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.