only be awarded against attorneys, not pro se individuals. Circuits are split on this issue. The Third Circuit navigated around the issue, asserting that the district court judge could have justified its sanction under other grounds. Second, the appellant argues that monetary sanctions should not have been awarded because the information was deleted before the discovery agreement was signed. The Third Circuit called out the argument as being a bit too clever and was not persuaded. It all but accused the appellant of deliberately misleading the district court. More damning was the actual language of the agreement. It exposed the appellant to liability arising from the agreement itself, which governed the return of the laptop. Third, the appellant challenges the award for all attorneys' fees. On this issue the Third Circuit remanded for a determination of what fees fairly reflect compensation for the appellant's contumacious conduct. What is more vital here is the punishment for deleting data off the computer. Those who try to outsmart the court will get their just deserts and acting pro se does not provide any sort of loophole.
The defendant in personal injury litigation commonly requests discovery concerning a plaintiff’s Facebook account. The reason such requests are made is that pictures on Facebook may reveal the “injured” plaintiff dancing on top of a bar table, skiing, traveling, etc. These damaging photos may prove that the plaintiff’s injury is not as severe as he or she claims and could result in dismissal of the case. Therefore, it is not uncommon for a plaintiff to delete his or her Facebook account in order to conceal any damaging pictures. The deletion of a Facebook account, however, may result in sanctions such as an adverse inference jury instruction. In Gato v. United Airlines, Inc., the plaintiff was injured while working for the defendant. During the litigation, the plaintiff permanently deleted his Facebook account. The defendant motioned for an adverse inference jury instruction claiming that the deletion of the Facebook account destroyed relevant evidence, thereby prejudicing the defendant. In granting the sanction, the district of New Jersey adopted a very low standard as to what a litigant must show in order to obtain an adverse inference jury instruction. The court held that “so long as evidence is relevant, the offending party’s culpability is largely irrelevant, as it cannot be denied that the opposing party has been prejudiced.” This seemingly simple sentence has enormous implications for litigants in the district of New Jersey for two reasons. First, it means that as long as the destroyed evidence was relevant, a litigant need not prove that the adversary intentionally (or even negligently) destroyed evidence. The lack of state of mind requirement eliminates what is often the most difficult element to prove when seeking spoliation sanctions. Without the need to prove a litigant’s culpability in destroying the evidence, the court seems to impose a form of strict liability upon the destroying party. The only requirement imposed by the court is that the party seeking sanctions prove that the destroyed evidence was relevant. This is a significant deviation from the traditional method employed by courts which requires proof that a party was at least negligent in destroying the evidence. Second, the court indicates that as long as the evidence is relevant, it will presume that the destruction of the evidence was prejudicial to the opposing party. This eliminates the need for the party seeking sanctions to prove that it was prejudiced by the missing evidence. Instead, the party only needs to prove that the evidence was relevant. Notably, the court explained that the defendants in Gato were “prejudiced because they have lost access to evidence that is potentially relevant to Plaintiff’s damages and credibility.” In other words, the defendant in Gato did not have to even prove that the destroyed evidence was undoubtedly relevant—the defendant only had to prove that the evidence was potentially relevant. In sum, the District of New Jersey imposed an adverse inference jury instruction simply because the destroyed evidence was potentially relevant to the litigation. The court did not require the defendant to show that it was prejudiced by the destruction, nor did the court require any showing as to the Plaintiff’s state of mind in destroying the evidence. Moving forward, litigants must be extra careful in their efforts to preserve evidence relevant to litigation. 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. Currently, E-DiscoParty clerks for a Justice on the Supreme Court of New Jersey.  An adverse inference jury instruction is a powerful sanction where the court advises the jury to presume that any destroyed or missing evidence contained detrimental information about the party that destroyed or lost the evidence.
