According to the Complaint filed in Michael Distefano and Nicole Distefano v Law Offices of Barbara H. Katsos, PC and Barbara H. Katsos, Michael DiStefano and a non-party were owners of a limited liability company that was the franchisee of three Cold Stone Creamery Inc. ice cream parlors.  In 2006, the three stores suffered financial difficulties due to an extended power failure earlier in 2006.  The Complaint further alleges that as a result, DiStefano sought legal advice from Barbara Katsos, Esq., and eventually retained her for the purposes of commencing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding.   That proceeding was ultimately withdrawn in 2010 and subsequently the DiStefanos filed the instant lawsuit. The Complaint interposes claims of legal malpractice in connection with the Chapter 11 proceeding along with claims for breach of contract and breaches of fiduciary duty.

The focus of this blog will be Katsos’ failure to preserve data relevant to the malpractice lawsuit.

Relevant Facts Per Court’s Decision

During a discovery status conference before Magistrate Judge A. Kathleen Tomlinson, counsel for Defendants advised the Court that Katsos had discarded her computer at some point prior to the malpractice litigation being commenced.  In response, the Court directed defense counsel to provide the Court with an affidavit detailing the circumstances of how the computer was discarded.   After receipt of the affidavit, the DiStefanos moved for spoliation sanctions pursuant to Rule 37.   The Court temporarily denied that motion, without prejudice, pending a hearing.  See DiStefano v Law Office of Barbara H. Katsos, PC, No. CV 11-2893, 2013 WL 1339548, at *9 (EDNY Mar 29, 2013).  Specifically, the Court found that “a hearing is necessary to explore the circumstances under which the alleged spoliation occurred” (id. at *8) (internal quotations omitted).  The Court instructed Katsos to be prepared to testify – or bring someone who could testify – as to specific topics relevant to the issue of spoliation (i.e., the document preservation undertaken when the DiStefanos instituted an adversary proceeding in March 2010).

Which Rule 37 Applies?

Before assessing the testimony presented at the evidentiary hearing, Judge Tomlinson was required to determine which version of Rule 37(e) was applicable to the motion – those in effect pre-2015 amendment? Or those currently in effect in 2017?    Citing Magistrate Judge Francis’ decision in Cat3, LLC v Black Lineage, Inc. (144 FSupp3d 488 [SDNY 2016]) (previously mentioned in my August 31, 2016 E-Discovery Update: ESI Sanctions in Federal Court During 2016 (Well, through July)), the Court noted that for cases filed before the effective date of the amendments, courts have discretion to determine which version of the Rule to apply based upon what is “just and practicable.”    Thus, Judge Tomlinson opted for the older version of the Rules based upon three considerations. First, the parties briefed the spoliation motion in 2013 based upon the former Rule 37 in.  Second, the evidentiary hearing was conducted under the tenants of former Rule 37.  And third, the conduct relevant to the motion began more than seven years before the current version of Rule 37 took effect.

Relevant Testimony At Hearing*

According to the Court, the testimony at the evidentiary hearing established the following facts:

  • While representing the DiStefanos in 2009, Katsos’ office computer crashed and a freelance computer technician told Katsos it “was bad and that nothing could be recovered”;
  • That same technician replaced the defective computer parts and drilled holes in the replaced hard drives;
  • At no time after this litigation began did Katsos take any affirmative steps to save electronic information;
  • Katsos did not issue any written instructions to her staff regarding the obligation to preserve ESI;
  • Katsos testified she was “amazed” she did not find more emails when searching her AOL accounts;
  • Katsos contacted her email provider only to learn that AOL “had no ability to save emails past the 27-day mark” absent some affirmative action by Katsos earlier;
  • Katsos’ electronic retention policies were essentially non-existent in that “everything was made in hardcopy” (and emails Katsos deemed subjectively relevant were often printed) and filed in storage cabinets;
  • There was no backup system in place to preserve electronic data;
  • Katsos was unaware of any method to set up automatic deletion of emails from her email account nor was she aware of how emails might be saved or deleted from a “sent folder”; and
  • Katsos’ office manager was not computer savvy and Katsos knew this when she hired the office manager.

