In Arrowhead Capital Fin. Ltd. v. Seven Arts Entertainment, Inc. 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126545 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 16, 2016), District Judge Katherine Polk Failla imposed significant sanctions upon both the Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”) and the lawyer for defendant Seven Arts Entertainment Inc. (“SAE”).

Background

Arrowhead Capital Finance, Ltd. (“Arrowhead”) sued SAE in 2014 seeking to enforce a judgment it had little ability to enforce because all of the assets held by the debtor had been sold to SAE.  SAE filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the Court lacked personal jurisdiction.  The Court denied the motion pending discovery.

In a letter dated September 21, 2015, Plaintiff claimed SAE and its counsel had engaged in various misconduct during discovery.  The violations alleged to have been undertaken to slow down discovery included:

  • SAE inflated their document productions with nonresponsive documents;
  • SAE refused to produce critical responsive documents;
  • SAE’s discovery responses were incomplete and replete with improper objections; and
  • SAE refused to produce key witnesses for deposition.

The Court held a conference to address Arrowhead’s complaints.  During that conference, SAE’s counsel acknowledged he had not reviewed the discovery responses interposed by his client and merely forwarded to his attorney the materials he received from SAE’s CEO.

As a result of this admission, the Court stated it had no confidence SAE would meet its discovery obligations and ordered SAE’s CEO to personally appear to testify concerning the alleged misconduct.  The Court also ordered SAE to produce the responsive documents Arrowhead requested but never received.

Notwithstanding the Court’s various orders, SAE refused to produce witnesses for deposition or produce the required documents.

Because the Court deemed SAE’s CEO to be directing counsel not to comply with the Court’s orders, Arrowhead moved for sanctions.  In response, the CEO testified his offices were “paperless” and the third-party server upon which documents were maintained was destroyed as a result of SAE’s failure to pay its bills (which he claimed was unintentional).  The CEO also cast blame on various staff people to whom he had purportedly delegated the task of complying with the Court’s orders.

The Court concluded SAE was willfully making misrepresentations to the Court and showed “flagrant disregard for” Court orders for the purpose of withholding information from Arrowhead.  As a result, the Court held SAE forfeited its jurisdictional arguments due to non-compliance with Court orders.  The Court further determined a spoliation instruction would be provided in connection with any claims ultimately submitted to the jury.  Defendants’ CEO also was ordered to pay Arrowhead’s costs in association with bringing its various motions and was ordered to retain separate legal counsel to conduct a thorough review of SAE’s files to assess whether additional responsive information remained to be produced.  Defendants’ counsel, who was deemed complicit in the violations,  was ordered to pay a portion of Plaintiff’s costs.

Conclusion

This decision reinforces that counsel may not turn a blind eye to a client’s behavior nor may counsel simply follow the instructions of clients.  Rather, counsel has a duty to ensure that good faith efforts are taken to comply with discovery obligations.  This case also reminds us that the amended Rule 37(e) does not lessen punishments for willful or intentional e-discovery misconduct.  Rather, bad faith behavior will be met with sanctions, not only for the party, but for counsel as well.

Clear-View Technologies, Inc. v John H. Rasnick, et al (2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63579), reads as a list of the things you do not want to do if you want to avoid spoliation sanctions. The underlying dispute involved the development of an alcohol tracking product, and certain shareholders’ alleged conspiracy to steal the technology and start a new company.

The defendants, however, forgot they had discovery obligations (or they were not properly informed about them by their attorneys). After being on notice of a potential litigation, through a text message where they were threatened with a lawsuit, the defendants failed to take any steps to preserve discovery. Instead, they continued to delete emails and dispose of technology (like iPhones, iPads and computers). They also never even tried to do a fulsome search for responsive materials, but still certifying that they searched for and produced all of their ESI.

Defendants’ discovery failures led the court to require the defendants to turn over all of their devices to an outside consultant to review. This is where things went from bad to worse. The consultant found almost 2,600 relevant documents, totaling almost 12,500 pages of materials the defendants did not produce (12,000 more pages than the defendants entire production). The forensic examiners also found that four separate optimization and computer cleaning programs was run on one of the laptops (including “crap cleaner”) which can be used to “wipe specific files and programs.” This was done six-days after the filing of the motion to compel. The defendants also purged outlook files from an external hard drive and purportedly were unable to provide passwords for certain email accounts.

