I recently wrote about the importance of styling one’s litigation hold in a broad, but sufficiently specific way (See, “Your Litigation Hold Must be Generally Broad and Specifically Tailored”).  Some of you may be thinking, well, that’s all fine and good but what is a litigation hold? Why and when do I need one? And what should a litigation hold say?  If you have any of those questions, then continue reading.

Imagine your client was served with a complaint (or your client received a cease and desist letter or you learn it is reasonably foreseeable your client will be sued).*  What now?

Immediately, alarm bells should sound in your mind signaling you to take steps to preserve information relevant or potentially relevant to the lawsuit (or threatened lawsuit).    To this end, you want to draft and issue a written litigation hold notice (“Hold”).   While an oral directive may convey all the necessary information to the proper people, it is far better practice to paper your instructions.  Not only will a written document allow you to recall (perhaps years later) what information was subject to the Hold and who received the Hold, but it can also serve as a protective mechanism should information identified in the Hold as relevant slip through the cracks and be inadvertently deleted.** Thus, a critical function of the Hold is to serve as the means for proper compliance with one’s document preservation requirements and as the tool to avoid inadvertent destruction of evidence and potential sanctions.

It is helpful to envision the Hold as the catalyst that begins the process by which the client formally notifies key individuals that they must preserve relevant information.  Identifying who should receive the Hold can be a task in and of itself.  If, for example, your client is an individual sued in his/her individual capacity, the task is straightforward.  If, however, your client is a major financial institution with offices throughout the nation, the task of identifying the relevant custodians*** can be daunting.

Once you’ve identified the proper custodians (and who the custodians are for this purpose should be revisited throughout the litigation and supplemented as information is learned) and the sources of information they each may have, you must draft your Hold.   A well-drafted Hold need not be lengthy nor should it be replete with legal-ese.  In fact, the shorter, and more simple the better.  You do not want your audience bogged down in trying to figure out what exactly is being asked of them.  Likewise, you do not want to send a multi-page document if you can streamline the message into two pages or less.  That said, every Hold should contain at least the following information:

  1. Introduction: Explain why a Hold is being implemented so that the recipients understand the importance of compliance.  Explaining the general purpose of the Hold may also help the recipients identify relevant information.  The introduction does not have to detail the lawsuit /investigation /subpoena with granularity.  Rather, a general description is all that is necessary.  For example:

[CLIENT] recently received a subpoena requesting documents relevant to an ongoing investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia (hereinafter the “Investigation”). We intend to respond to the subpoena in due course, and we are asking for your help.  Due to this Investigation, [CLIENT] must take all reasonable steps to preserve records related to the 8 topics belowWe are in the process of identifying all paper and electronic documents that may be relevant to the matter . . . You have been identified as a person who has had involvement with the [deal], or may possess relevant documents or communications.  We request your attention and assistance in preserving this relevant information for our attorney’s use as appropriate. The records must be preserved in accordance with this Notice, and must be preserved until released by a subsequent written Release Notice.

  1. What is to be Preserved: The Hold becomes a checklist for the specific records you seek to preserve.  It is important that you include not only a broad description of the types of documents you seek, but also identify documents or locations with specificity to the greatest extent possible.  As mentioned in my August 16th post, if you seek to preserve web browsing/search histories you must specify that in your hold. It is likely not sufficient to simply say preserve all ESI. You should also include a temporal limitation for the information you seek to preserve and a description of the relevant categories of information.  In addition to delivering the Hold to key employees who have an involvement in or awareness about the issues in the lawsuit (or threatened suit), it is advisable to send the Hold to relevant personnel in IT and paper records departments who control the ability to suspend normal deletion policies.

Effective immediately, it is critical that none of our employees delete, over-write, or otherwise alter or destroy any documents (print or electronic), records, and data, including without limitation,  [INSERT SPECIFIC DOCUMENTS] . . ., including any drafts of such documents, records, and data, from any device.  Devices that may contain information subject to this preservation include laptops, PCs, handheld devices (such as a BlackBerry or iPhone), and other hardware provided to employees of [CLIENT], including USB drives, shared drives, home computers and/or personal email accounts (if used to store work-related documents), departmental, regional, or local email services, or any other local or centralized storage media which may be accessed by members of your department dated from [INSERT DATE RANGE], and relating in any way to:

  1. Mandatory Preservation: Emphasize that preservation is mandatory, and that failure to comply may compromise the company’s ability to prosecute its claims or defend itself in the lawsuit.