Court’s Conclusion

Notwithstanding the foregoing facts, Magistrate Judge Tomlinson spared Katsos the most severe sanctions available to the Court under the pre-amendment Rule 37(e) because the Court believed that Katsos’ actions were not taken in bad faith.   Specifically, the Court noted that “[r]ather than bad faith…Katsos’ actions were occasioned by (1) her position as a solo practitioner utterly naïve about her obligations to preserve electronic evidence and (2) her total reliance upon and complete delegation to an outside consultant the responsibility for setting up and maintaining the computer system in her office.”   Moreover, the Court found that Katsos’ “utter ignorance of (i) her ESI preservation responsibilities and (ii) her efforts to save ‘substantive’ emails can be considered, to some degree, as ‘positive evidence’ of good faith.”

Ultimately, the Court concluded, “on the ‘continuum of fault ranging from innocence to the degree of negligence to intentionality’….this case falls on the spectrum between negligence and gross negligence, and closer to the former than the latter.’” Indeed, the Court found no evidence of intentional or malicious spoliation but said Katsos had “at the very least, acted with a ‘pure heart and an empty head.’”

Thus, the Court ordered Katsos to pay Defendants’ attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in connection with the spoliation motion as a sanction.

Lesson

Although the Court demonstrated leniency when imposing its sanctions, there are many important lessons to internalize from the Court’s 60-page decision.  Included among them:

  • The pre-Amendment Rules are alive and well.  Given that litigations tend to span many years, it is possible you/client could be subject to stiffer sanctions under the still-viable former Rule 37(e);
  • Ignorance of one’s preservation obligations will not insulate you from sanctions.  In fact, while Katsos’ lack of computer sophistication may have helped her when it came time for sanctions to be imposed (i.e., she was merely negligent), the fact remains she was sanctioned!  And remember – certain state’s ethics decisions expressly find that ignorance of technology is a violation of one’s duty of competence; and
  • Finally, there are resources available to help smaller firms and solo practitioners comply with their various discovery obligations – including me!  Farrell Fritz’s E-Discovery practice group is always willing to help so don’t hesitate to contact us if confronted with an ESI issue

* Memorandum and Order, dated May 10, 2017

In Hsueh v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Fin. Servs., (No. 15 Civ. 3401 [PAC], 2017 WL 1194706 [S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2017]) the Southern District imposed spoliation sanctions (specifically, an adverse inference) on the plaintiff in a sexual harassment case, because of her intentional deletion of a recorded conversation relevant to her allegations.  While the court deemed the recording ESI, it ultimately concluded the Rule 37(e) applied only to situations where a party failed to take reasonable steps to preserve ESI; not to situations where, as here, a party intentionally deleted relevant information.

Factual Background

Hsueh filed her sexual harassment complaint on May 1, 2015. During her deposition almost a year later (April 20, 2016), plaintiff stated she did not believe she had any recorded conversations relevant to her lawsuit, but it was possible she may have such recordings.  As the deposition continued, however, Hsueh eventually revealed that she had recorded one conversation with a Human Resources representative but later deleted the recording because it was not “worth keeping” and “was not very clear.” She testified she deleted that recording in either December 2015 or January 2016.

A few weeks after Hsueh’s deposition, defendants filed a letter with the Court requesting a pre-motion conference on a proposed motion for spoliation sanctions in connection with Hsueh’s intentional deletion of the recording. Immediately before Plaintiff’s response was to be filed, Plaintiff’s counsel informed the Court that Hsueh provided him with a recording of the deleted conversation, which Plaintiff was able to recover with the help of her husband.  The result – discovery was reopened for 90 days so that Defendants could depose (again) Plaintiff and her husband.  The Court also reserved the right to impose upon Plaintiff the attorney’s fees and the costs incurred by Defendant’s in connection with reopening discovery.