All in all, the court was not accepting the defendants’ actions lightly. The court issued an adverse inference sanction and over $200,000 in attorney’s fees (though it declined to issue a termination sanction regarding defendants’ counterclaim). Adding insult to injury, the defendants stiffed the forensic expert, even though the court had ordered that they pay its fees. The court therefore issued an order to show cause as to why additional sanctions should not be issued.

A recent decision from the United States District Court of the District of Connecticut demonstrates the need for proper custodian interview before responding to discovery requests. Electrified Discounters, Inc. v MI Technologies, Inc. (2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64950) involved a dispute over sales of replacement lamps for rear projector televisions and front projectors, via online marketplaces like Amazon.com.

The plaintiff alleged trademark infringement and related claims. The defendant counterclaimed seeking cancellation of the trademark and brought a separate action against the plaintiff’s principals. The two actions were consolidated. The problems arose with plaintiff’s discovery responses.

The plaintiff’s deposition testimony contradicted its discovery responses. For example, the plaintiff repeatedly responded that it did not maintain certain records, but during its deposition testimony its witnesses testified that the records were maintained in a QuickBooks database. This testimony also contradicted the information supplied in opposition to the defendant’s motion to compel.

The court reviewed 22 different requests for production, finding that each response was inadequate. The court did not place specific blame for these inconsistencies, but required that the plaintiff provide its counsel with access to its emails (which it was required to stop deleting), and image its ESI, including hard drives and QuickBooks files. The court further required plaintiff and its counsel to examine these records, provide all non-privileged responsive documents and information and a sworn statement that all responsive discovery has been produced. The court also required that the plaintiff show cause why the movant should not be awarded its attorney’s fees incurred in making the motion.

In a previous post we discussed generally the idea of a cooperative discovery process and highlighted how the proposed amendments to the Federal Rules embrace this principal (see, e.g., proposed amendments to Federal Rule Civil Procedure [“FRCP”] 1).  Here, we discuss how the concept of a cooperative discovery process– even apart from the specific mandates in the FRCP – is expected by the Courts.

Consider, for example, the several districts that have adopted local rules and standards for e-discovery that promote cooperation.  In the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York, for example, “[c]ounsel are expected to cooperate with each other, consistent with the interests of their clients, in all phases of the discovery process” (Local Rule 26.4).  Additionally, the Seventh Circuit, the Southern District of Illinois, the Northern District of California, and other federal Courts have adopted similar rules and guidelines. And, as recent developments in case law have shown (see, e.g., Boston Scientific Corp. v. Lee, 2014 WL 3851157 [N.D. Cal. 2014]), counsel is wise to adopt a cooperative approach to the discovery process.  Indeed, clients are best served by an attorney who is a master of dialogue rather than simply a master of debate.

In Boston Scientific, the Company brought suit against a former employee who began employment with a competitor immediately after resigning from Boston Scientific.  The new employer, after learning about the lawsuit, segregated defendant’s laptop and sent it to a third party e-discovery vendor.  Plaintiff sought forensic images of two laptops; the first that was initially segregated and a replacement laptop, both of which the former employee had been using.  As confirmed by the vendor, the second laptop contained trade secrets and other confidential information from a previous user. When the employer offered to have the first laptop reviewed for pertinent information, Boston Scientific declined the offer.   Thereafter, the court held that neither laptop was discoverable.  Not surprisingly, in the face of this ruling Boston Scientific sought promptly to accept the previous offer which the court would not allow.  The court notably stated:

“This case illustrates a recurring problem in all civil discovery, … A party demands the sun, moon and stars in a document request or interrogatory, refusing to give even a little bit. The meet and confer required by a court in advance of a motion is perfunctory at best, with no compromise whatsoever. But when the parties appear before the court, the recalcitrant party possesses newfound flexibility and a willingness to compromise. Think Eddie Haskell singing the Beaver’s praises to June Cleaver, only moments after giving him the business in private.”