Plaintiff Erick Zayas joined with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to sue Ventura Corp. for employment discrimination on the basis of sex in 2007. In essence, Zavas complained that Ventura’s long-standing tradition of hiring women for the position he applied to was discriminatory. Furthermore, Zavas alleged that Ventura destroyed relevant evidence. In its answer, Ventura stated that the fact that no men have filed applications or have not met the position requirements did not support the plaintiffs’ assertion of discrimination. However, during limited discovery a list revealed that qualified men did in fact apply and accounted for 34.5 percent of qualified applicants. The central issue involved application materials received by Ventura. These included materials submitted by e-mail and hard copy resumes. The court first notes that spoliation is “the failure to preserve evidence that is relevant to pending or potential litigation.” The duty to preserve relevant evidence arises once litigation is reasonably anticipated. The court noted that since Ventura was notified in 2007 that it was being charged with sexual discrimination, at that point Ventura should have reasonably anticipated litigation and was thus under the duty to preserve. Ventura attempted to make a statutory argument that resumes did not need to be preserved. The relevant statute, 29 CFR 1602.14 (see http://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/29/1602.14), makes reference to “application forms” and “test papers.” Ventura argued that it required neither application forms nor test papers and that resumes were not mentioned. However, the court rejected this argument. The court noted that the statute also includes the language, “other records having to do with hiring.” The court ultimately held that resumes therefore clearly applied. Ventura’s Human Resource Analyst testified that certain documents were shredded or taken to a warehouse as a result of an office restructuring in 2009. Furthermore, the HR Analyst wasn’t able to find the said documents. The plaintiffs were therefore able to establish that Ventura either lost or destroyed the resumes between 2007 and 2010. Because Ventura was on notice since 2007, the disappearance of these documents constituted a violation of its duty to preserve relevant evidence. Soft copies of resumes delivered by e-mail were also lost in the same time period. In fact, th plaintiffs were able to produce a relevant e-mail to and from Ventura, while Ventura was not able to produce the very same e-mail. This e-mail alone and the fact that other relevant e-mails likely existed in the 2007-2010 period but were nowhere to be found, was sufficient to infer that Ventura likely destroyed them. The court held that sanctions were in order for Ventura’s violation of its duty to preserve. As a result of Ventura’s failure to preserve relevant evidence, the court imposed a “spoliation instruction” or adverse inference instruction. Such an instruction allows the trier of fact to infer that the content of the destroyed relevant evidence was damaging to Ventura’s case. Lesson learned? If you intentionally or unintentionally destroy relevant evidence while under a duty to preserve, an adverse inference instruction will likely bring swift defeat and sway the trier of fact against you. It’s best to preserve evidence and maintain your credibility with the court and trier of fact even with bad facts. Rocco Seminerio is a Seton Hall University School of Law graduate (Class of 2014). Mr. Seminerio focuses in the areas of Estate Planning, Elder Law, and Health Law. He graduated from Seton Hall University in 2011 with a degree in Philosophy. He also has an interest in the life sciences.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once bitten, twice shy. The classic idiom stands for the general proposition that when an individual is hurt by someone or something, they tend to avoid that person or situation in the future. Well, it looks like the defendant in Hart v. Dillon Companies did not learn its lesson as it will face spoliation sanctions for the second time in two years. In 2011, the defendant’s bad faith destruction of company videotapes led to an adverse inference ruling. E.E.O.C. v. Dillon Companies, Inc., F. Supp. 2d 1141 (D.Colo. 2011). Now the company faces additional spoliation sanctions, once again for accidentally erasing pertinent recorded evidence. The plaintiff’s 21 years of employment at the defendant’s grocery store came to an end when it was alleged that she had been abusing her power as the store’s bookkeeper by paying herself at a marked-up rate. The decision to terminate the plaintiff was partially based on a secretly recorded conversation that occurred between the plaintiff and the defendant’s loss prevention specialist. On November 1, 2011, the former employee filed an E.E.O.C. charge of discrimination against her former employer, believing that her termination was the result of age discrimination. Knowing that the plaintiff had hired an attorney, the defendant denied her request for arbitration, and the plaintiff filed its complaint on March 1, 2012. At some point between the arbitration denial on November 7, 2011, and the filing of the complaint, the recording of the plaintiff’s interview was accidentally erased. On March 1, 2012, the defendant employer initiated a litigation hold, but this was too little too late. The damage had already been done, and the plaintiff filed a motion for sanctions for the spoliation of the recorded evidence. Adding insult to injury, the Colorado District Court actually cited to the defendant’s previous spoliation case when laying out the issues of spoliation. According to that decision, the issues of spoliation are: (1) is the evidence relevant to an issue at trial; (2) did the party have a duty to preserve the evidence because it knew or should have known, that litigation was imminent; and (3) was the other party prejudiced by the destruction of the evidence. With regards to the first issue, the court found that the recorded interview was obviously relevant to the case because it played a role in the defendant’s decision to terminate the plaintiff’s employment. Discussing the second element, the court found that the duty to preserve the evidence began on November 7, 2011, because at the time of the arbitration denial the defendant was well-aware litigation was likely. This was the trigger event that marked the defendant’s duty to institute a litigation hold. In fact, evidence existed that the defendant’s labor relations manager was well aware that the plaintiff’s attorney and arbitration request signified an intent to litigate the issue.In terms of prejudice, the court found that the plaintiff was prejudiced by the destruction because several factual disputes existed as to what occurred during the secretly recorded interview. Finding the defendant “highly culpable” for the four month delay, the court also determined that the failure to collect the tape recording from “a key player” was an example of grossly negligent or willful behavior. Even though the defendant may not have shown an intent to destroy the evidence, the company had control over the tape and the responsibility to preserve it. Therefore, the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions was granted. Sanctions have not yet been determined, though, as the court set a future hearing to determine the precise amount of sanctions to impose. While E.E.O.C. charges, like those brought by the plaintiff here, do not always lead to litigation, companies should get in the habit of instituting litigation holds whenever they face charges like these. Even if the chances of litigation appear remote, if possible the company should seek to preserve all pertinent evidence to avoid this type of scenario. In this matter, if the company had issued a litigation hold when it received the E.E.O.C. charge or even upon receiving the arbitration request, it could have avoided the sanctions it will now receive. Companies are risking too much by not immediately preserving all the evidence relevant to the potential case. Here, if the defendant had learned from its previous bad experience with evidence spoliation, it could have instituted better preservation procedures that would have avoided the significant penalties it now confronts. Jeffrey, a Seton Hall University School of Law Student (Class of 2014), focuses his studies primarily in the area of civil practice but has also completed significant coursework concerning the interplay between technology and the legal profession. He was a cum laude graduate of the University of Connecticut in 2011, where he received a B.S. in Business Administration with a concentration in Entrepreneurial Management. Presently, Jeff serves as a legal clerk at a personal injury law firm in Rochelle Park, New Jersey.