Notwithstanding the additional discovery and depositions, Defendants proceeded with their sanctions motion.

Relying upon the plain language of Rule 37(e), the Court found the Rule 37 inapplicable in the present instance. The Court continued:

“Because Rule 37(e) does not apply, the Court may rely on its inherent power to control litigation in imposing spoliation sanctions. A party seeking an adverse inference instruction based on the destruction of evidence must establish (1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party’s claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense. If these elements are established, a district court may, at its discretion, grant an adverse inference jury instruction insofar as such a sanction would serve the threefold purpose of (1) deterring parties from destroying evidence; (2) placing the risk of an erroneous evaluation of the content of the destroyed evidence on the party responsible for its destruction; and (3) restoring the party harmed by the loss of evidence helpful to its case to where the party would have been in the absence of spoliation.”

The Court also rejected Plaintiff’s argument that sanctions were not appropriate because the recording in issue was ultimately produced.*

Thus, having concluded Hsueh’s actions were the result of a culpable mind, rather than inadvertence, the Court exercised its inherent powers, imposed an adverse inference on Plainiff and granted to Defendants its attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in bringing the spoliation motion and in reopening discovery.

*Specifically, the Court concluded the produced recording was incomplete due to a number of factors including the length of the recording, that it cut off in mid-sentence, and Plaintiff’s husband’s concession that he could not be sure the recording was complete.

Electronic discovery (a/k/a ediscovery and e-discovery) is the process of identifying, preserving, collecting, preparing, reviewing and producing electronically stored information (“ESI”) in the context of a legal or investigative process.   In order that counsel may bring discovery issues (including e-discovery issues) to the forefront early on in the development of a case, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure impose on counsel certain obligations.  These obligations include, but are not limited to, requiring counsel to participate in a Rule 26(f) conference, and requiring counsel to making certain initial disclosures pursuant to Rule 26(a).  Note that these obligations are imposed upon counsel irrespective of whether there is ESI relevant to the dispute.  However, competent counsel should be prepared to attend the 26(f) conference educated as to their client’s electronic data content and infrastructure, including any data that may be difficult or costly to produce, and should be further prepared to discuss issues like inadvertent production of privileged materials and phasing of discovery.

Rule 26(f) Conference

While the precise timing of the conference will depend on the individual Court’s scheduling orders and local practice, the 26(f) conference will inevitably give rise to one of the earliest opportunities for the parties to engage in comprehensive discussions regarding discovery, including issues relating to ESI.  Moreover, there is an expectation that the parties will exchange certain information, and reach agreement on many discovery-related topics.  Thus, it is critical that the attorney attending this conference be knowledgeable about his/her the client’s data, electronic storage systems and data retention.  

At the conference, counsel should discuss, among other things, the subjects on which discovery may be needed, when discovery will be completed, and whether discovery can and should be phased or limited to particular issues.  For example, as it relates to ESI, it may be most efficient to start with a discrete list of ESI sources (i.e., 5 custodians rather than 50), review fully that material, and agree to include additional sources at a later date if necessary. 

Relatedly, it is highly advisable to discuss the format of the eventual production(s) at this early stage. Even though production may not occur for many weeks / months, the ultimate format will aid in creating processing and review plans.  For example, without knowing the production format, one party may convert or otherwise manipulate its ESI in a way that is incompatible with the ultimately required production format.

Additionally, claw back agreements or protective orders dealing with inadvertent productions of privileged materials should be addressed at the 26(f) conference.  In almost all cases, the parties should agree to a process by which each side would have the right to identify and request the return of such material without the production resulting in a waiver. This agreement — commonly referred to as a claw back agreement—should always be incorporated into a court Order, either as part of the protective order or through another type of routine court order. The issuance of such an order should always precede any production in the case. Under Federal Rule of Evidence 502, if a court orders this kind of agreement, the order will protect the parties from claims of waiver if, among other things, the disclosure is inadvertent.  And, by creating this framework to resolve a potential inadvertent disclosure issue early on, it will inevitably reduce the potential for a dispute.