Preservation is mandatory.  Electronically stored information is an important and potentially irreplaceable source of discovery in this matter.  Failure to retain these documents or communications, whether intentionally or accidentally or to ignore this Notice may result in the Company’s inability to prosecute its claims or defend itself in this matter.  Failure to do so could also result in financial and legal penalties against the Company that could negatively affect the outcome of this legal matter. You must take every reasonable step to preserve this information until further written notice.  

I also tend to include the following language in the introduction to ensure we capture the recipient’s attention:

Failure to read and comply fully with this Notice could subject you and [CLIENT] to civil and criminal penalties and could result in disciplinary action

  1. Confidentiality: Stress the confidential nature of the lawsuit and the company’s expectation that employees not discuss the matter with one another or others (i.e., spouses, friends) unless doing so is approved by counsel.  The purpose of limiting one’s ability to discuss the matter is to minimize discoverable communications that could impact the outcome of the lawsuit.
  2. Further Distribution: The Hold should request the names of any additional individuals that the recipients believe may have relevant information and advise recipient(s) not distribute further on their own.

Further Distribution of This NoticeDO NOT DISTRIBUTE THIS NOTICE DIRECTLY. A distribution list is attached to this Notice.  Please notify [NAME] if you believe the Hold should be distributed further.  In addition, please contact [NAME] if you are aware of any relevant records that may be in the possession of someone who previously held your position.

  1. Duration of the Litigation Hold: The Hold should advise that individuals are required to preserve materials until they are notified in writing that the Hold has been released.
  2. Prompt for Questions: The Hold should provide the name and contact information for company counsel or another person designated to provide guidance and answer questions.
  3. Receipt and Acknowledgment: It is advisable to require recipients to respond in writing that they have read the Hold and will comply with its requirements.  I tend to embed both a read receipt in the Hold and an affirmative obligation to respond to me (or in-house counsel) in writing.  Responses can be sent by individual emails, or by embedding a voting button.  It is also wise to track each response and follow up as necessary with non-responsive recipients. 

In sum, a Hold should include at least the above essential information and should be drafted in a clear and comprehensive fashion such that recipients understand what is being asked of them.   The Hold will serve as the means for proper compliance with the client’s document preservation requirements.

* Different jurisdictions have different rules as to when one’s obligation to preserve information arises.  The most common standard however, and the one embraced in New York state and federal courts alike, is “Once a party reasonably anticipates litigation…”

** Because the inadvertent destruction of relevant evidence can (depending on the circumstances) lead to judicial sanctions or a judgment against the client, a Hold committed to writing will empower you to defend yourself and the client should inadvertent destruction occur.   

*** For purposes of this blog, “Custodians” is used to refer to the individuals / sources (i.e., shared drives, file cabinets) most likely to have potentially relevant information (i.e., related to the claims or defense in the lawsuit).

In this single-plaintiff employment discrimination case (Bailey v. Brookdale Univ. Hosp., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93093 (E.D.N.Y. June 16, 2017)), counsel for the parties purportedly met and conferred as directed by the Court and, thereafter, entered into an ESI agreement (“Agreement”).  The Agreement was presented to the Court and represented to be the product of mutual negotiation.  As a result, the Court So-Ordered the Agreement and its terms.

During discovery, Bailey advised the Court that he was no longer able to comply with the Agreement because the data production costs would cause an economic hardship. Specifically, he claimed the cost of production – estimated at $2,000-$3,000 – was unduly burdensome in light of his personal financial situation, notwithstanding the Agreement.  At the Court’s request, Bailey submitted an affidavit estimating the cost of production and that such a cost would inflict a “severe financial hardship” on him given that he earned approximately $90,000 annually and was the sole provider for his family of five.  In evaluating Bailey’s grievance, the Eastern District considered cost-shifting to protect Bailey from incurring an undue burden or expense. For cost-shifting to be properly granted, however, there must be sufficient proof of economic hardship and evidence that the requested data is inaccessible.  The Court found neither was established by Bailey. Nonetheless, the Court found that the Agreement proposed by Defendants was of a type, “typically utilized in a more complex litigation involving multiple parties and corporate entities” and had no applicability to a single plaintiff.   As a result, the Court concluded that Bailey’s counsel did not engage in meaningful discussions with his client regarding the terms of the proposed Agreement and what costs might be incurred by producing the information in the format the defendants sought. Likewise, it further appeared to the Court that Bailey’s counsel did not engage in a meaningful meet-and-confer session with opposing counsel, and did not thoroughly review the Agreement prior to signing it.

