Earlier this year, I wrote about the then-proposed changes to the Federal Rules, and how those changes (if implemented), could impact electronic discovery. (February 15, 2017 blog)  Well, the time has come — effective December 1, 2017, the amendments to Federal Rule of Evidence 902 “Evidence That is Self Authenticating” went live.

As the title suggests, Federal Rule of Evidence (“FRE”) 902 applies to evidence that is self-authenticating (i.e., sealed and signed public documents, certified copies of public records, newspapers).  Because such documents are deemed “self-authenticating,” attorneys do not need to go through the authentication process in court with qualified expert testimony.  Effective December 1st, two new categories of documents will qualify as self-authenticating, too.

Specifically, 902(13) and (14) are the newly added provisions – each of which apply to electronically stored documents.

Subsection 13 provides:

(13) Certified Records Generated by an Electronic Process or System. A record generated by an electronic process or system that produces an accurate result, as shown by a certification of a qualified person that complies with the certification requirements of Rule 902(11) or (12). The proponent must also meet the notice requirements of Rule 902(11).

And, subsection (14) provides:

(14) Certified Data Copied from an Electronic Device, Storage Medium, or File. Data copied from an electronic device, storage medium, or file, if authenticated by a process of digital FEDERAL RULES OF EVIDENCE 3 identification, as shown by a certification of a qualified person that complies with the certification requirements of Rule 902(11) or (12). The proponent also must meet the notice requirements of Rule 902(11).

Subsection (13) applies to machine-generated information (i.e., produced by a computer system or computer process) and is analogous to Rule 902(11)’s certification of business records.  Subsection (14) applies more broadly to copied/replicated ESI provided the copy retains a hash value that is identical to the original.[1] Subsection 14, thus, effectively dispenses with the costly need for trial testimony of a forensic or technical expert where best practices are employed, as certified through a written affidavit by a “qualified person.”

While neither subsection (13) nor (14) dispense with the need to demonstrate authenticity, the new provisions drastically simplify the process.  Indeed, 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.[2]

[1] Recall, a file’s hash value is often likened to its fingerprint – a unique identifier attributable to the contents of a file being processed through a cryptographic algorithm, which results in a unique numerical value – the hash value – being produced that identifies the contents of the file.

[2]  However, this necessarily presupposes that practitioners in the federal courts will understand what a 902(14) compliant collection means.

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.

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.   

AJ Holdings Grp. LLC v. IP Holdings, LLC, No. 600530/2009 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Sept. 19, 2014) reversed by AJ Holdings Group LLC v IP Holdings LLC et al., (2015 NY Slip Op 04943 [1st Dept 2015]).

In this breach of licensing agreement dispute, the Defendants sought spoliation sanctions against the Plaintiff.  The sought-after sanctions included striking the complaint, dismissal of the suit, adverse inferences, and attorneys’ fees.  The Court declined to strike the Plaintiff’s complaint, but found an adverse inference appropriate both at summary judgment and at trial because Plaintiff failed to preserve critical emails, which caused the Defendants to be “at an undue disadvantage in establishing their defense.” The Court also ordered the Plaintiff to cover the cost of the forensic examination and the Defendants’ attorneys’ fees for both motions that sought sanctions.

In AJ Holdings, Defendants filed a motion to compel the Plaintiff to produce both paper and electronic discovery. In granting the motion, the Court ruled that the Plaintiff’s duty to preserve arose on September 29, 2008, the date Plaintiff’s counsel sent the Defendants an e-mail regarding the early termination of the license agreement. The Court’s ruling also allowed the Defendants’ forensic expert to examine the Plaintiff’s computers and devices to determine whether any information deleted after September 29, 2008 could be recovered. Because it was unclear whether any data had been lost, the Court found the Defendants’ request for spoliation sanctions premature but granted them the right to renew their request after the forensic examination.

The Defendants’ expert found that the Plaintiff did not institute a legal hold or take steps to collect or preserve e-mail on its e-mail servers.  Indeed, the Plaintiff’s IT manager testified that he was unaware of the lawsuit until the day before his deposition and that no one informed him that e-mail needed to be preserved. Therefore, all but a “handful” of e-mails sent between the time the duty to preserve arose and the filing of the lawsuit had been lost. Comparing that handful to the typical volume of e-mails sent by the custodians, the expert concluded that “a substantial number of mail items” had been destroyed. This problem was exacerbated by the Plaintiff’s replacement of the computers and Blackberry’s its principals used during the relevant time frame, so the expert could not examine them. Further, the Plaintiff’s employees used AOL accounts to exchange work-related e-mails, and without access to the hardware, the expert could not access any deleted messages.

After the forensic examination, the Defendants asked again for spoliation sanctions, and the Court granted their motion. Under the seminal case Zubulake v. UBS Warburg, the Court found the company should have preserved the e-mail of “key players” likely to have information relevant to the dispute. The five principals at issue had participated in the termination of the license agreement and “had control over relevant email.” Therefore, they had a duty to preserve evidence when litigation was reasonably foreseeable.

Despite this duty, the key players took no steps to preserve evidence: they did not institute a legal hold or prevent the automatic deletion of their e-mails from the servers, although their counsel had repeatedly warned them to do so. The principals “discussed” an oral legal hold but never implemented it. Thus, the Court found the principals were grossly negligent in the dereliction of their duty to preserve evidence. Because the destruction of the evidence was grossly negligent, the relevance of the evidence was presumed. The Court found that even if the spoliation had been merely negligent, the destroyed e-mail would have been relevant to the defense of the action.

In AJ Holdings Group LLC v IP Holdings LLC et al., (2015 NY Slip Op 04943 [1st Dept 2015]), the First Department reversed the Trial Court’s spoliation sanctions.  Stay tuned for our next blog post discussing that decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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