ESI and Rule 26(a) Disclosures

Rule 26 also imposes certain disclosure obligations on litigants.  Specifically, Rule 26(a)(1) requires each litigant to disclose to its opponent various types of information before any formal discovery requests are served in the case. The idea behind this “initial disclosure” is to require parties to be forthcoming with information relevant to the matter and to streamline the discovery process.  According to subsection (A)(ii) of the rule, each party must provide a copy — or a description by category and location — of all documents, ESI, and tangible things that the disclosing party has in its possession, custody, or control and may use to support its claims or defenses. Identifying specific custodians and non-custodial sources of ESI (i.e., departmental share drives or database programs) that are expected to be searched for relevant data should also occur at this stage.  It is critical to note that if you plan to argue that certain data is  not reasonably accessible for production due to the burden and/or expense of restoring/producing that data (i.e., legacy data or backup media), it must be disclosed to your adversary.   In fact, Rule 26(b)(2)(B) includes a provision related to “not reasonably accessible” ESI, which anticipates possible cost-shifting under particular circumstances. Under this provision, a party need not produce any ESI from sources that it deems to be not reasonably accessible so long as the party identifies the source with particularity to its opponent.  A source can be considered not reasonably accessible on the basis of “undue burden or cost.”*

Notwithstanding the obligations Rule 26 imposes, many lawyers enter a lawsuit (specifically as it relates to ediscovery) without a detailed understanding of their client’s ESI or a specific execution plan in mind. That’s a mistake that often proves to be costly.  Educating one’s self as to one’s clients’ ESI will inevitably result in a more efficient process, and may also help reduce discovery disputes and—most importantly—get parties to the litigation’s most relevant information faster.

* Note, however, once the source is identified as “not reasonably accessible,” the requesting party may nevertheless move to compel production from the identified source, but will need to make a showing of “good cause” to require it. If the court determines that good cause has been shown, it may in addition require the requesting party to bear the reasonable costs of production under the proportionality rule.

 

The Federal Rules are undergoing more changes!  And, effective December 1, 2017, there will be two new Federal Rules of Evidence (Rules 902[13], [14]) that will directly impact e-discovery in the federal courts.  These Rule changes are critical because, as aptly put by recently retired Magistrate Judge John Facciola, “[t]he Federal Rules of Evidence were…established to create uniformity in evidence law by providing guidance for every evidentiary problem that could be reasonably expected to occur at trial…But, as our tangible world has grown increasingly virtual, so too has the evidence,…[which] the [existing federal] rules are ill-designed to accommodate.”  Thus, the new rules deal directly with e-discovery and forensic collection processes and the authentication of same in federal litigation. The proposed Rules are designed to bridge this gap and demonstrate an important step toward updating the FRE to be more in sync with the increasingly digital world in which we live.

Specifically, Rule 902(13) provides for a certification process for ESI, produced by a computer system or computer process (analogous to Rule 902[11]’s certification of business records).

And, FRE 902(14) provides that electronic data recovered “by a process of digital identification” is to be self-authenticating, thereby not routinely necessitating the trial testimony of a forensic or technical expert where best practices are employed, as certified through a written affidavit by a “qualified person.”   Here, the authentication of the file would be established using the file’s hash value (i.e., the digital fingerprint).

Familiarity with the proposed changes are important for a number of reasons.

First, although the Rules aren’t expected to take effect for almost a year, ESI collected in a Rule 902(14) compliant manner any time prior to the Rule’s effective date (i.e., today) can be subject to the new Rule’s provisions once the Rule goes into effect. This is important, because digital evidence is routinely collected well in advance of trial.  So, practitioners need to understand and account for Rule 902(14) immediately given that electronic evidence that is collected today may not be used at trial until sometime after December 1, 2017.