Here, had counsel for Boston Scientific engaged in a cooperative approach to the discovery process, undoubtedly Boston Scientific would have been better served and likely counsel would have maintained credibility in the eyes of the Court.*

*For other decisional law illustrating the Courts’ frustrations with obstreperous or unreasonable discovery anticssee also Brown v. Tellermate Holdings Ltd., 2014 WL 2987051 (S.D. Ohio 2014); Straight Path IP Group, Inc. v. Blackberry Ltd., 2014 WL 3401723 (N.D. Cal. 2014); In re Domestic Drywall Antitrust Litig., 2014 WL 1909260 (E.D. Pa. 2014).

A little more than three years ago, federal Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Peck (SDNY), issued a seminal decision in Da Silva Moore v. Publicis Groupe & MSL Group, 11 Civ. 1279 (February 24, 2012).  Indeed, in that ruling, Judge Peck sent a message that predictive coding and computer assisted review is an appropriate tool that should be “seriously considered for use” in large data-volume cases and attorneys “no longer have to worry about being the ‘first’ or ‘guinea pig’ for judicial acceptance of computer-assisted review.”    Judge Peck went on to encourage parties to cooperate with one another and to consider disclosing the initial “seed” sets of documents.  In doing so, he recognized that sharing of seed sets is often frowned upon by counselors who argue that these sets often contain information wholly unrelated to the action, much of which may be confidential or sensitive.  Specifically Judge Peck stated: “This Court highly recommends that counsel in future cases be willing to at least discuss, if not agree to, such transparency [with seed sets] in the computer-assisted review process.”

Since Da Silva,  many cases have successfully employed various forms of technology assisted review (“TAR”) to limit the scope of documents actually reviewed by attorneys.  It is well-embraced that the upside of utilizing TAR is to make document review a more manageable and affordable task.  Moreover, Courts routinely embrace TAR for document review  See, e.g., Rio Tinto PLC v. Vale S.A., S.D.N.Y. No. 14 Civ. 3042 (RMB)(AJP) (March 3, 2015) (“the case law has developed to the point that it is now black letter law that where the producing party wants to utilize TAR for document review, courts will permit it”).

In Rio Tinto, Judge Peck revisited his DaSilva decision. And, while most of Rio Tinto discusses the merits of transparency and cooperation in the development of seed sets, Judge Peck notes there is no definitive answer on the extent of transparency and cooperation required.   Citing to his opinion in DaSilva and other cases, Judge Peck makes clear that he “generally believe[s] in cooperation” in connection with seed set development. Nevertheless, Judge Peck notes there is no absolute requirement of transparent cooperation.  Rather, “requesting parties can insure that training and review was done appropriately by other means, such as statistical estimation of recall at the conclusion of the review as well as by whether there are gaps in the production, and quality control review of samples from the documents categorized as now responsive.” (emphasis added)

The decision goes on to emphasize that courts and litigants should not hold predictive coding to a so-called “higher standard” than keyword searches or linear review. Such a standard could very well dissuade counsel and clients from using predictive coding, which would be a step backward for discovery practice overall.

Novick v. AXA Network, LLC, 2014 WL 5364100 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 22, 2014)

In this contract dispute case, the plaintiff made a motion for sanctions under Rule 37(b)(2) requesting the court strike the defendants’ answer and counterclaims, allow a negative spoliation inference against the defendants and order a monetary fine due to the plaintiff’s “repeated attempts to obtain the at-issue discovery and defendants’ failure to preserve the same.” The plaintiff alleged that the defendants had significantly delayed the discovery process by providing largely irrelevant emails, by withholding emails that were unfavorable to the defendants, by failing to preserve relevant emails and by failing to preserve 10 weeks of audio recordings that constituted “approximately one-third of the entire time period ordered.” The court found that “the defendants acted in bad faith respecting their production of e-mail messages, employed delay tactics, caused substantial costs to be incurred by the plaintiff and wasted the [c]ourt’s time.” The court also found that the defendants had acted in bad faith regarding the missing audio recordings. Thus, the court imposed an adverse inference jury instruction concerning the audio recordings, awarded the plaintiff reasonable attorney’s fees and ordered that certain depositions be retaken at the defendants’ expense.

