Do false attempts to remedy purposeful destruction of e-mails matter?

Cornell Law and Business Grad Gets Spanked By Judge for Violating Basic Ethics and Evidence Rules

If you are involved in a lawsuit you may not destroy relevant evidence, inadvertently or purposefully, without facing consequences. In this lawsuit, the defendant, who is the owner of the company and a lawyer, destroyed possibly more than 10,000 relevant e-mails after receiving notice of a copyright infringement suit against him. The court found the defendant’s efforts to “remedy” the error disingenuous; the destruction of evidence was found to have been done maliciously and purposefully.

When the litigation commenced, the plaintiffs sent the defendant a document request and repeatedly asked for any and all electronic files, e-mails included, that the defendant had created or sent to others. About a year after the suit had commenced, defendant’s counsel, who later withdrew from the case, notified the plaintiffs that the defendant had ended his account with a third-party web supplier and thus defendant’s website and e-mails were all destroyed. This was done two months before the account was set to expire even though it was already fully paid for. The defendant also admitted to deleting sent e-mails as part of his ordinary practice and did not change that practice after the lawsuit was filed. Furthermore, he also admitted to manually deleting e-mails after and in response to a cease and desist demand, after his deposition, and multiple times during the course of litigation. The court found that he had acted in such a manner to prevent plaintiffs from accessing the e-mails, which were an integral part to the litigation. The defendant’s actions were a clear violation of ethics and evidence rules.

The court found particularly egregious that the defendant, a Cornell law and business graduate, claimed to not know that there was an obligation to maintain all documents. He claimed this even though he had passed the New York State Bar exam and received a document request from the plaintiffs stating which documents were needed for the litigation.  Moreover, the third party web supplier testified that when the defendant originally closed the account, the defendant then called to ensure that the e-mails had been deleted. It was only after the defendant received a deposition notice on the spoliation (the destruction of evidence) that he then called the web supplier to ask if there was any way to retrieve the e-mails. This was nearly a month after he had called to ensure they were fully removed from the systems.

The defendant then reactivated the account only to set it to automatically terminate in less than a month. The third party supplier testified that once the account was terminated there was no way to recover any e-mails…so why did defendant reactivate his account? The court determined that this was done to show a “selective repopulation” of e-mails from the first termination. The defendant conceded that he had manually repopulated the account with e-mails that he was able to obtain from one of his recipients. These e-mails that were now “found” in the reactivated account were merely the ones manually selected for repopulation by the defendant. The court was also thoroughly displeased with the defendant because after the second termination of the account, the defendant repeatedly called the third party supplier in an attempt to create a false record that the supplier had terminated the account and not he himself.

Due to the defendant’s actions, the court not only found that spoliation of evidence had occurred and that the defendant had acted intentionally, but also that the plaintiff was clearly prejudiced by the defendant’s intentional destruction of evidence.  The court thus imposed the harshest sentence allowed against the defendant: a terminating sanction. This sanction is the harshest penalty as it is a punishment for grossly improper litigation behavior that ends the offending party’s participation in suit, usually then dismissing or finding for the opposite side. In this case, judgment was granted to the plaintiff due to the defendant’s intentional destruction of evidence and attempt to create a false record.

What the defendant should have done was save all the e-mails and turn them over to the plaintiffs. Instead, by intentionally destroying evidence and attempting to improperly lay blame, the court imposed the harshest punishment on the defendant. Knowing the risks and punishment involved with intentionally destroying evidence it is unclear why the defendant did what he did.

Ms. Mansour is a Seton Hall University School of Law Student (Class of 2015). She has taken a sampling of courses across various disciplinary areas and participated in a variety of externship programs in addition to being on Legislative Journal. She graduated from Rutgers University with a concentration in Psychology and has her M.A. in Translation and Translation Studies from UNC – Charlotte. She currently is a legal intern for the King’s County District Attorney’s Office.

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Comments (3):

  1. The public policy behind this holding is sound. In this technological age, it would be too easy for litigants to delete electronic documents, such as emails, to prevent their adversaries from securing those electronic documents. Given that all business is conducted online, it is important that a duty is imposed on all businesses to maintain all electronic files.

  2. This just makes good sense. When you receive notice of a suit filed against you, you don’t go around destroying any and all emails. First of all, they are never fully destroyed forever, and second of all, with so many IT experts out there in this day and age, those emails will eventually be recovered. Like the defendant here, don’t tempt fate and don’t risk the condemnation that will come if it’s discovered that you intentionally destroyed relevant information relating to a case you were fully aware of.

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