Second, the expectation is that the new Rules will provide a streamlined and efficient process to establish a foundation for ESI collected in a Rule 902(14) compliant manner. This will increase predictability by eliminating surprise challenges, and will encourage the use of  ESI practitioners by allowing written certifications in the place of expensive and time-intensive in-person testimony.  Indeed, the ability to eliminate foundational testimony will undeniably result in significant cost savings to one’s client and help promote judicial efficiency.  (However, this necessarily presupposes that practitioners in the federal courts will understand what a 902(14) compliant collection means.)

For anyone who has interest in reading a very educating and comprehensive Law Review article about the proposed Rule 902(13) and (14), check out, “Law of the Foal:  Careful Steps Towards Digital Competence in Proposed Rules 902(13) and 902 (14),” 1 GEO. L. TECH. REV. 6 (2016), written by Hon. John M. Facciola & Lindsey Barrett.

It is the beginning of a new year and I thought it the ideal time to list out those steps that are absolutely critical when an attorney is confronting his/her obligation to produce e-discovery in connection with a litigation.  Bear in mind, the below list is not exhaustive and each step is replete with technical and tactical sub-steps and decisions.  However, the nine steps below are a useful road map to get started.

  • Assess whether your case involves e-discovery. In today’s technology-laden world where emails are ubiquitous and many of us interface daily with the internet of things, chances are your case will involve e-discovery.
  • Implement (or cause to be implemented) a comprehensive and appropriate ESI preservation protocol.  Remember, it is wise to cast a large net when it comes to preserving data.  That strategy likely changes when it comes time to collect/process data.  Make sure to familiarize yourself with the client’s deletion policies, backup tapes, and shredding procedures.  See next step.  The scope of your hold notice is necessarily informed by your client’s data including its location.
  • Understand the client’s ESI systems and storage.  Remember, data maps can be helpful but are often out of date.
  • Understand (and educate your client about) the various options available for collecting ESI (i.e., self-collection vs retaining a vendor; targeted collection vs robust collection).
  • Identify the various custodians (and meet with/conduct collection interviews of live custodians) who may have potentially relevant ESI and understand the various media on which that ESI resides.
  • Meet and confer with opposing counsel to develop a mutually agreeable discovery plan that addresses common ESI issues including production costs and deduplication methods.
  • Collect ESI (ideally using a vendor especially when the custodians include complex or dynamic databases or servers) in a manner that is defensible and preserves the integrity of the data (for example, do not forensically image the hard drive of a Mac using a tool designed for Windows or run the risk of overwriting the hard drive’s boot sector).
  • Explore ways to minimize the review costs associated with reviewing for production the collected documents.
  • Finally, produce responsive non-privileged ESI in a recognized and appropriate manner.

As discussed in past blog posts, it is critically important for counsel to be involved in each step of the process as the recent case law makes plain that Courts expect counsel to be actively involved in collection/review and production.  Indeed, we have seen a spate of case law from 2016 where the Court imputes a client’s failures on counsel and sanctions both!  Finally, if you feel incapable of handling any of the above steps, get help!  Various ethics opinions (not yet adopted in New York) suggest an attorneys’ duty of competence owed to one’s client includes being competent in matters of ESI.

When collecting electronically stored information (“ESI”) from multiple custodians (i.e., various individuals/ different sources), there will necessarily be duplicative documents collected in the process.  In company-wide e-mail chains, for example, a message is sent to multiple recipients and stored within each recipient’s mailbox.  Consider the following: I send an email to two colleagues; a copy of the very same email now exists in each colleague’s mailbox.  Depending on the company’s data retention policies, copies of that same e-mail file may also reside on the employee’s (or employees’) hard drive(s), the company’s file server, and/or the company’s backup system.

For the attorney tasked with identifying, collecting and reviewing ESI in response to an actual or threatened litigation, an exhaustive review of a “document set” that is replete with duplicates threatens the cost effectiveness and efficiency of the project. These efficiency concerns intensify during document review, where duplicate documents increase the overall review time.  And, duplicates pose the added risk of the review team applying inconsistent privilege and responsiveness decisions on identical documents.  As a result, it is a wise decision to de-duplicate one’s collection of ESI at the processing stage.

