In this zoning dispute involving claims of civil rights violations and tortious interference with contractual relations, the court denied the plaintiffs’ request for spoliation sanctions where they could adduce no evidence that any records were destroyed in bad faith once the defendants anticipated litigation. According to the court, any deletion of e-mails resulted from the Township’s “inadvertence, negligence, inexplicable foolishness, or part of the normal activities of business or daily living.” None of which amounted to bad faith.
The plaintiffs, property owners in the defendant Township, alleged an “unremitting campaign of harassment and discrimination, spanning the better part of fifteen years, aimed at divesting plaintiffs of every economically viable use of their property.” The zoning dispute ended in 2009, but the plaintiffs did not file their lawsuit two years later in January 2011.
Despite a “protracted discovery process,” the plaintiffs claimed the defendants “made no substantial or reasonable effort to identify and retain relevant documents” and destroyed internal e-mail correspondence, land development application files for other properties in the Township, and Planning Commission Board minutes.
The judge evaluated the claims under a four-part test for spoliation: “(1) the evidence was in the party’s control, (2) the evidence is relevant, (3) there was ‘actual suppression or withholding of the evidence,’ and (4) ‘the duty to preserve the evidence was reasonably foreseeable to the party.’” The judge decided that the documents were relevant and under the defendants’ control. However, he disagreed that the defendants had a duty to preserve the evidence because – according to the judge – defendants believed all issues relating to the plaintiffs’ land development applications had been resolved until two years later when the lawsuit was filed.
The court also disagreed with the plaintiffs’ contention that the defendants’ discovery efforts were “feeble” because they failed to issue a written hold notice. Rather, the Township Manager met face to face with employees in the “very small organization” so he could “make sure that they knew what [he] was looking for.” And, the Township’s lawyer requested staff to gather all records relating to the property at issue, which he then collected and preserved. Once the Township Manager knew of the plaintiffs’ request for additional records for other properties, the staff saved them as well. The court found these efforts sufficient and denied the plaintiffs’ motion.
Word to the wise to those practitioners representing smaller businesses (and small business owners) – rather than allow your client to follow a haphazard document retention enforcement policy, encourage the company to automate its processes to ensure it follows a consistent, documented, and defensible procedure.