In Armstrong Pump, Inc. v. Hartman, No. 10-CV-446S, 2014 WL 6908867 (W.D.N.Y. Dec. 9, 2014), discovery in the breach of contract case was contentious, protracted and resulted in a multiple motions to compel, the first of which the court granted in favor of the defendant.  At that time, the court warned the plaintiff “not to engage in piecemeal production of materials it has located that are responsive to Optimum Energy’s unobjectionable requests.”  Not heeding the Court’s warning, Plaintiff subsequently produced documents on nine separate occasions.  At that time, Defendant learned, for the first time, of a “five-step development process,” that it believed was highly relevant to its claims in the case, and which caused it to believe that the plaintiff was withholding relevant documents from production.  Accordingly, Defendant filed a second motion to compel and sought sanctions for Plaintiff’s discovery behavior, including its delayed production of relevant information. 

The court granted in part Defendant’s second motion to compel and, in light of Plaintiff’s continued piecemeal production coupled with other discovery failures, fashioned a “new and simpler approach” to discovery, including the identification of 13 search terms/phrases to be utilized when searching “ALL [of Plaintiff’s] corporate documents, files, communications, and recordings. . .”  The court also ordered the plaintiff and all counsel of record to file a sworn statement confirming its “good-faith effort to identify sources of documents; that a complete search of those sources for each of the [identified] phrases occurred; and that the search results [were] furnished to [Defendant].”

In deciding the motion, the Court expressed its frustration with “the continual and growing animosity between the parties, an animosity that has slowed the progress of the case and that has required repeated judicial intervention.”  The court also noted that despite the bickering between parties, neither had ever filed a motion for a protective order “[n]or ha[d] any party foregone passive-aggressive snarking and filed a formal motion under Rule 11 or 28 U.S.C. § 1927 to complain about material misrepresentations in motion papers.”  “Instead,” the court continued, “the parties would prefer that the Court forget what the actual claims are in this case and start obsessing over details . . .” 

Reasoning that “[a] lawsuit is supposed to be a search for the truth, and the tools employed in that search are the rules of discovery,” that “[o]ur adversary system relies in large part on the good faith and diligence of counsel and the parties in abiding by these rules and conducting themselves and their judicial business honestly” and noting that “Rule 37 helps enforce proper conduct,”  the court indicated it would “fashion a new and simpler approach to discovery that keeps the core of Optimum’s counterclaims in mind.”  The court went on to state that it had “noticed” “[i]n the various discovery documents attached to the motion papers” that “certain phrases appear that inevitably refer to or hint at [the at-issue technology]” and that the phrases “open the door to a more objective discovery process that leaves Armstrong no room for gamesmanship.”  Thus, after identifying the terms/phrases specifically, the court ordered:

For a period starting from January 1, 2004 through the present time, Armstrong must search ALL corporate documents, files, communications, and recordings for EACH of the above phrases. Armstrong will maintain a list of every server, computer, file room, or other place searched, and a list of all positive search results. For each positive result, Armstrong will procure a full copy of the document in question. Armstrong also will furnish a complete and sworn description of its document retention policies, if any, from January 1, 2004 through the present time. In the specific instance of [REDACTED] reports, if for any reason a product did not have a written report for a certain stage or did not go through all five stages then someone at Armstrong with appropriate knowledge or expertise will provide a sworn statement explaining why. When the search is complete, a representative of Armstrong and all of Armstrong’s counsel of record will file a sworn statement confirming that Armstrong made a good-faith effort to identify sources of documents; that a complete search of those sources for each of the above phrases occurred; and that the search results have been furnished to Optimum. All of this must occur on or before April 1, 2015, with absolutely no exceptions or extensions. Failure to comply will lead to sanctions under Rule 37(b)(2)(A).

The court also warned Defendant that it would not hesitate to impose the same approach on its discovery and ordered that counsel of record file, by a date certain, a sworn statement that all discovery requests had been fulfilled, or a motion for a protective order. 

In light of this judicial reminder that courts favor a collaborative and efficient resolution of matters, and that Judges can, and will impose sanctions for egregious discovery violations, counsel should take seriously their obligations to be cooperative, diligent and timely during the discovery process irrespective of the courthouse in which we practice.