And so, practitioners should consult with their vendors and educate themselves about the various de-duplication technologies available.  When used effectively, de-duplication reduces the number of documents to be reviewed by, on average, 30 or 40 percent.

To determine whether two files are identical, each file’s binary stream is hashed with an algorithm to get a digest value.  The most common algorithms used for this purpose are MD5, SHA-1 and SHA-256. The digest value is then considered as the file’s fingerprint.   The resultant fingerprints are measured against one another to determine which documents are exact duplicates.

What are my de-duplication options and the effect of each?

  • No de-duplication: All documents, irrespective of duplicates, are provided for attorney review.  This will result in producing the largest number of documents for review. This method is strongly discouraged for cases involving voluminous amounts of data.  Choosing not to de-duplicate also increases the likelihood that inconsistent coding among identical documents.
  • Global or horizontal de-duplication: As each file is uploaded, it is compared to the entire data set for the project. Typically, you rank the custodians (i.e., Senior VP, VP, Junior Analysts, Admin).  Then, only the first instance of each unique document is provided for review and categorization, resulting in the fewest number of documents for review.  For example, if both the Senior VP and the Junior Analyst have the same document, the iteration of the document that resides in the SVP’s files will be the unique document reviewed.
  • Per custodian or vertical de-duplication: Each file is uploaded and compared to a limited set of documents from the same document custodian, time period, or other data slice segment of documents. Only the first instance of each unique document per custodian or data slice will be provided for review. However, the same document may exist in other custodians or data slices and may then be provided for independent review. This type of de-duplication is particularly useful when processing multiple sources for the same custodians over time.

The deduplication options above are applied to documents as they are processed. Additionally, as documents are reviewed, they can be identified for relative similarity, called “near dupes,” which ascertains similar documents that differ by simple formatting, document type or other semantic differences. These documents are often identified and grouped by one document—the “core” of the group. All related near-duplicate documents are compared to this core document. Near duplicate identification can help the reviewer better understand the relationship between the documents, allowing for group coding/decisions based upon observed similarities.

Regardless of the method chosen, de-duplication can result in tremendous savings when properly leveraged to meet the needs of a project. However, it can also be wrought with complexity and pitfalls if improperly utilized.

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.

A key word search is a basic search technique that involves searching for one or more words within or across a collection of documents/files. Typically, the purpose of a key word search in a litigation is to limit the universe of potentially responsive data that one must process and review in order to prosecute/defend a lawsuit.  (Note, this blog relates to processing and reviewing data.  It presupposes counsel has preserved data in a robust and comprehensive manner).   Limiting the volume of data you process and review can result in tremendous cost savings to one’s client.  However, it must be done well so as to avoid pitfalls and resulting costs.   Below are some tips that can be helpful when thinking about key word search terms.   For example, one wants to give thought to their key words so as to avoid – to the greatest extent possible – “false hits” (a search term “hit” within a document, but not for the meaning that was intended).  For example, the term “comp*” would return “compensation” and “comp” (the intended terms), but would also return “computer” (not intended). Computer would be the “false hit.”

1. Terms of four or fewer characters often result in false hits.  Consider, for example, if one were to use “IT” as a search term hoping for hits relevant to information technology.  However, “IT” appears in so many other words the results of such a search would include many false hits.  This in turn, would increase the cost/time to review the hits to assess same for responsiveness.  

2. Searching for numbers can return unwanted results. This can be relevant if a patent is in issue or zip codes are being searched, etc.  If the numerical term is not quoted properly, the result may be skewed. Also, like (1) supra, searching for 1,000 will also return 1,000,000.

3. Avoid using wildcards. If you want to find “contract” or “contracts” then don’t use “contract*” as a search term. Simply provide both variations of the word. If you must use a wildcard, refrain from leading with a wildcard character. You may get the result you are looking for, but you will also bring a lot of unwanted hits with it.

