When are Issue Preclusion Sanctions Appropriate?

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

The plaintiff and the defendants both sold Belly Bands, the plaintiff alleged that both Belly Bands were maternity band used to hold up pants. The plaintiff previously filed cases against the defendants for trademark infringement, patent infringement and unfair competition in 2006 and 2008, but those cases were later resolved by settlement agreements. In 2013, the plaintiff filed the recent action alleging that the defendants breached both settlement agreements by selling and advertising Belly Bands.

During discovery, the defendants produced some electronically stored information (ESI). The parties contested the sufficiency of the defendants’ ESI production. On December 20, 2013, the court ordered the the defendant to produce all documents referring to customer comments or complaints regarding the defendants’ Belly Band and disclose its search methods within thirty days. On January 21, 2014, the defendants issued a declaration stating that they were in Europe when the court issued this order, and could not immediately comply. They also stated that they would need a computer expert to help them retrieve deleted customer e-mails. On January 3, 2014, the defendants retained a computer expert. On February 4, 2014, the defendant told the plaintiff that they found additional ESI, but did not produce the ESI at that time.

The plaintiff filed a motion on February 10, 2014, for sanctions against the defendants for failure to comply with the court order within the thirty day timeframe, seeking: attorneys fees and costs associated with the defendants failure to comply; an order that the defendants disclose all hard drives and provide the plaintiff with access to all email accounts; and an order precluding the defendants “from opposing the plaintiff’s claim that the defendants’ Belly Bands were used to hold up [pants,] from opposing the plaintiff’s damage calculations, and from introducing any opposing evidence wit respect to the damages calculation.” At the time the motion was filed, the defendants still had not produced any additional ESI. Within two weeks after the motion was filed, the defendants produced over 1,000 new electronic documents.

The court began its analysis by noting that courts may sanction a party for discovery abuses pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the court’s inherent powers. Rule 37(b)(2)(C) states a court must order a party who failed to comply with a discovery order to pay the opposing party’s reasonable expenses associated with failure to comply, including attorney’s fees, “unless the failure was substantially justified or other circumstances make an award of expenses unjust.” Sanctions are permissible regardless of the reason for the party’s noncompliance. Moreover, willfulness, fault, or bad faith are not required to impose Rule 37 sanctions, unless the sanction is dismissal. “However, in order for the sanction to comport with due process, the sanction imposed under Rule 37 must be specifically related to the particular claim which was at issue in the order to provide discovery.” Rule 37 sanctions should only be imposed when the party’s failure to comply prejudiced the nonoffending party.

Furthermore, the court may impose three types of sanctions pursuant to its inherent powers specifically when there has been spoliation of evidence, including: “1) the court may instruct the jury that it may infer that evidence made unavailable by a party was unfavorable to that party; 2) a court can exclude witness testimony based on the spoliated evidence; and 3) the court can dismiss the claim of the party responsible for the spoliation.” “In determining what sanctions are appropriate in cases of spoliation, courts consider: 1) the degree of fault of the party who altered or destroyed the evidence; 2) the degree of prejudice suffered by the opposing party; and 3) whether there is a lesser sanction that will avoid substantial unfairness to the opposing party.” The chosen sanction should be “determined on a case-by-case- basis, and . . .commensurate to the spoliating party’s motive or degree of fault in destroying the evidence.

First, the court held that the plaintiff was entitled to an award of monetary sanctions under Rule 37. the defendants failed to substantially justify why they couldn’t produce all responsive documents within the court ordered thirty day timeframe. The fact that the defendants were in Europe when the court issued the Order did constitute substantial justification to excuse their noncompliance. the defendant did not alert the court of their travel plans, request an extension, instruct their office manager to comply with the Order, or offer a reason as to why they did not immediately retain a computer expert to assist them in complying with the Order. Further, even once additional ESI was discovered, the defendants failed to produce said ESI for almost a month. Thus, the defendants’ actions prejudiced the plaintiff by forcing the plaintiffs to subpoena third parties for responsive documents, by preventing the completion of necessary depositions, and by having to file the instant motion.

Moreover, the court held that the defendant must disclose its hard drives and provide the plaintiff with access to all its email accounts, subject to the defendants’ privileges or privacy interests. The court found that there was real danger that evidence on the the defendants’ hard drive had been destroyed. Further, the defendants made an array of false statements, such as claiming they produced all responsive documents when they in fact had not, and claiming that no documents had been deleted during the time of litigation when overwhelming evidence indicated otherwise. The court found that the plaintiff needed access to the defendants hard drive to prevent any more documents from being destroyed and ensure all responsive documents were produced. Additionally, based upon the same reasoning, the court granted the plaintiff access to all of the defendants’ email accounts, including Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and eBay accounts.

However, the court held that the plaintiff failed to prove that the court should prohibit the defendants “from opposing the plaintiff’s claim that the defendants’ Belly Bands were used to hold up [pants,] from opposing the plaintiff’s damage calculations, and from introducing any opposing evidence wit respect to the damages calculation.” The court stated “preclusion remedies are a harsh remedy that should be imposed only in extreme circumstances.” Here, given that the plaintiff obtained documents from third parties and that the plaintiff may recover additional responsive ESI from the defendants’ harddrives and email accounts, the plaintiff cannot—at this time—demonstrate that the defendants’ conduct “impaired the plaintiff’s ability to go to trial or threatened to interfere with the rightful decision of the case.” However, the court denied the plaintiff’s request for preclusion sanctions without prejudice, thereby allowing the plaintiff to request preclusion sanctions should the plaintiff’s search of the defendants’ harddrives and email accounts reveal that the defendants knowingly destroyed evidence and that destruction threatened the plaintiff’s ability to secure a just outcome.

Thus, when a court orders ESI production, parties would be wise to immediately comply with the order, or immediately inform the court of substantial reasons as to why compliance will be delayed.


Aaron Cohen, a Seton Hall University School of Law student (Class of 2015), focused his studies in the area of Family Law. He participated in the Seton Hall Center for Social Justice’s Family Law Clinic. After graduation, he will clerk for a judge in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Division. Prior to law school, he was a 2011 cum laude graduate of The George Washington University Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, where he earned a B.A. in Psychology.

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