How should a litigating party treat relevant electronic documents owned and held by a non-party independent contractor?

Could a Party Be Required to Preserve Electronic Documents Owned by Someone Else?

Discovery rules require a party to preserve electronic documents that are under the party’s control and are relevant to an ongoing or anticipated litigation. Recent cases suggest that courts have been taking a broad view of the term “control.” Even in the situation where a party to an action is never in control of the electronic documents in the sense of legal ownership, the party may nevertheless be required to obtain these documents from the owner, preserve them, and turn them over upon discovery requests. The test

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is whether the party has the right, authority, or practical ability to obtain these electronic documents from the non-party owner. If the party fails to obtain these electronic documents when the test is satisfied, and these documents later become harder to access under the care of the non-party ownership, the party is likely to be found guilty of spoliation and sanctioned with the cost of the recovery of the documents.

In Mazzei v. Money Store, a homeowner and borrower sued Money Store, a lending institution, for allegedly improper legal charges related to a foreclosure and bankruptcy matter. Money Store contracted the foreclosure service to Fidelity. Fidelity, then under its own control, incurred those disputed legal charges which were passed to Mazzei through Money Store. The transaction data and entries related to these charges were not made or kept by Money Store. Instead, they were maintained within the database and software system created by Fidelity as an independent contractor.

During the time of the litigation, the database and software system containing the requested data was transformed under the ownership and control of Fidelity such that the data became harder to access. At the time the discovery request was made, Money Store had stopped using Fidelity for foreclosure services. Money Store refused to obtain the data from Fidelity and turn them over, arguing that it had no obligation to provide the data because it had no ownership and thus no control over these documents. Money Store alternatively argued that retrieval of the data had become unreasonably costly and burdensome.

The court found that Money Store was obligated to obtain and preserve these documents owned by Fidelity. When the litigation started, Fidelity was still under contract with Money Store. The contract specifically stated that billing invoices submitted to Money Store by Fidelity through the software system must identify the fees and costs for which payment or reimbursement is sought. Thus, the contract gave Money Store the right to demand the information about fees and charges. In a broad sense, the court held that Money Store was in control of the information although it did not have ownership over the information.

Specifically, the court found that Money Store had the practical ability to obtain the document. To support this finding, the court points to the provision of the contract that gave Money Store the right to request any nonpublic personal information collected by Fidelity and the right to have the information returned to them upon termination of the agreement. This overrides any claim that such information is confidential. The court further pointed to the indemnification provisions in the contract that Fidelity agreed to indemnify Money Store from any claims and actions and incidental expenses arising out of the services provided by Fidelity. Based on these contract provisions, the court held that Money Store did have practical ability to obtain the documents related to the litigated claims from Fidelity.

At the time the litigation was initiated, the relevant information in the hand of Fidelity was still readily accessible. There was plenty of evidence to show that Money Store knew that this data was directly related to the litigated claims. However, Money Store did not try to obtain the data from Fidelity. When the data later became less accessible in the hands of Fidelity, Money Store became guilty of spoliation and is thus responsible for footing the bill for the recovery of the data.

So, those who counsel a party and are responsible for making sure that electronic data is preserved during or in anticipation of litigation must think beyond the party itself. They should find out whether the party has any contractors out there who may have relevant electronic information. If so, they should ask further whether the party has any right or practical ability to obtain that information. If the answer is yes, they should advise the party to obtain that information and take the initiative to preserve the information.

Gang Chen is a Senior Segment Manager in the Intellectual Property Business Group of Alcatel-Lucent, and a fourth-year evening student at Seton Hall University School of Law focusing on patent law.

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