4. Searching for custodian names is ill advised especially if that individual is part of the collection. Think about it – if you search for John Doe and all of John’s emails were collected as part of the process, you are going to get “hits” on ALL OF John’s documents. 

5. Sample documents with the proposed terms. Before deciding on search terms with the opposing party, try to actually sample documents with the proposed terms.

6. Give some thought to your search hit expectations. For example, did you expect a 20% return rate and you are getting 90%, or vice versa? If so, reconsider your terms.

7. Always consider a “file type exclusion” list.  For example, if there are no audio files or photos at issue in the lawsuit, then eliminate .wav and .jpegs.  Other files types to consider excluding are EXE, DLL, and system files.

8. Use the “w/2” proximity search between the first and last names of persons.  (John w/2 Doe) will pull back John Doe; Doe, John; John P. Doe; Doe, John P.

9. Suggest expanding first names with known nicknames. “Bill Johnson” could be searched with ((Bill OR William OR Will) w/2 Johnson). You will obviously need to gather any special nicknames from the client (this would be true of project names or code names assigned to different contracts, too etc).

10. Use domain names when searching for/identifying potentially privileged documents. The term (“farrellfritz.com”) for example would pick up all email addresses from that domain. Great search to identify communications with outside counsel.

Developing effective key words is very much an iterative and thought intensive process.  These tips will be helpful but I strongly advise sampling “hits” before committing to search terms.

 

Lawyers often worry about their obligation to preserve relevant information.  As a result, one may direct their client to collect all potentially responsive information.  However, over-collecting is a significant cause of costly e-discovery.  So, what is a lawyer to do?

It is critical not to conflate preservation and collecting. 

While collecting is one way to preserve information, it is a very costly and inefficient preservation strategy.  Think of preservation as a means to ensure potentially relevant information is not deleted or discarded. This is a process driven exercise (i.e., suspend auto-deletion, cease recycling backup systems).   Collection, on the other hand, is a much more active exercise and should be thought of as the first link in a chain toward producing documents to your adversary.   In other words, collection involves “collecting” data from the universe of what has been preserved but it does not necessarily mean you will collect everything you preserved.   And, remember, not every document collected will be produced.  Rather, collected material must be processed, and then reviewed for responsiveness and privilege.   

The amendment to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) (which defines the scope of permissible discovery) did away with the timeworn “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence” standard.  In its place is now the “proportionality standard,” which explicitly imposes a responsibility on litigants to tailor their discovery requests to account for the significance of the information requested, and the cost of gathering responsive information:

Parties may obtain discovery regarding any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ relative access to relevant information, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). (emphasis added)

Although many courts have applied the revised Rule 26 during 2016, the District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently reminded practitioners that proportionality is a critical factor.  In First Niagara Risk Mgmt. v. Folino, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106094 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 11, 2016), which involved the purported violation of a non-compete agreement, the plaintiff moved the Court to compel a discovery request. Specifically, the plaintiff requested that the Court allow its e-discovery vendor to search the defendant’s personal electronic devices and email accounts for a particular set of agreed upon search terms. The defendant objected stating that “the request is overly-broad, costly, and burdensome.”  Although the Court agreed with defendant that the “request was rather broad,” the Court found the request “proportional to the needs of this case.” After verifying that the information requested by the plaintiff was relevant to the case, the Court considered the individual factors in FRCP 26(b)(1).

Specifically, using the factors set forth above, the Court found the issues were “of grave importance” to the plaintiff, the defendant is the sole source of access to the important information, and the plaintiff “needs to conduct broad discovery to uncover the scope of [defendant’s] misdeeds.” The Court granted the motion to compel, and explained that, “[w]eighing these factors makes it clear that the potential harm [plaintiff’s] discovery requests may impose on [defendant] does not outweigh the presumption for disclosure of these requests.”