Lawson IV: When Negligence is a Good Thing

Lawson IV: When Negligence is a Good Thing

Lawson IV is a recent installment in the court’s attempt to clean up one client’s extremely bad behavior.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Lawson debacle, the facts were set forth in Lawson v. Sun Microsystems, Inc., 2009 WL 5842136 (S.D. Ind. Oct. 16, 2009) (“Lawson I”­) and again reiterated in Lawson IV.  In the course of an ongoing suit, Defendants produced a hard drive that contained both privileged and non-privileged materials to the Plaintiff.  The Defendants included a letter accompanying the hard drive that indicated there were privileged materials that were password-protected.

In order to prepare for depositions, Plaintiff’s counsel put the Plaintiff in charge of organizing all of the material on the hard drive.  Despite the letter, the Plaintiff accessed the documents.  He promptly notified his attorney in an email titled “Password protected files – Unlocked!” and again referred to “unlocked documents” in another email.  Plaintiff’s counsel moved to be released from representing him, but the damage was already done.  The Defendants moved for sanctions, and the Plaintiff and two of his attorneys were ordered to pay over $50,000.

The attorneys objected to their portions of the sanctions, arguing that the magistrate judge had not found that they had engaged in willful misconduct or bad faith.  Defendants argued that the attorneys should be responsible for a portion of the sanctions because they had acted wantonly, violated state rules of professional conduct, and Defendants had suffered harm as a result of abuses in the discovery process.

Ultimately, the court sustained the firm’s objection and held that the attorneys’ conduct did not rise to a level of intentional misconduct.  Because the attorneys had not actually read the emails, they could not be sanctioned for failing to notify the Defendants of their client’s actions.  Though the attorneys were careless, they could not be sanctioned for mere negligence.

This was a dubious win for the Plaintiff’s attorneys—while they saved themselves some money, they didn’t really save their reputations.  Still, for all of the attorneys out there who fail to stay in the loop, the lesson is a positive one:  carelessness won’t get you clients, but at least it won’t get you sanctioned.

MAH is a third-year student at Seton Hall University School of Law who will be clerking for a New Jersey Superior Court Criminal Judge after graduation.

Comments (1):

  1. Giving anybody a box with a flimsy lock and telling them not to look at the documents that pertain to them, in the box will have a predictable outcome 99% of the time!
    I wonder how long it took the Plaintiff to find out that the passwords were:
    The lesson: cleverness in law need not be very sophisticated to be effective.

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