In Sekisui Am. Corp. v. Hart, District Court Judge Shira Sheindlin reversed a decision of the lower court and imposed sanctions against a plaintiff for its willful spoliation of electronically stored information (ESI). The critical point on which Judge Scheindlin and the magistrate judge opposed was whether a showing of bad faith is necessary to impose spoliation sanctions or whether a showing that the ESI was willfully destroyed is enough. For Judge Scheindlin, where the spoliation is willful the non-spoliating party need not prove malevolent purpose: It is well-settled in the Second Circuit that: [A] party seeking an adverse inference instruction based on the destruction of evidence must establish (1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party’s claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense. It is the third prong of the test that was squarely tackled in this case—whether the destroyed evidence was relevant and whose burden is it to prove or disprove this factor. Sekisui American Corporation (Sekisui) brought a breach of contract suit against Richard Hart and Marie Louise Trudel-Hart relating to the Sekisui's purchase of America Diagnostica, Inc. (“ADI”), a medical diagnostic products manufacturer of which Mr. Hart was president. During discovery, Sekisui revealed that ESI in the form of e-mail belonging to certain ADI employees (including Mr. Hart) had been deleted or were missing. It later became clear that Sekisui did not institute a litigation hold until more than fifteen months after sending a Notice of Claim to the Harts and in the interim, Sekisui permanently deleted the Hart’s documents and data. By way of explanation, Sekisui maintained that the destruction of Hart’s ESI was largely due to the actions of ADI's former Head of Human Resources (Taylor), who had acted without direction from Sekisui. Sekisui further asserted that Taylor made the unilateral decision to delete Hart’s e-mail for the purpose of freeing up space on the ADI server after determining that Hart was no longer receiving work-related e-mail. Before directing Northeast Computer Services (“NCS”)—the vendor in charge of managing Sekisui’s information technology systems—to permanently delete Hart’s ESI, Taylor apparently “identified and printed any e-mails that she deemed pertinent to the company,” which e-mails, totaling approximately 36,000, were produced to the Harts. Notwithstanding these measures, there was no way for the parties or the court to determine how many e-mails were permanently deleted and lost. In light of these developments, the Harts requested that the court impose sanctions on Sekisui for the spoliation of evidence. Specifically, the Harts requested: 1) an adverse inference jury instruction based on the destruction of Hart’s ESI; and 2) sanctions for spoliation based on the alleged or actual loss of the e-mail folders of several other ADI employees. The Magistrate declined to issue any sanctions, finding that the Harts failed to show any prejudice resulting from the destruction of the ESI (i.e., failed to show that the deleted e-mails were relevant to its defenses). The Magistrate Judge concluded that the destruction of Hart’s ESI “may well rise to the level of gross negligence,” but decided that such destruction was not willful because “there has been no showing that Taylor directed [the e-mails’] erasure for any malevolent purpose.” The magistrate judge declined to presume either relevance or prejudice despite his finding that Sekisui “may” have acted in a grossly negligent manner. Judge Sheindlin, however, took a starkly opposite position. Judge Sheindlin expressly rejected the premise that the law requires a showing of malice in order to establish intentionality with respect to the spoliation of evidence. In the context of an adverse inference analysis, Judge Sheindlin found no "analytical distinction" between destroying evidence in bad faith, i.e., with a malevolent purpose, and destroying it willfully. Accordingly, Sekisui's good faith explanation for the destruction of Hart’s ESI (suggesting that Taylor’s directive was given in order to save space on the server) did not change the fact that the ESI was willfully destroyed. And when evidence is destroyed willfully, the destruction alone “is sufficient circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could conclude that the missing evidence was unfavorable to that party.” On the above rationale, Judge Sheindlin found the Magistrate Judge's decision to be clearly erroneous and contrary to law, and directed that an adverse inference instruction would be provided to the jury. This case underscores the importance of timely and prudently implementing a litigation hold, when such duty attaches. Adam L. Peterson is a student at Seton Hall University School of Law, Class of 2014. Adam is a member of the Seton Hall Law Review and prior to law school Adam was an Environmental Analyst with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.