The Court did not find sufficient grounds to terminate the Agreement, and instead ordered partial cost-shifting [so that Defendants received the form of production they negotiated for], requiring the defendants to bear 40% of discovery costs and Bailey’s counsel, rather than Bailey himself, to bear the remaining 60%.

This case serves as an important reminder of counsels’ obligation to engage in good faith in all aspects of the discovery process – including negotiating an ESI production protocol.  Here, the Court was unwilling to revise the Agreement, and instead required Bailey’s counsel to abide by the terms of the Agreement and pay for the production.  This case also serves as an important reminder of our duty, as lawyers, to be competent in the law and the technological world in which we practice.  Indeed, as attorneys practicing in today’s ever-increasingly electronic world, we must remain abreast of the intricacies involved in electronic production and the costs associated with that ESI.  (See earlier blogs discussing duty of competence)

In Eshelman v. Puma Biotechnology, Inc., No. 7:16-CV-18-D (E.D.N.C. June 7, 2017), Magistrate Judge Robert B. Jones, Jr., denied Plaintiff Eshelman’s motion seeking a jury instruction in response to Puma Biotechnology Inc.’s (“Puma”) failure to preserve (or identify in its litigation hold notice the need to preserve) internet web browser and search histories.  In denying Eshelman’s request, Judge Jones concluded that Eshelman was “not entitled to [either] a sanction pursuant to Rule 37(e)(1)” or “an adverse jury instruction as a sanction pursuant to Rule 37(e)(2).”

Case Background & Holding

This lawsuit involved alleged defamatory statements made by Puma in an investment presentation.  Eshelman brought a lawsuit and soon thereafter Puma issued a Litigation Hold Notice (“Notice”).  That Notice defined “documents” broadly to include electronically-stored information (“ESI”) but failed to reference specifically internet browser / search/or viewing histories.   The Notice did, however, advise Puma employees to err on the side of preservation if uncertain as to whether they were in possession of potentially responsive documents.   In May 2016, a few months after the allegedly defamatory investor presentation, Eshelman’s counsel sent a letter to Puma’s counsel requesting that Puma preserve, as relevant to this dispute, “web browser histories” of individuals involved in the drafting of the January 7, 2016 presentation.  Eshelman renewed this same request a few weeks later in his first demand for documents.

Puma’s counsel responded to the discovery demand that due to the internet browser the Company uses (i.e., Google Chrome®)  web browser history is automatically deleted after 90 days.  And so, the web browser history sought in the document demand was no longer available, nor did it exist at the time of the May preservation letter issued by Eshelman’s counsel.  Upon receipt of this response, Eshelman moved for “a jury instruction to mitigate the harm caused by the defendant’s failure to preserve electronically stored information.”

Judge Jones denied Eshelman’s motion concluding that “the plaintiff has not established one of the threshold elements of Rule 37(e)—namely, that the lost ESI ‘cannot be restored or replaced through additional discovery. . . .’”

Because Judge Jones believed “other avenues of discovery are likely to reveal information about the searches performed in advance of the investor presentation” the Judge concluded Eshelman was “not entitled to a sanction pursuant to Rule 37(e)(1).” Specifically, the Judge opined that Eshelman could seek information about the internet searches performed by the individuals who prepared the investor presentation through deposition testimony.

Moreover, Judge Jones further determined that a sanction was not warranted under 37(e)(1) or (2) because: (1) “the plaintiff has failed to make a sufficient showing of prejudice to support relief under Rule 37(e)(1)” and (2) Eshelman “failed to show that the defendant acted with the requisite intent to deprive him of the ESI in order to support the imposition of an adverse jury instruction under Rule 37(e)(2),” noting that “[a]t most, the circumstances indicate the ESI was lost due to the defendant’s negligence, but do not suggest the presence of intentional conduct. Negligence, however, will not support an award of sanctions under Rule 37(e)(2).”

Conclusion

This case serves as an important reminder that one’s legal hold notice must be drafted in a robust way (i.e., calling for all documents) that is also sufficiently granular such that it specifies exactly the types/categories of documents sought to be preserved.  Drafting an effective hold notice is an art that requires great thought.  Form/template notices –while a good starting point – should not be relied upon blindly.  Stay tuned for a coming blog on drafting effective hold notices.

