When will a court impose sanctions for spoliation of evidence?

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.

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