How can partially complying with discovery and simultaneously altering/destroying documents indicating fault affect the costs of your case in the long term?

Should I Obstruct Discovery?—A Classic Pyrrhic Victory Problem

A pyrrhic victory is defined by winning an early battle but eventually losing the war because of the costs and expenses of that earlier battle. Everyone has heard the phase, “you may have won this battle but I will win the war.” Victory in life, business, and litigation is achieved by obtaining a favorable outcome in the end, and not defined by winning an early battle over discovery where you exhaust resources by attempting to try to obstruct your opponent. Individuals who fail to comply and purposely try to hide or destroy a document can trigger serious legal consequences and significantly hurt their chances for long term success in the litigation.

In Klipsch Group, Inc. v. Big Box Store Ltd., Klipsch Group, Inc. sued Big Box Store (“BBS”) for the spoliation of relevant documents as well as other discovery misdeeds. Klipsch commenced a lawsuit against BBS for infringement of their trademark on a particular headphone in 2012. BBS conceded that they sold some counterfeit headphones but claimed that the sales were innocent and yielded almost no profit.

Klipsch’s main claim against BBS is that they failed to hold or preserve relevant documents pertaining to the pending lawsuit when they became aware of the litigation in August 2012 (a requirement by law).    Every litigant has an obligation to take reasonable measures to preserve all potentially relevant documents once it has noticed that a lawsuit has been filed. Specifically, that obligation may arise even prior to litigation being formally filed if “the party ‘should have known that the evidence may be relevant to future litigation.'” MASTR Adjustable Rate Mortgages Trust 2006-OA2 v. UBS Real Estate Secs., Inc., 295 F.R.D. 77, 82 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (quoting Kronisch v. United States, 150 F.3d 112, 126 (2d Cir. 1998)). Here, BBS should have known about the possibility of future litigations since they were knowingly infringing onto Klipsch’s patent by selling counterfeit headphones.

Klipsch suspected that BBS’ actions warranted, at a minimum, a forensic investigation into their company for documents that could reveal if a larger quantity of counterfeit headphones were sold. Klipsch, correctly believed, that based on the information they received through discovery it seemed that large quantities of documents (emails, transactional documents, sales reports) were missing or altered. This belief was verified during subsequent depositions of BBS employees. The depositions revealed that BBS employees produced contradicting stories than the information revealed in discovery.

In deciding Klipsch Group, Inc. v. Big Box Store Ltd., the court refused to levy a severe punishment against BBS although it was discovered that they had broken numerous discovery laws. Instead, the court took a passive approach and applied “the mildest of available remedies” that allowed the parties leave to pursue additional discovery, except this time with an experienced forensic computer expert.

However, the court could have imposed stricter penalties onto BBS, such as, termination, preclusion of testimony, or a mandatory adverse-inference charge after it discovered BBS’s possible attempt to destroy evidence. Instead, the court chose a more cautious route and tabled those actions until the forensic discovery was completed. This ponders the question, if the aim of any remedy is to deter the parties from engaging in spoliation and restore the aggrieved party to the same position then why not have automatic forensic discovery? The answer? Costs.

Klipsch suggested that the imposition of costs, including fees should be shifted to BBS. The court disagreed and held that the costs would first be borne by Klipsch and could be reallocated or apportioned based on the findings of the expert’s report. The court could better deter abuse of discovery by always imposing costs for forensic experts onto defendants who are found to have wrongfully withheld information requested in discovery. This action and precedent would cause all parties to become forthcoming with unaltered information due to the fear of additional costs levied in litigation.

Ultimately, the expert’s report will produce the information needed for Klipsch to move forward in their litigation against BBS, or it will prove unfruitful and Klipsch will drop their litigation. This entire matter could have been avoided if BBS did not attempt to hide information during discovery. BBS could have avoided a pyrrhic problem by not exhausting valuable resources into possibly altering evidence of the sale of counterfeit headphones. However, this case could be used as future precedent to prevent future companies from pursuing this option as a method of strategy if they automatically shift the costs of forensic experts to the litigant in situations where inaccuracies of discovery occur.

Timothy received his B.A. from Rutgers University in 2011. He began his post-college life working in Trenton, New Jersey at a lobbying and non-profit management organization before attending law school in the fall of 2012. He will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015. Timothy has had a diverse set of experiences during his time in law school and has found his calling in Tax Law.

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