When will the failure to preserve emails and audio recordings result in an adverse inference jury instruction?

When Can Spoliation Result in an Adverse Inference Jury Instruction? Where there was an Obligation to Preserve, a Culpable State of Mind, and Destruction of Relevant Evidence.

Employers should take note: erasing and taping over messages that relate to a fired employee is never a good idea. Employers who engage in this type of practice will never escape the wrath of a judge when the fired employee inevitably brings a wrongful termination. Eventually, such action catches up with the defending company and they will have to pay a steep price.

Take, for instance, the case Novick v. AXA Network, LLC. The plaintiff was asking the judge for sanctions to be imposed on the defendants because he claimed that the defendants spoliated audio recordings and emails from an eight-week stretch, which ran from late August until early November 2006. The defendants admitted that recordings from this time period were likely erased and taped over.

The problem here is that this stretch of time covers the time directly before and directly after Novick’s termination. It should seem obvious to anyone that a company’s failing to preserve any recordings regarding a former employee’s termination is a terrible idea and will likely hurt one’s case in court. It should instead be common sense that when an employee is terminated, and certainly when that termination is contentious, a lawsuit is foreseeable.  Thus, the employer should take care to preserve anything that might come into play at trial.

Novick asked the judge to sanction the defendants for the spoliation of emails. The defendants could not produce any emails between the two employees at AXA Network, who took over Novick’s accounts, and Novick’s former clients. If these employees were involved with Novick’s clients after Novick was fired, it is only logical that there would have been emails taking place between these employees and those clients! Nevertheless, the defendants could not produce a single e-mail.

Sanctions can be imposed on a party for spoliation in violation of a court order under Rule 37(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or, where there has been no violation of a court order, a judge can impose sanctions for spoliation under the court’s “inherent power to control litigation.” West v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 167 F.3d 776, 779 (2d Cir. 1999) (emphasis added). For the court to exercise its inherent power, there must have been a showing of bad faith. United States v. Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters, 948 F.2d 1338, 1345 (2d Cir. 1991).

The Novick court in this case found that the defendants did spoliate the audio recordings because they were notified in October 2006 to preserve the recordings for future litigation and to produce those recordings  to the plaintiff. In addition, the defendants provided no reason for why or how these recordings were missing.

Unsurprisingly, the court suggested that such behavior indicates that the company acted deliberately and therefore possessed a culpable state of mind. The defendants acted in bad faith. The court did not find that the defendants spoliated the email messages, but it still believes they acted in bad faith with respect to the production of the emails because the company failed to search one of their email archives for months due to what was claimed as “human error.” This was clearly a delay tactic, further warranting sanctions.

The court invoked its inherent power to control litigation because the defendants acted in bad faith, employed delay tactics, caused substantial costs to be incurred by the plaintiff, and wasted the court’s time. The court imposed an adverse inference jury instruction. Adverse inference instructions can be imposed against a party who had an obligation to preserve evidence at the time it was destroyed, who destroyed the evidence with a culpable state of mind, and who destroyed evidence that was relevant to the opposing party’s claim or defense. Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., 306 F.3d 99, 107 (2d Cir. 2002).

The clear takeaway from this case is that it is better to be safe than sorry; if it is reasonable that a lawsuit may be brought against you, take all measures to preserve any evidence that might have anything to do with that future case. Preserving the evidence will not hurt, but failing to do so will.

Logan Teisch received his B.A. in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2012. He is now a student at Seton Hall University School of Law (Class of 2015), focusing his studies in the area of criminal law. Logan’s prior experiences include interning with the Honorable Verna G. Leath in Essex County Superior Court as well as interning with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.

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