 

In today’s litigious world, discovery is costly and can be perilous. Exacerbating this landscape is the fact that sanctions are imposed for discovery violations more than any other litigation error. Not surprisingly, avoidable discovery mistakes lead to client dissatisfaction.  Below are ten critical tips to avoid discovery sanctions and to remain compliant with discovery obligations.

  1. Implement Timely Litigation Holds Be sure your legal hold is implemented as soon as litigation is reasonably anticipated. Be certain that your hold notice is sufficiently broad, is sent to the right custodians, receipt is acknowledged, and it is updated as needed.
  2. Conduct Key Custodian Interviews A lawyer cannot rely only on the hold notice.  Rather, custodial interviews with key players, IT personnel and anyone else with information relevant to the dispute or the client’s network architecture should be conducted.  Minimally, these interviews will confirm the suspension of auto-delete protocols and will help identify all relevant information for preservation and collection.
  3. Be Proactive Because in today’s technology-intensive world there are substantial quantities of ESI, if you want to receive a document demand before preserving and collecting documents, you may not have time to respond to those demands.  Anticipate document demands so you can start the interview, identification and collection process.  You will have a better handle on the documents (what does and does not exist), and your client’s story such that you will be in the best position to comply with discovery and meet discovery challenges.
  4. Honesty is the Best Policy When Dealing with the Courts and Opposing Parties Never make a factual representation about the status of preservation, collection, or production efforts without confirming the underlying facts with original sources. While a client will rarely mislead their lawyer intentionally, it is common for clients to have incomplete information or operate under a misunderstanding of fact when information is communicated second- hand.   Moreover, courts and opposing parties understand that mistakes can happen at various stages of the discovery process.  Such issues must be addressed immediately and head-on.  Usually the optimal strategy is full disclosure along with remedial measures.
  5. Always Budget Obtain a realistic budget before proceeding with ESI collection processing and/or review.  This is a costly area of litigation and lawyers must manage client expectations. Update the budget as needed to accommodate changes attributable to collection volume or other factors.
  6. You Get More Bees with Honey… Seek a cooperative approach irrespective of how unpleasant or unreasonable opposing counsel may be. Indeed, a cooperative approach to discovery will invariably reduce disputes and expenses. Take the higher road and assume that every email and letter you write to opposing counsel may end up in front of the judge, so adopt a cooperative approach and reasonable tone in all communications with opposing counsel.    As one of our earlier blog posts showed (see Armstrong Pump, Inc. v. Hartman, No. 10-CV-446S, 2014 WL 6908867 (W.D.N.Y. Dec. 9, 2014)), Judges have very little patience for uncooperative behavior during a lawsuit’s “search for the truth.”
  7. There’s No Longer Room For Boilerplate Discovery The amended FRCP 26(g)(1)(B)(iii) provides that every discovery request and response must be signed by at least one attorney of record, and by signing you certify that the discovery request or response is proportional – meaning “neither unreasonable nor unduly burdensome or expensive considering the needs of the case, prior discovery in the case, the amount in controversy, and the importance of issues at stake….”  The Rule goes on to state that “[i]f a certification violates this rule without substantial justification, the court must impose an appropriate sanction on the signer, the party on whose behalf the signer was acting, or both.”
  8. Be Careful What You Wish For…Lest You Receive It In Return Never send a discovery request to an adversary that you or your client would be uncomfortable complying with were opposing counsel to author a reciprocal request to you.
  9. Carefully Devised Search Terms Are Critically Important The judgment of your legal team is a good starting point for crafting search terms, but is far from sufficient.  Review a preliminary “hit-by-term” report from your ESI vendor so you can appreciate which terms are too limiting or overbroad.  During custodial interviews (see supra) ask about project code names, and other unique search terms.  Then sample, sample, sample!  Sampling the documents—both the hits and the non-hits—can help refine search terms and validate the terms chosen.
  10. Wise Use of Technology Can Be a Litigator’s Best Friend ESI processing, review (even with contract attorneys) and production is among the most costly elements of any litigation.  When used efficiently and wisely, technology can significantly reduce those costs. Consider early data assessment, filtering and predictive coding technology as appropriate for each matter.