Mueller v. Swift, (D. Col. 2017) 2017 WL 2362137

Some opinions just have it all, and Mueller v. Swift does not disappoint!  Indeed, in this lawsuit, Taylor Swift, the pop sensation who has been sweeping the nation, alleges she was the victim of sexual misconduct, assault, and battery.

What in the world do such allegations have to do with this blog you ask? Well, even the rich and famous sometimes have to confront issues of spoliated electronically stored information (ESI).

Relevant Facts: The scene is downtown Denver—the Pepsi Center—home of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey team, the Denver Nuggets Basketball team, and host to concerts and various social events year round. On June 2, 2013, it played host to one of the biggest stars of the last decade, Taylor Swift (“Swift”). KYGO radio station was one of the entities represented at a “meet and greet” with Swift just prior to Swift’s RED TOUR. The radio station representative, David Mueller (“Mueller”), was invited to pose for a photo with Swift during the meet and greet.   Swift alleges, and uses a photo as evidence, that Mueller reached up her skirt and touched her bottom inappropriately during the photo op.

As a result, KYGO was notified of the incident, and assured Swift’s entourage and representatives that an investigation would be undertaken and, Mueller dealt with accordingly.

Ultimately, Mueller was terminated from his position at KYGO and this civil suit ensued.

As it turns out, Mueller recorded his conversations with KYGO representatives during the meeting that ultimately led to his termination. When compelled to produce those recordings during discovery, it was revealed that Mueller edited the audio clips to reflect those portions he deemed “important.”

The Swift camp was not appreciative of Mueller’s editing “assistance” and advised the Court they were entitled to the 2 hours of audio recordings; not just the “important” soundbites. However, in response to Swift’s demand for the full audio recordings, Mueller interposed a number of reasons why that was not possible, many of which — in my opinion–defied reason.

First, the laptop, on which the recording was stored, was a casualty of Mueller’s early morning routine and suffered an untimely death by a raging torrent of coffee.  Muller, in a desperate attempt to save the data, ran to Apple to try and repair or salvage what he could. Unfortunately, despite the Apple genius bar’s attempt to resuscitate the laptop, the computer — and all of its content — was gone.  But of course a man who worked for a radio station in the digital age was well versed in the benefits of backing up his data so Mueller’s external hard drive — the backup for his laptops — would necessarily have the full recording. While one may expect the recording to reside on the external backup, Mueller advised the external hard drive was lost by him a year or so before the case was filed. As a result, the full audio recording was no longer available.

As a result, Swift’s legal team moved the court for spoliation sanctions against Mueller. Most importantly, Swift wanted an adverse inference jury instruction. In simplest form, the adverse instruction proposed was to allow the jury to infer that whatever was stored on any device that suffered an early fate, was detrimental to Mueller’s causes of action.

The Colorado District Court, however, ruled that spoliation sanctions were reserved for instances where “there is proof that the party who lost or destroyed evidence did so in bad faith.” Relying on Tenth Circuit precedent, the Court stated, “Mere negligence in losing or destroying records is not enough because it does not support an inference of consciousness of a weak case.” Turner v. Pub. Serv. Co. of Colo., 563 F.3d 1136, 1149 (10th Cir. 2009). So, while the incidents that led to the destruction of the evidence were convenient, to say the least, without any evidence the recording was destroyed/modified in bad faith, foreclosed any adverse inference instruction against Mueller.

What does this case mean for E-discovery?

So, what’s the lesson?  When moving for spoliation sanctions under current Rule 37, be mindful the court is looking to punish bad faith conduct not merely negligent behavior.  Therefore, understand the facts and circumstances underpinning the spoliation and, if appropriate, advance the necessary arguments to support a finding of bad faith.

But, this case also reminds us that E-Discovery and ESI issues are everywhere. Indeed, they are not unique to corporate America but plague Hollywood starlets, mom and pop business owners, and individual litigants alike.  In today’s increasingly electronic age, it is a rare few who do not create/receive and/or store information electronically.

*A special thanks to Farrell Fritz Summer law clerk Philip Merenda for his research and drafting assistance with Taylor Swift and the Java-Dump:  An E-Discovery Tale.  Philip is a student at Georgetown University Law and anticipates receiving his J.D. in 2018.

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.

 

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.