What Conduct is Necessary for the Court to Impose a Dispositive Sanction?

What Conduct is Necessary for the Court to Impose a Dispositive Sanction?

In cases involving a large amount of e-discovery, it is common for a litigant to be accused of misplacing or destroying relevant evidence.  When evidence is lost, the court must evaluate whether sanctions are appropriate, and if so, what type of sanctions should be imposed.  In making this determination, the court will consider the following factors: (1) the degree of fault of the spoliation party, (2) the degree of prejudice to the adverse party, and (3) whether there is a less severe punishment that would avoid substantial unfairness to the adverse party while still serving to deter similar spoliation by others in the future.

In Micron Technology, Inc. v. Rambus Inc., the parties sued and countersued for claims relating to patent infringement.  During discovery, the court determined that Rambus destroyed a significant amount of documents relevant to the lawsuit.  Specifically, Rambus engaged in three “shred days” (also known within the company as a “shredding parties”) where evidence was destroyed pursuant to the company’s document retention policy.  Much of this evidence, however, was lost after a litigation hold was in place.

In order to determine if sanctions were appropriate, the court first analyzed whether there was any bad faith on the part of Rambus.  The court explained that bad faith requires a showing that the “spoliating party intended to impair the ability of the potential defendant to defend itself.”  The court found that during the shred days, employees were instructed to be selective about which documents they destroyed.  Employees were told to “expunge documents questioning the patentability of Rambus inventions,” while at the same time to “look for things to keep that would help establish that Rambus had intellectual property.”  Further, Rambus employees testified that they were destroying documents in preparation for the “upcoming battle” of litigation.  Ultimately, the court determined that Rambus destroyed documents in bad faith.

Next, the court examined whether Rambus’s bad faith shredding parties caused prejudice to its adversary.  Prejudice “requires a showing that the spoliation materially affects the substantial rights of the adverse party and is prejudicial to the presentation of its case.”  The court explained that when bad faith exists, the spoliating party bears the “heavy burden” of showing a lack of prejudice.  The court explained that Rambus failed to meet this heavy burden and enumerated multiple claims and defenses that were prejudiced by Rambus’s bad faith destruction of evidence.

Finally, the court considered whether a dispositive sanction is an appropriate sanction under these circumstances. The court explained that when there is “clear and convincing evidence that the spoliation was done in bad faith and was prejudicial to the opposing party, then dismissal may be an appropriate sanction” as long as a lesser sanction would serve as an adequate deterrent.

The court considered whether an award of attorney’s fees or other monetary sanctions would be appropriate, but ultimately rejected these “relatively mild sanctions [that were] disproportionate to the degree of fault and prejudice at hand.”  Next, the court analyzed whether an adverse jury instruction would be a proper sanction.  The court rejected this sanction as being inadequate punishment and deterrence in light of Rambus’s extensive bad faith spoliation.  Lastly, the court considered whether an evidentiary sanction would be an adequate remedy.  This sanction would foreclose Rambus from offering any evidence related to the subject matter of the destroyed documents.  Once again, the court found this sanction to be unsatisfactory due to Rambus’s extensive destruction of evidence.   Therefore, after considering the extraordinary circumstances of this case, along with the lesser sanctions available, the court found that the only appropriate sanction was to hold Rambus’s patent-in-suit claims unenforceable against its adversary.

In sum, the court held that a dispositive sanction is appropriate when a party destroys evidence in bad faith, the destruction is prejudicial to the adversary, and no lesser sanction would be appropriate to punish and deter similar action.  It should be noted that dispositive sanctions are rare, but nonetheless are warranted when “destruction of evidence is of the worst type: intentional, widespread, advantage-seeking, and concealed.”

E-DiscoParty, a Seton Hall University School of Law graduate (class of 2014), served on the executive board of the Seton Hall Law Review and is a member of the Interscholastic Moot Court Board.  E-DiscoParty currently clerks for a Justice on the Supreme Court of New Jersey. 

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