What is the Lawyer’s Role in Verifying Evidence Provided by a Client to be Turned Over in Discovery?

What are the Consequences of Willful Manipulation of Evidence in Discovery?

Author: Dana Kutzleb
Case Citation: Lawrence v. City of New York, 1:15-cv-8947 (S.D. N.Y. July 27, 2018)
Employee/Personnel/Employer Implicated: Client/Plaintiff, Plaintiff’s Attorney
eLesson Learned: Willful Manipulation of Evidence in Discovery Can Lead to Dismissal
Tweet This: That’s So Meta(data): Staged Photos Grounds for Dismissal in Civil Rights Case

A picture is worth 1,000 words. In the context of a lawsuit, the right picture could be worth much more, millions in fact, because seeing is believing, and there is nothing that convinces a jury like a snapshot of a scene exactly as a party describes. That is exactly what Angela Lawrence was thinking when she gave photos to her attorney to verify her claim that police entered her home without a warrant, threw her to the ground, and violated her civil rights: her allegations of misconduct corroborated by photos showing the state of her apartment when police finally left. A big problem for her, however, is that metadata records when a photo is taken, and these particular photos showing damage allegedly done by officers were taken two years after they left.

In Lawrence v. City of New York, Angela Lawrence brought suit against New York City arising from an incident where police officers allegedly entered her home without a warrant, threw her to the ground, and damaged her property. Her attorney was Jason L. Leventhal, who received what his client said were photographic evidence of damage and converted them into PDFs and produced them to the other side as part of discovery. These photos were staged, however, and Lawrence took the photos two days before she relinquished them to her attorney, about one year after the commencement of her lawsuit and two years after the damage was supposed to have been done.

In her depositions, Ms. Lawrence’s testimony relating to the pictures became contradictory: first, she asserted that a son and a friend took the photos, then that it was only her son, and finally that she had taken some of the photographs herself. Attorneys for the City quickly sought to have the photos produced in their native form. Upon inspection of the metadata, which tracks the time at which a photo is captured, revealed that 67 of the 70 photos were taken nearly two years after the incident was said to have occurred.

The Defendant quickly moved for dismissal, and for Ms. Lawrence and her attorney to be sanctioned, her for the willful manipulation of evidence, and him for failing to verify the story the client told. The District Court was troubled by the attorney’s uncorroborated faith in his client but ultimately ruled that Leventhal, while “careless,” was not sanctionable. Ms. Lawrence did not fare so well, however. The Court was too concerned with the fraud upon the court to allow the case to continue and, pursuant to its powers, dismissed the case in its entirety. The Court denied the Defendant’s request for attorney’s fees and costs, in part because it would be a “hollow victory” because Ms. Lawrence, a single mother who rents an apartment, was of limited means.

Ultimately, a few lessons can be gleaned from this case. First, do not manipulate evidence to be produced in discovery. It undermines the very institution of the courts, and the tracking on technology makes it near-impossible to hide. Second, in this new technology-driven world, attorneys are expected to verify client’s claims when it comes to e-discovery and not blindly accept the representations of their clients. Third, if you sense something, say something. Attorneys for the Defendant trusted their gut when presented with the inconsistent testimony of Ms. Lawrence and sought the reproduction of the photos in question in their native form. Without this instinct, it is possible this fraud never would have been revealed, and a jury could have awarded damages based on manipulated photos.

Dana Kutzleb, a third-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law, focuses her studies in criminal law. Prior to law school, she graduated from Seton Hall University with B.A. degrees in political science and classical studies. In law school, Dana participated in the Seton Hall Center for Social Justice’s Criminal Defense Clinic and will clerk for a presiding criminal judge in the Superior Court of New Jersey upon graduation.

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